At Wit's End

Arguably the Top Facility in Collegiate Rugby, Witter Rugby Field Will Undergo Construction

Anna Hiatt/Staff

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The Cal rugby team treats Witter Rugby Field field like its own Sistine Chapel.

During last year's match against University of British Columbia, the ESPN sideline reporter said that "any NFL team would be proud of this facility."

"We set it up on our own and we take it down on our own," says senior flyhalf Keegan Engelbrecht. "On game days, our players are watching the field and serving as ushers. We take pride in being able to guard the best field in the country."

So why, once the final whistle blows on March 20, will the Bears not play on Witter Rugby Field until at best 2013, maybe 2014?

It all started with a call from an artificial turf salesman.

"(The salesman) called me up one day and told me that artificial turf would be going into Witter Rugby Field and that he wanted to schedule a meeting to present his product," says coach Jack Clark. "I got off of the phone as quickly as possible and I called down to the athletic department. I found out some time later that it was all true."

The Memorial Stadium retrofit, which will seismically improve Cal's football stadium, is changing the athletic program for the next three years.

And rugby, one of the school's most self-sufficient athletic program, will suffer the most.

The changes have already begun. A 60 by 30 meter portion of the field known as "the lab," an area where Clark states the team does "about 70 percent" of its training, has been blocked off to make room for temporary offices. The stadium has lost half of its seating. Two days before the annual match against UBC, the entire Witter parking lot will close.

What many call the "best grass in Berkeley" will be torn out and replaced with artificial turf to accommodate practices for football and lacrosse.

"Playing on artificial turf beats the hell out of you," said Clark. "Even the newest generations of turf are not appropriate for rugby."

Watching the field that you built being paved over is tough. Not being able to play at home is worse.

Mark Biestman loves Cal football. But he really loves Cal rugby.

Biestman, a trustee and class of 1979, is one of several donors that composes Cal Rugby Forever. His son, Ross Biestman, won four national championships playing under Clark.

Through Clark's persuasions, Cal Rugby Forever, the Witter Rugby endowment and the Friends of Cal Rugby have become some of Berkeley's strongest endowments.

"It wasn't too long ago when I was flying around the states, standing on a chair in a crowded room saying 'I need you all to throw in some money behind Witter Rugby Field," Clark said. "Now, I'm in the awkward position of having to call back and say that we're putting artificial turf in the middle. These are difficult calls to make."

The group of donors began funding the construction of Witter. A grass field, a scoreboard and eventually the Doc Hudson Fieldhouse, formerly the bathroom outside of Memorial Stadium, were installed. The Fieldhouse now holds offices for all the rugby coaches and serves as the home for the team's rich history.

"(During football games) it was such a nasty place that you'd go and pee out back," said Clark. "Now we have 100 years worth of rugby memorabilia and Olympic memorabilia in here."

For Clark, Biestman and the other rugby donors, there is an understanding that the University must honor.

"We're all supporters of the Memorial Stadium retrofit," says Biestman "But what needs to happen is some type of commitment on behalf of the University to restore Witter Rugby Field to its original condition."

For now, the University is intent on honoring that commitment.

"We're spending a lot of money so we're only out of Memorial Stadium for one season," says Deputy Director of Athletics, Steve Holton, "We want to be back on Memorial in fall of 2012 so we can be back playing (on Witter's) grass turf in the spring of 2013."

But this year isn't the most pressing problem.

Recruiting is more difficult without scholarships and a field, and breaking the bad news to the current underclassmen hasn't been easy.

"My thought goes first to the players in the program," Clark said. "I wish I could have told them that there was some chance that when it was their chance to represent Golden Bear varsity, they wouldn't have a chance to play a home game."

Clark intends to take Cal's designated home games for the 2011 and 2012 seasons and play them at local high schools instead of finding a temporary home field. How this strategy affects the program is yet to be seen, but Clark sees it as an outreach opportunity.

"This might be a good opportunity to help the scholastic sports community," says Clark. "I'm just not interested in any other place be our home ground if it's not up to the standards of Witter Rugby Field."

So where to go from here?

Clark isn't sure. Neither are the donors. But through it all, Clark remains true to his nature.

"We don't have a lot of victim in us," he says.

An ex-Cal football player, Clark empathizes because he knows how badly Memorial Stadium needs this retrofit. It's just the timing that stings.

"I understand greater good," says Clark. "It just remains cruel how it works out We've hammered along some pretty tough times on this campus. And right now, rugby goes back to an Olympic sport, right now, the National Guard is putting multi-million dollars into rugby. Right now, ESPN and the Olympics are sponsors. Right now is when this is going to happen?"


Contact Gabriel Baumgaertner at [email protected]

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