Series with Army, Lindenwood in the books, Penn State looks ahead to Big 10

BOULDER, Colo. - For over a decade, Penn State University has been the gold standard of women's college rugby. With the Nittany Lions' recent two-match sweep of Army and Lindenwood at a recent round-robin-formatted series of games hosted by Penn State, it does not look like the reigning National Champions of both 15s and sevens is ready to be dethroned anytime soon.

"We were very excited to host two great teams, and grateful that Army and Lindenwood agreed to make the trip to State College," Head Coach Kate Daley, who was named the team's full-time coach after a successful 2014-15 season as the interim leader, said of the weekend. "All the games were highly competitive and very physical - some of the best collegiate rugby I've seen to date.

"They were exactly the kind of games we need as a program to help develop our younger players, and give them the opportunity and confidence to step into recently-vacated roles."

Now that wins over Lindenwood and West Point, combining for a 64-27 Penn State advantage, are under the Nittany Lions' belt, the team shifts its focus to the Big 10 competition. First up on the presumed chopping block is Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish, although not a traditional Big 10 title contender, are off to a terrific start. Recent victories against Purdue and Ohio State were as lopsided as a game involving Penn State, and marked the first time Notre Dame has ever beaten the Buckeyes. In the win over Ohio State, five Fighting Irish found the try zone, including Scout Muzikowski, who recorded a hat trick in the 40-10 drubbing.

There is no hiding the fact that Notre Dame's program is on the immediate rise, but as previously mentioned, Penn State is the gold standard - until another team proves otherwise.

One of the many reasons the Nittany Lions have been so dominant is their seemingly endless well of talent. Each season, Penn State graduates numerous Eagles and Collegiate All-Americans. However, the team always has a pack of High School and Junior All-Americans chomping at the bit to take on the first-team jersey and the responsibilities that come with it.

"We have a lot of young players competing for spots, and it's hard to say at this point who will earn their way into the starting XV," Daley said.

A few known entities that need replacing are The Human Sledgehammer, Meya Bizer, and Catie Benson and Bitsy Cairns. Bizer has been training with the Women's Eagles Sevens at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., while Benson graduated in the spring. Cairns is away from campus for an internship, but is expected back in Penn State kit for the spring semester. Both Benson and Cairns earned their first international caps with the Eagles this summer during the three-match Women's Rugby Super Series in Canada.

Of course, the Nittany Lions' cupboard is far from bare. Back in blue and white stripes are Women's Rugby World Cup 2014 prop Hope Rogers, 2015 College 15s National Championship MVP and lock Katie Mueller, fellow second rower Taylah Pipkin, and loose forward Kyla Chipman. In the back line, sure-handed Gabby Cantorna will lead a dynamic group of backs that include strike runners Rachel Ehrecke and Tess Feury.

Penn State especially likes the depth amongst its roster this season given the numerous Nittany Lions that gained valuable experience participating at National All Star Competitions over the summer.

"Every single one of those individuals came back this fall better rugby players, and with a greater understanding of what it takes to be a high-level rugby player," boasted Daley.

Penn State is likely to utilize every bit of its deep and talented wealth of talent through the season. Looking beyond the Sept. 3 fixture against Notre Dame, the Nittany Lions still have conference matches against Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio State to navigate through, as well as a doubleheader against American International College and Navy around Halloween.

In the spring, Penn State will be put to the test in the inaugural Women's DI Elite competition. The eight-team format will include the likes of Brigham Young University, Central Washington, Life, and Lindenwood, and will conclude with the Women's DI Elite National Championship Final May 7.

The DI Elite Final will be a part of the USA Rugby College 15s National Championships - an event the 10-time National Champion Nittany Lions know all too well, and receive an astounding amount of backing at each event.

"We have amazing alumni support because, in large part, their experience as a Penn State Women's Rugby player was positive, impactful, and, in most cases, provided direction or changed the course of their lives," Daley, a PSU alum herself, reflected.

"The journey and bonds you form with your teammates while at Penn State are meaningful and unbreakable, and by supporting the current team, they are celebrating and honoring their experience as a Penn State Rugby player."