Photo: Karen Faustina
State College is the front-runner for the DI Pennsylvania state title, having blanked then-undefeated Downingtown 41-0 in Sunday’s duel. But State College is looking for more than just one successful season; the team has been working for years to regain its former status as a regular contender for state and national titles.
In the mid-2000s, State College was the best team in the Eastern Penn rugby union. The team won four consecutive EPRU titles and was invited to nationals for five consecutive years. But then the program hit a drought, and after four years of struggle, Bernie Cantorna transferred from the boys’ team to lead the girls.
“My goal was to get them to a place where they had been before,” Cantorna said. “But nationals is a journey, not a destination. It’s a great team-building event for the players and team, and they get a lot out of striving to get there. We embrace the journey.”
Cantorna has been with the squad for four years now, and 7 of his 13 current seniors were freshmen when the coach joined the girls’ team. Led by captain Sarah Rohan, backs selector Larissa McGhee and forwards selector Josie Eggert, the senior class represents the spectrum of success, failure and redemption that the club has endured.
“The seniors were freshmen when Rugby PA realigned,” Cantorna explained. “We did well that first year when the competition was regionalized, but when we were bumped up to Division I the next year, we didn’t win a single game. This group knows what it means to never quit. They got better every year and were always positive. They literally went from not winning one game to leading DI.”
Cantorna suspected he had a special group this year, and the first realization of such occurred against reigning state champ Valkyries on April 10. State College won 48-10.
“The scoreline didn’t really tell the story of the game: It was new and inexperienced players stepping up and taking on a physically bigger team and dominating contact,” Cantorna said. “That was a test of whether we could front up against a bigger team. Downingtown was more balanced.”
Downingtown had posted some big numbers, too, including a 36-0 win over the Valkyries and an unblemished record at the Maryland Exiles international tournament.
“They put Downingtown under a lot of pressure,” Cantorna said. “It was a strong defensive game played in the Downingtown’s half that allowed us to do well. Downingtown has athletic runners and is a good team, so it was important to shut them down before they got going.”
It should be no surprise that State College runs a solid defense, as Cantorna serves as Penn State women’s defense coach. The team also benefits from assistant coaches and Nittany Lions like Hope Rogers and Gabby Cantorna, who represent a long line of influence stemming from the local DI national champion.
The players are pulling their weight, too, getting involved with the Rugby PA All-Stars and serving as mentors to the younger players. In addition to the leadership group of Rohan (who is attending University of Washington on a Navy ROTC scholarship next year), Eggert (who is attending West Chester University for rugby) and fullback McGhee, State College is driven by flyhalf Darina Roe, lock Sam DiVirgilio and hooker Rebecca Faustina. There is a solid group of eight juniors who are rounding out its third year with the program. And fresh talent in the form of soccer crossover Lauren Henderson and sophomores Gigi Agliardo and Joannah Skucek have excited this year.
The result is a well balanced team that is eager to test itself again at both the state and national championships. The event dates have conflicted in recent years, but State College has been the only Pennsylvania team that has chosen nationals over states.
“It’s great to have a two-day tournament the week before nationals,” Cantorna looked ahead. “The players are just excited to extend their season one more weekend. Their objective is to do their best and play, and when they do that, they’re happy.”
State College has one more league game against Doylestown, and then the final four will meet May 14-15 to determine the state victor. Days later, the team will load into vans and drive to St. Charles, Mo., for the single-school national championship.