LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Penn State’s 15-5 win over BYU at the 2016 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships was an intense clash that saw the Cougars make the Nittany Lions work extremely hard to earn their 11th National Championship in 15s. The title game at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., was, however, only the second-most hotly-contested match Penn State had to contend before bringing yet another championship trophy back to State College, Pa.
Two weeks before the Nittany Lions celebrated their fifth consecutive National Championship in the middle of a soggy pitch in northern California, college rugby’s unquestioned alpha dog had to scratch and crawl its way past Life University in the D1 Elite Semifinals. This Saturday, Oct. 1, the two sides meet again in what should be another close encounter.
“We don’t see losses as something that needs to be avenged,” Life Head Coach Rosalind Chou said of her team’s 13-7 loss to Penn State last spring. “We see it as a learning opportunity on how to get better and close the gap.”
One way the Running Eagles, which have only been in existence as a rugby program since 2014, are planning to close the gap is by beefing up their fall season. Last year Life played just six games during the fall semester. This year, the rapidly-rising program has more than double the amount of matches scheduled over the same period of time.
While Life has already earned a 59-0 win over senior side Charlotte Rugby and have benefitted from scrimmages against the Women’s Premier League‘s Atlanta Harlequins as well as running against members of the university’s men’s team, its season really began when the team departed its Marietta, Ga., campus for a three-match tour that concludes with A and B-side fixtures against Penn State.
“It’s about learning every day and getting better,” Chou said of the trip that included a scrimmage against Ohio State and Friday’s contest versus Notre Dame College. “But the tour is also about fun and bonding with a new combination of teammates. So, the goal is for the team to gel and continue to improve each day and each game.”
Life will be confident heading into its game against Penn State, too, because the team has been brimming with confidence since forcing the Nittany Lions to come from behind in order to avoid its first loss in 15s against a college team since falling to Army in the 2011 National Championship game. The near-upset in the D1 Elite Semifinals even helped springboard the Running Eagles to a National Championship of its own – a Cup Final win at the 2016 College 7s National Championships.
Life’s 6-0 run at College 7s should help fuel additional 15s success during the 2016-17 season, but does not necessarily mean the Running Eagles are ready to soar past Penn State.
After dropping matches to an Eagle-led alumni team and another to a New York Rugby team that is currently 3-0 in the Women’s Premier League, the Nittany Lions now “understand the value of being and working towards physically dominating the point of contact on attack and defense,” according to Head Coach Kate Daley.
After some lessons learned against older competition, Penn State has been dishing out its own curriculum of tough, clinical rugby to the rest of the Big 10. Earlier this month the reigning champions welcomed Michigan and Rutgers to the West Fields on the Penn State campus, where the Nittany Lions beat their conference foes by a combined 226-5.
The 2016 fall season has not only been a familiar one to Penn State because it is putting up monster scores, but because the team once again has to replace international-level players along with a host of other outstanding seniors from last spring’s graduating class. Highlighting the departed group is Eagle flanker Bitzy Cairns and fellow loose forward Taylah Pipkin, as well as tight-five forwards Beth Rose and Courtney Williams. Teammates of theirs that did not show up on the stat sheet as often, like unquestioned leader Christina Ellis, are equally difficult to succeed.
“All of our seniors are pretty tough to replace,” explained Daley. “They each bring something different to the team and a lot of on- and off-field leadership, and knowledge departs with them.”
Of course Penn State’s relentless waves of talented classes eases some of the burden of replacing such influential student-athletes. Atop the list of players to keep an eye on is Azniv Nalbandian. The ferocious prop was named the Most Valuable Player in Penn State’s win over BYU at the 2016 Championship Final, and is following in the footsteps of one-time teammate Hope Rogers as the next great Penn State prop. Other forward reinforcements include Kira Garnett and Kate Payson.
Unfortunately for Life, and everybody else on Penn State’s schedule, the Nittany Lions retain almost their entire starting back line. The All-American half-back duo of Carly Waters and Gabby Cantorna are back in the fold, so is capped Eagle Tess Feury and up-and-comers Nikki Klassen and Sophie Pyrz, who Daley says now “have a good handle on the base skills that our attack and defense rely on.”
Life has its own capped Eagle in the back row it must forge on without. Like Penn State’s Cairns, now-graduated Running Eagle Nicole Strasko has been one of college rugby’s very best players over the past few seasons. Strasko’s aggression will be missed but not completely forgotten. Megan Rom, an All-American prop a season ago, has moved to the back of the scrum to replace Strasko. Meanwhile, captain Darian Lovelace could also see time amongst the loose trio, but is likely to make her presence felt from the second row.
Penn States’ aforementioned back line is pretty impressive, but Life has the skill and speed to match them. Gone is speedster Deschel Ferguson, but the Running Eagles bring back their pair of impressive half backs in Cynthia Kelly and Madison Ohmann. Kelly grew leaps and bounds last season in her first year as the team’s fly half, and the coaching staff cannot wait to see what she has in store during her junior year now that she has taken hold of the playbook.
Outside of Kelly is a litter of capable line-breakers like All-American and sevens standout Kaitlyn Broughton, as well as senior winger Christina Swift.
Before Life and Penn State can rehash the classic Semifinal clash from last spring, the Running Eagles will have to take care of business against Notre Dame College Thursday, Sept. 29, while Penn State will keep busy with another Big 10 fixture – this time against Ohio State Friday, Sept. 30.
The showdown college rugby fans are waiting to see between the two D1 Elite programs will take place Saturday, Oct. 1, on the campus of Penn State.
“They are really looking forward to another opportunity to see where they are right now against a great opponent – the best in the country,” Chou concluded.