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The Sacramento Connection: Local Boys On The Pitch For Cal Rugby

Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

Generations of Sacramento-area high school graduates have gone on to participate in one of the greatest runs of success by any college athletic program. The success of the UC Berkeley rugby program has in turn contributed to the growing success of the sport nationwide.  

This week, the team was in the gym getting ready to play for a championship this weekend.

Tom Billups is the strength and conditioning coach, and a member of the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame.

"Your chest is pointing down. I want to open up your chest," he says as he talks with a player.

The team listens and then returns to its workouts. Zach Tavenner lifts a 165-pound barbell to his chest. He weighs 175.

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This year, a quarter of the team is from the greater Sacramento region. Two-thirds of them went to Jesuit  High School

Patrick Barrientes took to the sport  immediately.

"I knew it was my calling, I played three sports in high school including rugby, football and basketball," he says. "The freedom of rugby, the creativity of rugby, and still along with the physicality -- putting all three of those together, I just really admire, I guess it complemented something that I really wanted to have in a full athletic game."

He played at Jesuit and then at Davis High.  He says the rugby culture is strong in both cities.

"I was fortunate enough to start playing rugby there, getting introduced at an early age," he says. "My brother also played there, there were some family ties and then the Frys, they're a very big professional rugby family. Eric Fry, who is on the national team, happened to be my neighbor."

After an hour in the weight room, the team walks up the hill to practice.

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Anthony Salaber stands out. He is one of the best. And at 6 feet, 5 inches, one of the tallest, rugby players in the country for his position.

His grandfather, father and brother preceded him at Cal.

"We've always thought of ourselves as a Cal Bears family and it would have been a real heartbreak if one of their own sons or daughters didn't get into Cal," he says.

Salaber and his brother Nick went to Dixon High, where there had been no rugby program, until their father started one.

Father and sons led the team to a high school national championship in 2012.

"So, coming here it's just nice to be able to continue the tradition and to kind of be able to understand our family even a little bit more, kind of understand what my grandpa and my father -- what it meant to go to such a prestigious school," he says

This year, five Cal alums played for the U.S. in the World Rugby Cup.

Next year, seven-man rugby, or Rugby 7's will debut in the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro.  

Salaber doubts he will make next year's U.S. team, but intends to be on the 2020 squad.

Head Coach Jack Clark is also in the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame played for Cal in the mid 1970's. He says the Sacramento connection has always been part of the school's success.

"You know, there's a good tradition here for the sport of rugby and I think that plays a part of it," he says. "I think there's a good embedded culture on the team where the guys expect to come here, work hard, and do the right thing and not take any shortcuts, and kind of earn the right to have some success."

In 1980, Clark was the only U.S. National Team member selected for an international all-star tournament. A month after the selection, he was shot four times outside a San Francisco restaurant. He nearly lost his left leg.

When he couldn't play any more, he became a coach.

He says its important for each generation of players to reach out to the next generation. 

"I think it's important that they walk the walk and that they're stand-up guys in their communities," he says. "I want them to be respected for all the right reasons because they work hard and  sportsmanship matters to them, teamship  matters to them, and I want them to exemplify those characteristics."

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In practice, Zach Tavenner takes a toss and bursts through the attempted tackles of three teammates. It's rare for a sophomore to play as much as he does. As a Jesuit alum, he's doing his best to uphold the Cal principles and the tradition at Jesuit.

"Last year I actually coached the 7's team for Jesuit," he says. "So, I get back a little bit, met some of the new kids coming into the sport and helped them out. It's always important to have a role model in someone's life and just come back."

Cal first fielded a rugby team in the 1880's, but the team's existence was sporadic until 1936 when the sport returned for good.

Bob Witter went to Grant Union High and then played football and rugby at Cal in the 1940's and early 50's, following in the footsteps of his uncle, Dean Witter (twelve other members of the Witter family have also attended the university.)

The seven-man team will play on Bob Witter Rugby Field this weekend in an attempt to win its fourth Pacific Rugby Conference championship in four years.

In the spring Cal will play for its 26th national championship in the last 33 years under Coach Clark and its 30th national championship in the last 37 years.

Bob Moffitt

Sacramento Region Reporter

Bob reports on all things northern California and Nevada. His coverage of police technology, local athletes, and the environment has won a regional Associated Press and several Edward R. Murrow awards.   Read Full Bio 

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