Penn State wing Scout Cheeks scored two tries against BYU. /// Photo: Jackie Finlan
The two best collegiate teams in the country met in Saturday’s Women’s DI Elite National Championship, and Penn State and BYU delivered a final worth reliving. The Nittany Lions defeated the Cougars 15-5 for the fifth-straight of 11 national titles.
One of the most impressive aspects of Penn State’s accomplishment is the fact that the Lions only played one competitive game before the final.
“It’s really tough because our best competition is the really important games,” said championship MVP Azniv Nalbandian. “The best way we ramp us is playing each other. There are a lot of scrimmages during the season. We push each other to be better, because that’s really the only option we have to challenge ourselves.”
Penn State’s spring season was full of friendlies, but it wasn’t until late April that the team tested itself. The State College side advanced to the DI Elite final after a 13-7 semifinal win over Life University. BYU played competitive games against Central Washington and Lethbridge in the build-up, and then defeated Stanford and the Wildcats to advance to its first-ever final.
“Coming off the game against Life – who is very skilled, very quick – we knew BYU was going to be an equally great competitor, but a little different dynamic,” the prop explained. “They have a really strong pack – so did Life – so when BYU’s pack challenged us, we really worked together as a team. As far as us on defense, we really tried to launch hard and stop them before they could get out to their wings. It was a team effort.”
From the opening whistle, Penn State demonstrated what it’s capable of when given an inch. BYU let the kickoff hit the deck, so Penn State captain Katie Mueller flew in and scooped it up on the bounce. Lightning-fast phases then followed, as scrumhalf Carly Waters sprinted to each breakdown for neatly recycled ball. Nothing became of the opening series in terms of the scoreboard, but the BYU defense learned an important lesson: It’s imperative to slow down the ball.
The Cougars defense answered. Backed up on its try line, BYU was able to produce turnovers and meet hard carries with hard tackles. Rebekah Hebdon, Nalia Tafua, Grace Taito and Sia Skipps were so tough in tight, and launched into an excellent battle with Penn State’s Kristina Perry, Nalbandian, Beth Rose, Taylah Pipkin and Elizabeth Cairns at the contact area.
The weather helped. The first quarter was dampened by knock-ons, which played into the hands of BYU’s superior scrum. So while the Cougars spent its time defending in their end, they drove Penn State off the ball and poached a couple of tryline attempts to stay alive.
“In the scrum, there were moments when I crowded, got a little too close to the other prop,” Nalbandian said. “Sometimes we would just plank out because Courtney Williams – she’s a really strong hooker – was able to hook that ball really quick. We gave her a stable platform so that helped in the scrum.”
After so much time in advantageous territory, Penn State flyhalf Gabby Cantorna took matters into her own hands – or boot, rather – and pierced the otherwise solid defense with a grubber into the try zone. Perfectly angled and with enough force to get through Saint Mary’s beautifully thick grass, power wing Scout Cheeks chased down the ball and beat her opposite for the dot-down. Penn State led 5-0 after 21 minutes.
BYU had several chances at Penn State’s line, and the first true opportunity occurred before the half. Inside center Jordan Gray was at the center of the drive. So big and strong, her carries never end with her, and her offloads – the entire team was very good in the offload – kept the ball moving. Gray took a quick-tap penalty that got the Cougars close, but then back-to-back penalties allowed Cantorna to clear her side’s line and get back into BYU territory.
Although the Lions’ scrum wasn’t the attacking platform it needed to be, Penn State had the edge in the lineout. With six minutes remaining in the half, BYU gave up a diving-over penalty and Cantorna kicked to touch for the lineout. Penn State came down with the throw-in and worked an efficient maul to the try line. When it came time for the score, Nalbandian did the honors for the 10-0 lead.
Penn State came close to making it at least 15-0 into the break. BYU’s Ali Smith and Jessie Beck played a good territory game and continually challenged fullback Elaine Santiago. She mishandled one booming kick but kept her cool as the defense swarmed. Just in time, she moved the ball to wing Tess Feury, who carved down the sideline and met Beck in the try zone. Upon review, Feury did touch down the ball but there were no playback options to help the referees determine whether Beck rolled Feury over before the grounding. Nonetheless, the try was not awarded.
But the Pennsylvania side was redeemed two minutes into the second half. BYU was attempting to get out of its end, and Gray sent a cross-field kick into space, but it wasn’t deep enough. The ball moved to Cheeks, who is the definition of “finisher,” for the sideline break and try, 15-0.
The score held until the final minutes of the game, as the slugfest continued. Penn State had a few flat passes go forward, but ultimately, its offense was able to open up more and put Feury, Cheeks and Corinne Heavner into space. BYU wing Analise Arnold went on a few runs out wide, and scrumhalf Nicole McCullough took a couple of breaks up the middle, but it was nothing that the Penn State defense couldn’t absorb.
With less than three minutes remaining, Gray employed her stiff-arm to take a quick penalty close to the line. Hebdon rewarded the effort with a dive-over try, 15-5.
“It’s amazing,” Nalbandian said while clutching her MVP trophy. “Every year the team is different, but we have core values that remain the same: loyalty, family, respect, protecting the legacy. I was excited and nervous that it was my first championship but the energy of the team made me feel more comfortable.
“I felt the weight of responsibility as a player but it was placated a little bit by the people who were here before me,” the freshman said of maintaining Penn State’s winning tradition. “And they were very involved in making sure everyone felt welcomed, even if you were new. You didn’t feel like the program was unfamiliar.”
It’s not over for Penn State, which holds the current titles for the USA Rugby College 7s National Championship and USA Sevens’ CRC. Penn State now switches to 7s and will look to repeat another three-trophy spring.