Exciting D1 Elite Semifinals advance BYU, Penn State to inaugural title game

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - The inaugural Women's D1 Elite Final will see 10-time Division I National Champion Penn State take on a team making its first-ever National Championship appearance in Brigham Young University. The Cougars clawed past Stanford and Central Washington in the Quarterfinals and Semifinals, respectively, while the Nittany Lions just barely got past Life University for a chance to defend their title.

On day one of the West Regional Playoffs at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., the hosting Wildcats crushed New Mexico, 114-0, to set up a Semifinal against BYU - which had its way with the Cardinal, 70-5.

The April 23 National Semifinal was the third time BYU and Central Washington have met since the Wildcats ended the Cougars' season last spring in the 2015 DI Semifinal, 29-15. Since last year's Semifinal fixture, the two elite squads took part in a home-and-away series that Central Washington swept, winning the two games by a combined 29 points.

Although the 2015 runner-up in both 15s and sevens had gotten the better of BYU in recent meetings, the Cougars were unfazed by their losing streak to Central Washington.

"We knew we were right up there with Central Washington after their 12-7 win in Provo a few weeks ago," said BYU Head Coach Tom Waqa, referring to the most recent, March 23 meeting. "They are a well-coached team. Coach Mel [Denham] has done a great job with the program. We were positive that if we play it right we could come out on top - that's what happened. We didn't stop believing."

The home team scored first six minutes into the match through the hands of freshman winger Mckenzie Pusch. Central Washington's five-point lead would be erased in the 17th minute when capped Eagle and BYU center Jordan Gray went over the line, and was followed by teammate Rebekah Hebdon seven minutes later.

Leading, 12-5, with only seconds remaining in the opening half, BYU was able to squeeze in a third try just before the break to expand its lead to 17-5.

"That was huge," Waqa said of his team's try just before the halftime whistle. "Especially when we knew going into the half we had the gale-force wind behind us. It felt good to be in that spot."

The Cougars' lead was pushed to 24-5 before Central Washington's Asinate Serevi scored what would be the match's final points, ending the match at 24-10.

After watching the Wildcats score 114 points in their Quarterfinal win over New Mexico, it was a team-wide mentality on winning the contact point that made the difference for a BYU team that held Central Washington to a season-low 10 points.

"Defensively, we made game-changing tackles Saturday," said Waqa. "Central Washington had dynamic runners, so we knew going in that we had to make effective tackles."

Indiana was forced to withdraw from the D1 Elite Playoffs, leaving four-time defending DI National Champion Penn State to sit and wait to find out who would be its April 24 Semifinal opponent at the East Regional in State College, Pa. After beating Lindenwood back in October, Life was able to stay ahead of its budding rival six months later by defeating the Lions, 35-15, in Saturday's Quarterfinal.

In Sunday's D1 Elite Semifinal, both the well-rested Nittany Lions and the ever-confident Running Eagles scored tries within the first 10 minutes of a match that saw 20 points scored in total.

"I think both teams were still in the process of assessing strengths, weaknesses, and athleticism of individual players, and that lack of practical understanding allowed both teams to capitalize on small missteps," explained Penn State Head Coach Kate Daley.

Following wing Elaine Santiago's try to cut Life's lead to 7-5, neither team budged for the game's next 50 minutes until fly half Gabriella Cantorna gave Penn State its first lead in the 58th minute with a penalty kick.

The Nittany Lion defense remarkably kept Life off of the scoreboard for the entire second half, while the team added another score of its own from front row reserve Kira Garnett, who was the recipient of a try when Penn State pushed its driving maul over the end line from a five-meter lineout.

Few college teams have been able to challenge Penn State the way Life did in the Semifinals, leaving the Nittany Lions coach inspired by both sides.

"I was very proud of how the team handled the game," commended Daley of her squad. "They showed incredible resilience and composure, and I don't think I ever doubted their ability to win.

"Life was very impressive, obviously very fit and well coached. It was a great game for collegiate women's rugby and showcasing quality, fast, and physical rugby."

The work is not yet over for Penn State if it would like to retain its National Championship status in 15s. BYU now stands between the Nittany Lions and the program's 12th overall National Championship.

"We are way excited," said Waqa of BYU's emotions. "The girls are on cloud nine - it's my job to bring us back to earth and focus on Penn State. It will take the same effort we put in against Central Washington plus 100-percent more to take on the experience and depth that Penn State has. We look forward to the challenge."

The challenge arrives May 7 at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., where the Women's D1 Elite Final will be one of five Championship matches held at the 2016 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships.