Photo: KJ Feury
Although the eastern portion of the DI Elite was initially dealt a setback with the withdrawal of Indiana, the two games that evolved delivered on skill and suspense. After a tough win against Lindenwood Saturday, Life University lined up against a fresh Penn State in Sunday’s semifinal. In front of a vocal, supportive home crowd, the Nittany Lions rallied from a seven-point deficit to win 13-7 and earn a berth to the national final against BYU.
“There are no regrets,” Life University coach Ros Chou considered her team’s back-to-back games. “The coaching staff is so proud of what this means about our team and fitness. We loved that we challenged Penn State 24 hours after being tested by a very good Lindenwood.”
Life took the first lead of the game three minutes in as flyhalf Cynthia Kelly offloaded to inside center Kaitlyn Broughton for the try. Scrumhalf Madison Ohmann added the conversion for the 7-0 lead. Penn State answered five minutes later, when junior wing Elaine Santiago finished off a break down the sideline in Life’s try zone. The remaining 32 minutes of the first half saw no change in score, and Life took a 7-5 lead into the break.
“The physicality was just really incredible; we met an equal in that regard,” Chou said. “Penn State is an elite team. They’re clinical and disciplined, their set piece was fantastic, and they had great turnovers. We did our best to exert some pressure with our kicks and to keep them in their half, but they managed it well.”
“Life is a fit team and technically sound,” Penn State captain Katie Mueller reported. “We really came together as a team as we played calm and collected.”
“They also challenged us at our attacking breakdowns and out wide with their speed,” Penn State flyhalf Gabby Cantorna added. “And to counter that, we needed to make a bigger commitment at supporting our ballcarriers. We increased the speed of our launch to try and cut off the ball before it got outside to their wings.”
Penn State wings sophomore Scout Cheeks and Santiago were particularly effective in that regard and did well to limit the damage of flyers like Deshel Ferguson, Christina Swift and Whitney Wilson.
“The team spirit and performance increased with the help of our alumni and fans cheering for us on our home field,” Mueller explained the final push. “They bring so much excitement, and every single one of us on and off the field can feel it.”
At the 58-minute mark, Life flanker Nicole Strasko drew a yellow card and Cantorna slotted the penalty for the 8-7 lead. With seven minutes remaining, the Penn State forwards mauled in a lineout, and freshman reserve Kira Garnett dotted it down, 13-7. The score held through regulation.
“It was the gutsiest performance I’ve ever seen from them,” Chou praised her side. “All weekend, they’ve done an incredible job of being focused but also balancing that with being relaxed. There was never a lack of confidence in their ability to compete, and it went down to the wire. We came up short, but this is something to build on.
“The players were proud of themselves,” Chou said of the team’s reaction. “In a game that intense, there was a lot of emotion at the end, but they’re holding their heads high. This is a special group. We’re extremely excited to start working on next year.”
The victory sends Penn State to the DI Elite national championship against BYU, which defeated Central Washington 24-10 in Saturday’s semifinal in Ellensburg, Wash. The final will be contested on May 7 in Moraga, Calif., along with the DI spring championship between UC Davis and UVA, and the DII national championship between Davenport and Tulane.