Nalbandian during ’18 DI Elite playoffs / Photo: KJ Feury
Penn State has longest most successful history among current women’s college programs still playing today. To be a Nittany Lion is to understand, respect and perpetuate a tradition, and that’s what bonds Penn State’s vast alumnae. But every year brings a new team, which adds a new dimension to the ever-growing legacy. The same goes for the 2018-19 squad, which is readying for its DI Elite semifinal this Sunday, March 24 against Life University.
Penn State’s Class of 2018 included some special players and, paired with Life University’s graduates last year, immediately impacted the 2018 Women’s Premier League competition. Those players also marked alumna Kate Daley’s first four-year group as head coach.
Cantorna, with ’18 graduates Ehrecke and Feury in the background / Photo: KJ Feury
“The graduating class set a really good platform for all the players who needed to step into their roles, which was obviously beneficial going forward,” Daley said. “Last year, Gabby Cantorna was such a good field general and that has fallen on Kayla [Canett], who has done a great job.”
Canett was named a USA Women’s 7s resident for 2019 and will relocate to the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center once academic finals end in May. Prop Azniv Nalbandian is the pack leader and has recent international experience, debuting for the USA against New Zealand in November 2018. The Eagle has invested a lot of time readying the younger forwards for the demands of higher-level competition.
“We always say we’re playing for the people who played before us and that we’re playing for those after us. There are a lot of current players who admired and respected those who graduated, so in some regard they’re playing for them and continuing to build the legacy,” Daley said. “But every year each team is different. You can’t waste time remembering the team we were last year. It’s just not that important anymore.”
Canett during ’18 7s nationals / Photo: KJ Feury
Penn State hit that reset button pretty early in the season, dropping a 68-0 decision to reigning DI Elite champion Lindenwood in September. Daley called it an “eye-opening experience for a pretty young team,” and it was necessary in setting expectations. The team also played Life University to a 29-26 loss. The work-ons emerged, and the team started developing its brand of Penn State rugby.
“They have a bit more flair. They like to be creative and are a bit more happy to take some risks and see what happens, which can be good or bad sometimes,” Daley laughed. “They definitely don’t like to be stuck in a structured pattern and they play best when they’re having fun.”
Penn State took its annual tour abroad in March, getting a trio of games in France.
Ellie Fromstein / Photo: KJ Feury
“Tour was a good opportunity for some younger, less experienced players to really understand how the game can be different than how we play in the states. It was very physical, very fast, and very French. It was a whole new experience,” Daley said. “The breakdown is called very differently [in France] and they learned how to adjust to the referee, which we often aren’t asked to do in the states. I think they really gained a better understanding of how rugby can be different.”
Stade Toulousain in particular was a useful outing and lent insight into how fast the team can play with ball in hand, and the speed of play it can defend when everyone’s operating on the same frequency. Tour also solidified players into their positions and highlighted combinations that are working well together now.
“They’re in a good place heading into semifinals,” Daley said. “They’re excited for the chance to play Life again and overcome some of the problems that we ran into during the fall and [DI Elite national] semifinal last year. We’re excited not to play in 90 degrees [like last year’s nationals in SoCal] since we haven’t seen weather above 40 degrees in State College so far this year. … They’re just excited to test themselves and see where they are as a team.”
Kira Garnett / Photo: KJ Feury
Yes, there’s pressure to perform. Yes, that pressure has heightened due to the truncated nature of the DI Elite post-season (which all of the coaches support). But “a game is a game,” as Daley said, and the team’s going to go out there and give Life University its best.
Furman University in Greenville, S.C., is hosting Sunday’s DI Elite semifinals, and Lindenwood University and Central Washington will kick off the playoffs at 11 a.m. ET. Penn State and Life University will follow at 1 p.m. ET. The live-stream details are nebulous still, but Life University has indicated that its Sports Information Department will be providing streaming resources – the extent and reach of which are still to be announced.
The two victors will advance to the DI Elite National Championship on Sunday, April 7 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. There will be no third-place game. Live-stream details also TBA, but The Rugby Breakdown will be on site.