Both of Saturday’s DI-A semifinals are rematches of close regular season games. The westernmost semifinal between Cal Poly and St. Mary’s in Moraga, Calif. is a sequel to what ended up a 41-31 win for the Gaels March 9th in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
The Mustangs were more motivated in the early goings of that game and took a 24-19 lead into halftime. The Gaels responded with a 22-point run to start the second half and turn the game on its head.
“We certainly take a lot of lessons from that game. Very happy with the way the guys came out of the gates and got that nice lead,” said Cal Poly coach David Burnett.
“Second half against any quality side you can’t let off for any amount of time for 60 seconds, for 30 minutes, for whatever it is, and we had a few lapses in concentration in defense. And the good side that St. Mary’s are they capitalized. That’s certainly going to be a focus for us, keeping our defensive focus the entire game.”
On the flip side, the Gaels felt they got off to an uncharacteristically slow start in the first meeting, and that the second half was a little more indicative of their capabilities.
“I think we just came out super flat that game, and Cal Poly just did what they did. They’re a good team. They’re well coached. They’re nothing to be taken for granted, that’s for sure,” said St. Mary’s flyhalf Garrett Brewer.
“We just talked about coming out of the gates hot. One of the things we took away from that game is we dug ourselves out of a huge hole. We were down at halftime, and so we took out of it, if we’re down stick to our pattern, stick to what we know, and hopefully it will help us dig out of that hole.”
Another takeaway for Cal Poly from the first game was the Mustangs’ ability to pound the ball against the Gaels on the fringes.
“We found some success at the side of the ruck,” said Burnett. “We had a strong pick and drive game and that gave us some momentum against St. Mary’s so we’ll certainly look to try and exploit that again and get some good yards.”
“Their pack is big, physical,” said Brewer. “They’re good defenders.”
Though the Gaels didn’t exploit the Mustangs on the perimeter like they have many of their opponents this season, Burnett knows its part of the St. Mary’s repertoire.
“We certainly know that they have a very expansive game plan and they do it very well. That has been a bit of a focus for us for all games, keeping your head up,” he said.
“I think the teams that struggle in defense are the teams that keep their eye on the ruck and don’t watch where the offense is lining up. So that will be on the minds of everyone, to make sure that we defend at the same width that they attack.”
St. Mary’s has to keep an eye on Cal Poly scrumhalf Thomas Leacox, who hurt the Gaels with some quick-tap runs in the first meeting, including one two minutes in for the game’s first try.
“He’s a shifty guy, and he just likes to run,” said Brewer of Leacox. “Getting back 10 and facing their players, that would be a big thing, and just trying to match them physically, will be a big part of the game.”
If St. Mary’s wins, it will mark the first time the Gaels have ever reached a DI final. For such a storied program, that’s a watershed that could be considered long overdue.
“It would be huge for our program. It would be huge for our coaches, especially with how hard they work,” said Brewer. “But we’re not really focused on that. We’re just focused on Cal Poly. It’s not going to be an easy game, so we haven’t really discussed that National Championship yet.”
Saturday also marks the third-straight home playoff game for the Gaels and the third-straight road playoff game for the Mustangs.