D1 Elite: Penn State hoping to keep Championship streak alive against BYU

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - The inaugural Women's D1 Elite collegiate competition will come to an end with the championship match between Pennsylvania State University and Brigham Young University at Saint Mary's College Saturday, May 7.

It will be the first year since 2003 that Penn State does not play for a Division I National Championship, but only because the Nittany Lions - along with seven other high-performing DI programs - moved into the D1 Elite competition. The eight schools played each other throughout the fall and spring as well as their own "out-of-conference" schedules, and aligned last weekend in Ellensburg, Wash., and State College, Pa., to determine the National Championship Finalists.

Penn State did receive a Quarterfinal bye at the East regional Saturday, April 23, but was made to work for its Sunday Semifinal victory by a very good Life University side. The Nittany Lions watched Life run Lindenwood University around the pitch, and nearly lost their first 15s match to collegiate competition since Pete Steinberg was in charge.

"[The Semifinal was] definitely one of our most challenging games," Head Coach Kate Daley said. "I think that, after watching Life play Lindenwood and seeing how fast they were, we actually came out a little bit hesitant with not as much confidence as we usually do. I think that kind of affected our performance, and then they did a great job of holding us up in contact."

Life kept Penn State to its lowest scoring output of the season in the 13-7 encounter outside of Daley's team's Spring Break defeat of Rugby Cogoleto in Italy, 12-5. The Running Eagles held up several tries in the Semifinal, and surprised the Nittany Lions in many facets of the game.

"I mean, I feel like [watching the Quarterfinal] was beneficial but the things that they did to slow down our ball were not things I saw them do against Lindenwood," Daley said.

The four-time reigning DI Champion will not have the luxury of viewing BYU in action in Moraga, Calif., next weekend. The Cougars out of Provo, Utah, got through Central Washington University - last year's DI Spring Champion and Penn State's opponent in the National Championship Final - on the Wildcats' home turf in the West regional Semifinal.

"To be honest, I wasn't thinking about CWU on Friday," Head Coach Tom Waqa said, alluding to the Quarterfinal matchup with Josh Sutcliffe's Stanford University. "The focus was on Stanford - I hadn't seen the 'new' Stanford team play under the direction of Coach Josh - so I didn't know what to expect. I put out the best team I had on day one, and pulled out some starting players when the game was beyond reach."

The Cougars held a three-try lead at halftime against the Cardinal and only conceded one try in finishing off the 70-5 victory, while the Wildcats got past University of New Mexico in the other Quarterfinal.

Central Washington had gotten the better of BYU twice during the 2015-16 season prior to the April 23 Semifinal - a 40-17 decision in Ellensburg and a slim, 12-7, win in Provo. Those results were the lows for the Cougars, who beat the likes of Fall Championship runner-up Air Force in the fall and senior club SLC Vipers and University of Lethbridge in the spring.

"Defensively [the Semifinal] was the best [BYU] performance I've seen in a very long time," Waqa, head coach of the women's program at BYU since 2004, said. "The contact area was intense from both sides. The key to victory was better preparation, from good meals the day before to better rest.

"Sometimes it comes down to simple things - and I believe we did it right."

Off the field, BYU was just as successful, receiving recognition as an extramural club team on campus in October.

On the other side of the country, Penn State was continuing life under Daley in the capped Eagle's second season as head coach. It might be incongruent to say there were growing pains in State College considering Penn State won both the 15s championship and College 7s National Championship in her first season, but the championship was not won on day one of the academic calendar just for being Penn State.

"Last year was definitely eye opening," Daley said. "I learned a lot from last year to this year in terms of working with the coaching staff and managing players. We're still continuing to grow and work things out, and I'm still finding my voice as the coach rather than living in the shadows of Pete [Steinberg]."

Penn State has not missed a 15s National Championship Final since before Daley was a student-athlete. Despite turnover of a sizable senior class each season - with several Eagles usually among the departed - the Nittany Lions keep upping the level of play in women's college rugby.

Hope Rogers, along with former teammate Meya Bizer, went to the Women's Rugby World Cup in France in 2014, and the prop returned to school to win two national titles as a junior/senior. She was a part of the team in the fall before graduating prior to the spring semester and has stayed around State College as a part of the coaching staff.

Losing players of that caliber would have a negative effect on most teams, but the Nittany Lions have persevered through those obstacles for years. Sophomore Tess Feury and freshman Azniv Nalbandian are just two of many young, exciting rugby players stepping into roles left agape by the likes of Bizer and Rogers.

"Penn State has a real tradition of passing on what it means to be a Penn State rugby player, and I think that is actually what gives people the confidence to step up and own their role when they need to," Daley said. "I also think players like Hope and Meya are really great at passing along their knowledge and skill set, and making sure the team is better. They leave the team better than they found it.

"I think our players take that to heart and make sure the teammates that will step into their roles are well prepared to do that."

While there will need to be some conversation as to what jerseys each team will wear at Saint Mary's College May 7, neither team is under any illusion as to the difficulty of the task ahead.

"Prepare the same way like we did for CWU," Waqa said of his pre-Final message to his team. "If it's not broken we will not fix it. All we are doing is polishing the final product.

"This season ranks up there with some of the best seasons we've had. We've had a decent schedule. It feels good to be in that position to win the Championship. We are guaranteed the silver medal at least, we are the 2016 D1 Elite Finalist, but we would like to go out with the gold."

"I think it's going to be a really challenging game," Daley said. "We're really excited for it. We're certainly not taking anything for granted or lightly at all. We're really going to be challenged at the point of contact and will need to put our bodies on the line if we want to be successful on the field, and play our very best game."

The D1 Elite National Championship will be decided on the pitch of Saint Mary's Stadium, with the match set to kick off at 1 p.m. PT. All five matches at the 2016 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships will be broadcast live on The Rugby Channel.