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Rugby: Bears set for national semifinal at Witter

Fourth-ranked Cal (17-2) will face No. 8 Central Washington (14-0) on Saturday at Witter Rugby Field in the Varsity Cup National Championships semifinal.

The match will begin at 1:30 p.m., just after the Cal football spring game, allowing fans to take in both events.

The winner of the Cal-CWU game will advance to the national championship game, May 3 at Salt Lake City, Utah, against the winner of Navy-BYU.

Cal advanced to the semifinal round with a 41-0 win over UCLA in the Super Regional, while Central Washington edged Utah 25-24 to reach the semifinals for the second straight season.

“Central Washington has a strong side as evidenced by their undefeated record,” Cal coach Jack Clark said. “We’re not undefeated, we have flaws, but we believe if we get it right on the day, we can beat them.”

Cal has won 26 national titles in rugby 15s since 1980, but BYU is the two-time defending champion, including a 27-24 victory over the Bears last season. Cal and BYU have met in the national title game seven of the past eight years, with the Bears prevailing in five of those.

Saturday’s game will be streamed live on Pac-12.com.

Tickets are priced at $10 for adults, $5 for youth 12-19 and seniors 65-plus, and free for Cal students and active military. A free shuttle will operate from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., originating at the Underhill Lot on Channing Street between College & Bowditch.

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Football: Final week of spring ball begins

Cal worked out in shoulder pads and helmets for its 13th of 15 spring practices on Monday and coach Sonny Dykes continued to see improvement.

“I thought we had a pretty good day,” he said. “It was competitive, a pretty physical day. Everything’s smoother, timing is better, execution is better, things are happening faster.

“You can kind of see it starting to take hold and that’s encouraging.”

The Bears will hold practice in full pads on Wednesday, then again for Saturday’s spring finale. They will scrimmage on both days.

Cal also expects to release a two-deep chart on Wednesday.

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Dykes is seeing consistent progress from a defense that was among the nation’s worst last season.

“Our guys are competing, especially on the back end,” he said. “Our young players, the corners and safeties, have really improved. It’s much more competitive now.

“The thing we’ve got to do is just limit the big plays. If we can make people drive the football, then I think our defense will be where it needs to be.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, a lot of guys have got to improve. But I’m liking the progress we’ve been making.”

The Bears allowed 45.9 points per game last season, and consistently were victimized by long scoring plays.

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Junior defensive end Puka Lopa sprained his ankle during Saturday’s practice and may not practice again this spring, Dykes said.

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Sophomore running back Khalfani Muhammad is not certain to participate Saturday because he could be running with the track team in Cal’s Brutus Hamilton meet.

Dykes said he’s not concerned, suggesting that Muhammad is in football shape and has gotten plenty of practice time this spring.

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Football: Cal lands 1st two commits for 2015 class

Wide receiver Austin Aaron of Napa HS became the first member of the 2015 graduating class to commit to Cal. Then safety Malik Psalms of Chino Hills also said he will accept a scholarship from the Bears.

Rated a 3-star prospect by both Scout.com and Rivals.com, Aaron is 6-foot-5, 200 pounds. Rivals lists him as the No. 62 overall prospect in the state.

His father played baseball at Cal, according to Rivals, and his grandfather also attended the university.

Aaron picked Cal over offers from Utah, Washington State, Duke, Harvard, Penn, Nevada and San Jose State.

Psalms, from Ayala HS, is a 6-1, 174-pound prospects who picked Cal over San Diego State and San Jose State. He is not rated by either Scout or Rivals.

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Basketball: Two Tennessee aides follow Martin

Former Tennessee assistant coaches Tracy Webster and Jon Harris are joining new Cal basketball coach Cuonzo Martin’s staff.

Cal has made no official announcement on the hirings, but both were in the Cal basketball office on Monday, and the profiles of both have been dropped from Tennessee’s athletic website.

Their arrival leaves one vacant spot on the coaching staff. Martin also is expected to name Marco Harris his director of operations.

Hired a week ago Tuesday to replace Mike Montgomery, who retired at the age of 67, Martin returned to Knoxville, Tenn., last week to bring his wife Roberta, and their three kids to the Bay Area. Martin’s agenda Monday included a radio interview with Jim Rome, while Roberta began house hunting.

Webster, 43, was Martin’s associate head coach at Tennessee and was a fellow assistant at Purdue, Martin’s alma mater. A former Big Ten rival as a player at Wisconsin, Webster scored 1,264 career points, dished a school-record 501 assists and was a first-team all-Big Ten selection as a senior in 1994.

He also has coaching experience at Nebraska, Kentucky and DePaul.

Jon Harris, 33, spent the past three seasons with Martin after Tennessee and three previous years with him at Missouri State. A two-time team captain during his playing days at Marquette, Harris worked with Tennessee’s big men.

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Football: Dykes seeks advice of coaching veterans

When things went badly for Sonny Dykes in his first year at a new job, he did the natural thing. Cal’s football coach phoned his dad.

Spike Dykes, who spent 13 seasons at Texas Tech, wasn’t the only coach who provided offseason counsel to Sonny Dykes as he tried to regroup after the Bears’ 1-11 performance last fall.

“The hardest thing for me has been getting over it,” Sonny Dykes said. “Because as a coach, that’s your identity. That’s who you are.”

No one wants to look in the mirror and see 1-11, so after last season Dykes figured he’d benefit from the advice of coaches who have seen it all. He talked with the likes of Bill Snyder, Mack Brown, Bob Stoops and Dick Tomey, and his dad.

Their message: “You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing,” Dykes said.

Few coaches have had their self-belief tested more strenuously than Kansas State’s Snyder, who in 1989 took over what Sports Illustrated once called college football’s worst program. K-State had enjoyed just four winning seasons in the 44 years before Snyder arrived.

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Football: Dykes pleased by Bears’ efforts on both sides during longest scrimmage of spring ball

Coach Sonny Dykes was smiling and encouraged Saturday after the Bears’ longest scrimmage session of spring ball.

Cal ran close to 90 live plays during a closed workout, and Dykes saw things he liked on both sides of the ball.

“I actually thought it was really good, thought it was clean for the most part,” Dykes told reporters afterward. “We didn’t have a ton of penalties. Thought the guys executes pretty well on both sides. Had some big plays on offense.

“I thought defensively we did a lot of good things. Gave up a couple big plays — we’ve got to get those fixed. I like the way guys are running around, flying to the ball. Our tackling’s much improved.”

Dykes said the Bears will run another 60 to 70 live plays during Wednesday’s workout, then about the same number next Saturday when they host what they are calling the Cal Spring Football Experience, wrapping up spring workouts.

“We’re getting a lot of live work done and I think it’s helping us,” Dykes said.

He’s also pleased that the team has not sustained any significant injuries during spring ball, despite running perhaps three times as many live plays as a year ago.

“It shows our team is in better shape, more physically developed, stronger,” he said. I’m excited about the progress we’re making that way.”

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Football: Espitia finds a home at linebacker

Maximo Espitia played quarterback, running back, safety and punter at high school in Oregon. Since arriving at Cal in the fall of 2012, he has seen time at fullback, tight end, wide receiver and safety.

Now, entering his junior season, Espitia is a linebacker.

“We’re going to stick him there, leave him alone, and hopefully he can find a home,” Cal coach Sonny Dykes said after Friday’s 11th of 15 spring practices.

In fact, Espitia has been one of the pleasant surprises of spring ball for the Bears after being moved to his new spot at outside linebacker for the first workout on March 31.

“I know he doesn’t really know what he’s doing yet, but he does some things naturally,” defensive coordinator Art Kaufman said. “Just his movement skills, his reads and being in position as much as anything else.”

Dykes said Espitia has performed at a consistent level through spring workouts and has a solid chance to compete for a starting job next fall.

“That’s definitely something I’ve been waiting to hear,” Espitia said. “Now that I’ve finally heard it, it’s my time to see what I can do.”

Recruited to Cal as fullback then moved almost immediately to tight end, Espitia was basically without a position last fall after coach Jeff Tedford was fired because Dykes’ offense rarely utilizes either position.

He was shifted to a slot receiver position, then volunteered to try safety late in the season when injuries left the Bears shorthanded. Linebacker was another position of need for Cal, and Espitia has picked things up quickly.

“I had concerns about how physical he would be, and he’s answered those concerns so far,” Dykes said.

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Basketball: Cuonzo Martin on recruiting, Jabari Bird, energizing fans and his coaching mentor

New Cal coach Cuonzo Martin got some radio time Thursday afternoon on 95.7 The Game with Damon Bruce.

Here are some highlights:

On what he looks for in a player he’s recruiting: “First and foremost, you want talent. But there are different things when you talk about a talented player. Everybody understands the runners and jumpers, a good catch-and-shoot guy. For me the talent I like to look for nowadays is a just guy that works hard. Back when we played 10-15-20 years ago, working hard was understood. That’s what you normally do.

“Nowadays, working hard is probably a skill because not many guys like to work hard and do the dirty work. A guy that wants to be part of your program, a guy that’s committed to being successful. There are a lot of talented players, but you’ve got to have guys who want to be a part of what you want to do, who want to win at a high level but also understand the importance of the academics.”

His early impression of Jabari Bird: “I saw him quite a bit on the AAU circuit, very talented basketball player. I watched him from afar. Very talented basketball player, but in my opinion probably a better person. I just had an opportunity to talk with him. Obviously he was raised well. I’m looking forward and excited to coach him.”

On how he will sell his program to fans: “My job between now and the time we start playing is to get out in the community, reach out to the fans, reach out to our student base and get those guys to be a part us so we’re all going to have have success. Before we get to the basketball side, we’ve got to get everybody generating excitement for football and get them all on board. I think they go hand-in-hand. If we all do this thing together we can have a great deal of success.”

On the influence of his former Purdue coach, Gene Keady: “He was always a tough, hard-nosed guy. A nice guy, a humble man. He was one of those guys who was very fair in his approach. If you worked hard, you had an opportunity to play. If you go to class and get a degree, you’ll be fine. With coach, he was one of those guys who stuck with it, do the right things, do the little things, be consistent with it all the time and we’ll have a chance to have ultimate success.”

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Women’s basketball: Bears ink New Zealander

The Cal women’s basketball team has signed Penina Davidson, a 6-foot-3 forward who plays for the New Zealand national team.

A native of Auckland — the same hometown as former Cal player Sean Marks — Davidson joins a Cal recruiting class that already was ranked among the top 20 in the nation.

“We are thrilled to add a person and player of Penina’s caliber in the late signing period,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “Nina comes from a ‘basketball family’, and that’s evident in her versatile game and high basketball intellect. She’s big and strong and will provide a solid post presence, but also has an array of skills facing the basket.”

Davidson is a member of the New Zealand women’s national team where she most recently competed at the 2013 FIBA Oceania Championships, scoring five points and pulling down eight rebounds for the Tall Ferns in the championship series against the Australia senior national team that was coming off a bronze medal finish at the London Olympics.

Davidson also competed for New Zealand at the 2012 Four Nations Challenge in China where she averaged 15 points and 9.2 rebounds per game in nine total games against China, the United States and Australia. She was named to the final all-tournament team, one of just two non-Americans selected.