Four best from women's college rugby to decide D1 Elite title

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The 2017 Women’s D1 Elite National Championship will be decided by reigning champions Penn State University and three other semifinalists at the May 5-6 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships at Life University in Marietta, Ga. The Nittany Lions have a May 5 fixture against Brigham Young University they will have to win in order to reach the May 6 championship match that will include the winner of the other semifinal pitting Life University against Lindenwood University.

The May 5 semifinal and May 6 D1 Elite National Championship game – starting at 5:30 p.m. ET – will air live on The Rugby Channel.

Penn State had its usual dominant season, but it did come with a surprising hiccup along the way. The Nittany Lions lost their first 15s match to an American collegiate side in five years when they were defeated by Quinnipiac University in November, 41-22. Penn State was just getting its season started, while Quinnipiac entered the game with an 8-0 record. Regardless, the defeat was a wake-up call for the team, which has gone on to handle the rest of its collegiate competition this season in undefeated fashion.

To continue their winning streak, the Nittany Lions will have to beat a team that proved a difficult ask 12 months ago in the D1 Elite Final. BYU fought extremely hard during a 15-5 defeat to Penn State, but a slow start in the 2016 title game cost the Cougars a chance to knock off the perennial power.

“We must be composed from the beginning,” said BYU Head Coach Tom Waqa. “Defense will be key – we must make our tackles, and win the collision battles in order to be in contention.”

Like Penn State, BYU used its lone loss of the season to fuel the team for future success. In the beginning of March, the Cougars traveled to Las Vegas where it played fellow D1 Elite semifinalist Lindenwood. BYU hung tough with Lindenwood in the early goings, but the Lions finally got the better of the Cougars in Sin City, winning, 39-5.

“That Lindenwood game was worth it – we were able to gauge our strength and weaknesses,” Waqa noted. “With our location, we have to travel to get good games. We got that from the Lions in Las Vegas. We needed to make a lot of improvements, especially on the defensive side of the ball.”

The improvements Waqa was seeking were evident in the team’s best performance before the postseason. In April, the team hosted varsity program Central Washington and defeated the visitors, 41-32. The win over the highly regarded Wildcats showed the Cougars still have what it takes to win big games without the services of No. 8 Jordan Gray.

The loose forward graduated away from the program following the 2016 D1 Elite season, and now patrols the back of the scrum for the Women’s Eagles. Gray’s presence is missed, but BYU still has multi-time All-Americans Rebekah Hebdon and Nicole McCullough to guide the forward pack and back line, respectfully.

Penn State said goodbye to an All-American-turned-Eagle loose forward of its own in the offseason with the graduation of flanker Bitsy Cairns, but Head Coach Kate Daley still has a few capped internationals to boot. Kayla Canett is expected to wear the No. 10 jumper and saw time at fly half for the Eagles during their two-game Can-Am Series against Canada earlier this spring. There is also Tess Feury, who is another Eagle that is extremely dangerous entering the back line from her full back position.

Just because Penn State’s current internationals reside in the back line does not mean the team does not have muscle to flex in the forwards. There is plenty of experience in the Nittany Lion pack, including front rower Kira Garnett and lock Margaret Carly.

The other D1 Elite Semifinal is a rematch from a D1 Elite Quarterfinal contest last year. Life beat Lindenwood handedly in that game, 35-15, but the two programs appear more evenly matched this year. In fact, the Lions were able to top the Running Eagles in St. Charles, Mo., back in October, 24-14.

“The team has gotten better each year,” said Lindenwood Head Coach Billy Nicholas of his program’s growing maturity. “Last year we just really started recruiting and our program is very new. The talent coming in mixed with the culture we are creating – we just needed some time to continue to improve.”

Even with the 10-point victory over Life now on their résumé, the Lions are not expecting anything but the most challenging of matches in the Semifinals.

“The Running Eagles are always a tough match,” Nicholas said. “They are fit, they have the ability to score all over the pitch and then apply a lot of pressure. They have a great coaching staff and it is always a great match because we are two great teams.”

Since the loss six months ago to Lindenwood, the Running Eagles have been on a tear. Life has run up at least 80 points four times since the end of October, while not surrendering more than seven points in any of its 10 15s matches since the defeat to the Lions.

“The fall was a great learning period for us coming off a very successful spring,” said Life Head Coach Rosalind Chou. “We had new personnel and lost some key contributors to graduation, so we had to figure out how to pull all the pieces together.”

After beating Lindenwood in last year’s D1 Elite Playoffs, Life came up just short in the Semifinals against eventual National Champion Penn State. The Running Eagles gave the Nittany Lions all they could handle in a five-point losing effort.

“It certainly gave us some confidence in moving ahead, but we also realized that a lot more work had to be done for us to close the gap between us and the best teams in the country,” Chou added. “We needed to continue to work on improving in a number of areas and be more disciplined for finish the game.”

However, before Life gets another crack at Penn State, it must get past a hungry Lions team.

“Lindenwood has skill and unwavering tenacity,” complimented Chou. “It makes them a great opponent as we know that when we play each other both squads are going to give it their all. We have the utmost respect for them and they have incredible athletes. The matchups never disappoint.”

How could games between the two schools disappoint? Lindenwood’s half-back pairing consists of newly capped Eagle Annakaren Pedraza at scrum half and sevens Olympian Richelle Stephens at the pivot. Life, meanwhile, counters with its own pair of studs in the back line: Kaitlyn Broughton and Madison Ohmann.

In the forwards, there will be a fantastic individual battle between the teams’ No. 8s. Nika Paogofie-Buyten is just a freshman, but is proving to be a real force with ball in hand. On the other side of the ball, Life’s No. 8, Darian Lovelace, “has really taken the reins as captain and leads from the front.”

The first of two D1 Elite Semifinals will kick off Friday, May 5, at 2 p.m. ET when BYU and Penn State take the pitch. The semifinal between Life and Lindenwood is scheduled for a 4 p.m. ET start. The winning squads from Friday will meet for the D1 Elite National Championship Saturday, May 6, at 5:30 p.m. ET. All three matches will air live on The Rugby Channel.