The collegiate post-season has changed every year for the past few years, but Penn State has remained consistent, and victorious. The Nittany Lions are looking to extend that legacy into a new competition, the DI Elite, and that trek starts this Saturday at home.
“This is the highest level of collegiate rugby in the country, and the players feel that,” Penn State coach Kate Daley said. “The team is ready to play and be challenged, to see what they can really do. I’m interested to see how they’ll respond to really stiff competition that matters. But I have full confidence in them, and we’re preparing to play the hardest game of our season.”
Penn State has its veteran leadership in players like team captain Katie Mueller, Women’s Junior All American (WJAA) Taylah Pipkin, and fifth-year senior and Eagle Elizabeth Cairns, but otherwise, the squad skews young. Forwards captain Fran Schaeffer and backs captain Gabby Cantorna are both WJAAs and highlight the junior class. The second-years are also influential with well knowns like WJAAs Carly Waters and Tess Feury making a difference at scrumhalf and wing, respectively.
The sophomore class has also produced gems in players like Kristina Perry, who was substituted into last year’s national championship as a freshman. Perry has worked into the front row, which has graduated some excellent talent, including Rugby World Cup Eagle Hope Rogers after the fall season. And watch for sophomore Scout Cheeks in the backs. It’s her first year playing rugby and she has a ton of potential to be an impactful player.
All told, Penn State is carrying 45 players, with approximately 35 vying for weekend selection (28 may be rostered).
“A lot of this year has been about getting their skills up to speed, creating a communication structure and forming a good culture on the team,” Daley said. “Every year the team is different and special. Every team throughout the years has had adversity, but we’ve been able to come together as a cohesive unit.”
Some of that adversity presented itself during the spring friendly season, as some opponents traveled with light numbers. The D.C. Furies arrived in State College, Pa., with 10 players, and so Daley lent the visitors some of her high-level athletes.
“That game ended up being our most challenging game because they had our best players,” Daley recalled. “We had to stay composed under pressure, make tactical decisions based on the time and score – we were able to develop and grow, and that’s what matters.”
Spring break, as always, expedited the growth process, as Penn State went 3-0 in Italy.
“These tours are always very helpful in creating cohesion and a good understanding of what we’re trying to do for the spring,” the coach said. “It allows us to play a higher level of rugby, which is more consistently challenging as we have to put more phases together and defend more phases of play.”
The Nittany Lions most recently won the Big Ten 7s championship and earned a berth to the national college 7s tournament, but those aspirations won’t be revisited until after the 15s season ends. On Saturday, Penn State will face a familiar opponent in Indiana.
“We aren’t going to underestimate them, but we are confident in our knowledge of what they bring to the table in terms of game plan, tactical decisions, and how they play in different parts of the field,” Daley said.
Penn State is hosting the four eastern teams, and Life University and Lindenwood will contest the other semifinal Saturday. Day one’s victors will compete on Sunday for a berth to the DI Elite final on May 7 in Moraga, Calif.