UC Santa Barbara hosts Cal Poly Friday night for a preseason friendly. The game, though, carries more meaning than a typical warm-up sparring session.
“We have a rivalry in every sport…Big in basketball and soccer. The Cal Poly game is usually the biggest game of the year for our school,” said UCSB coach Kevin Battle.
“We’ll probably get a bigger crowd out because it’s Cal Poly. Unfortunately, we’ve been kind of hit or miss with them lately. It’s been, I guess, like a true rivalry, up and down, and is never a foregone conclusion in terms of who is going to win, although probably in the last few years they’ve had the better of us.”
The Mustangs swept the Gauchos in the two-game series last season. The year before, they split. This season there will only be one game, as the first meeting, scheduled for November in San Luis Obispo, was rained out.
Friday will be the first UCSB game for first-year Cal Poly head coach Dave Burnett, who joins the Mustangs after working in the sponsorship department for the Super 15 Waratahs in his native Australia.
“I had done a bit of coaching back in Australia and was keen to get over to America and to travel a little bit and just get involved,” said Burnett. “I just sort of shot an email over to Cal Poly, and the alumni picked it up, and it was just kind of a good time.”
It’ll take more than one game to decipher what impact Burnett can make on Cal Poly, but just one semester into his tenure, the 7s team has made massive strides, impressing at the inaugural USA Rugby college 7s national championships in College Station, Texas in December.
Cal Poly’s Landis Nasser was named to the all-tournament team in College Station, and he’ll star for the Mustangs at wing Friday. Burnett says he intends to play very close to his top team against UCSB, and his back three is an area of strength.
“We’re very happy with our back three,” said Burnett. “Landis is very strong, we’ve got a strong fullback in Dom Ferri, and a couple of other quick wingers in Nate Nunno and Cody Perez, so they’ve all got similar attributes to Landon, so we’re certainly looking to give them some ball when they need it.”
UCSB, who will also play a strong lineup, boasts a quality deep three, too. RUGBY Magazine DI-AA All American John Gallo is a stud on one wing, Kyle Cronin is steady at fullback and Johnny Prickett is good opposite Gallo.
In addition to returning its back three, UCSB brings back its entire tight five, anchored by prop Stephen Salimi. Gone are sparkplug scrumhalf James Burroughs and backrow captain Mitch Raisch, but attempting to fill their voids are up-and-comers.
Projecting as starting No. 8 is Tama Hugo. “He’s certainly going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Battle said.
And three guys are in contention to fill Burroughs‘ shoes: Sam Paea, Alex Asturius and David Persson.
“It’s just about giving these young guys more time against top competition, and really getting tested before our league season starts,” said Battle. “Playing St. Mary’s, Utah and Cal Poly, I feel like those are three great tests. Three very difficult opponents, but I feel like we’ll be better for it when the season starts.”
UCSB's season starts in just a few weeks, Jan. 21, against UC Irvine. Cal Poly's first DI-A game is March 10 at St. Mary's.