De La Salle, Menlo-Atherton products dazzle in Saint Mary’s rugby playoff win against rival Cal

De La Salle, Menlo-Atherton products dazzle in Saint Mary’s rugby playoff win against rival Cal

MORAGA – It was 20 seconds of rugby brilliance, a sequence that saw the ball ping from Mario Storti to playmaker Inoke Waqavesi to super-senior Erich Storti as the ball flew downfield with 17 minutes to go in the game. 

The De La Salle product then passed to Menlo-Atherton alum Sosaia Pongi, who cut back to make the final Cal defender whiff before he touched the ball down for yet another second-half try.

Saint Mary’s College’s quick-passing attack thrilled fans and bewildered its Berkeley rival as the Gaels rolled past Cal 34-16 and advanced to the Division I national playoff semifinals. 

“As Erich was running out, I saw the space inside and told him to find me inside,” Pongi said. “I saw the opportunity and took it.”

No. 4 seed Cal had throttled Cal Poly 70-13 and top-seeded Saint Mary’s routed Grand Canyon 78-7 in the first round to set up the rematch between West Coast powers. 

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Saint Mary’s beat the Bears in a thrilling 38-31 victory on March 23, and the rematch wouldn’t be any better for visiting Cal, which entered the game hoping to add a 25th 15-man national title to coach Jack Clark’s trophy case. The rain held off in Moraga but the Gaels poured on tries and dominated possession. 

“It’s amazing man, just amazing,” Pongi said about beating Cal. “We’ve been working hard for this.”

Deer Valley alum King Matu started the scoring with a powerful try through multiple defenders on the right side 10 minutes into the game. Cal’s Kaelan O’Connell, a St. Ignatius product, and SMC’s Mario Storti each traded kicks to make the score 8-3, where it stood until seven minutes left in the first half. 

MORAGA – Saint Mary’s player King Matu (8) reaches across the try line with defenders on his back to score the game’s first try with 30:00 left on the clock. Saint Mary’s defeated Cal-Berkeley 34-16 in a Division I playoff game at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. on April 13, 2024 (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area news Group) 

Waqavesi placed a perfect kick-pass to Dom Besag, who caught the ball and dove into the try zone to give the hosts a 15-3 advantage. 

“Open play is where we thrive,” Waqavesi said. “We took advantage of the opportunities we were given.” 

O’Connell answered with another kick for three points, and after a long sequence of brutal force that saw the Gaels push and inch their way down the pitch for almost two minutes, Iosefa Toiaivao finally capped the show of strength with a short run for a 20-6 lead with zeroes on the clock. 

The offense was spectacular for SMC, but solid tacklers such as Cathal Coakley, John Wilson, Nate Deegan and Matthew Abbes helped force turnovers, something Gael coach Tim O’Brien credited with turning the game in the team’s favor. 

Toiaviao scored a try two minutes after halftime, and the incredible passing-exhibition with 17 minutes left in the game was the backbreaker. Cal’s Rand Santos scored one of two late tries to make the score more respectable after Saint Mary’s pulled several of their starters. 

“We’re just a band of misfits, a bunch of guys from all over the place,” Besag said. “We’re just out there having fun.”

Saint Mary’s will play host to BYU on Saturday. Even though the Gaels routed the team from Utah 52-5 in March, they swear they won’t overlook their semifinal opponents. 

“They’re bigger, stronger and faster than us at almost every position than us, just like Cal,” said O’Brien, who is seeking a fourth national title, and first since 2017. “We’ll lose sleep planning for BYU.”