Penn State returns from Italy with three wins, unforgettable experience

BOULDER, Colo. - Outside of winning National Championships, being a part of a Penn State Women's Rugby spring international tour might be the best part of being a Nittany Lion. This year, Penn State ventured to Italy, where the team played the best club sides the country has to offer, and still came away with a 3-0 record.

Penn State is surely not the only college program that uses its spring break to leave the country and play rugby. However, the Nittany Lions' utter dominance of women's rugby stateside makes their annual trip abroad a near necessity in terms of finding adequate competition.

For its 2016 tour, Penn State did not pull any punches in the scheduling department. The team played three matches over four days, each against a team from the country's top women's division, including the two clubs that played for last year's league championship.

The first fixture took place March 9 against Monza Rugby Club, which proved to be the Nittany Lions' stiffest competition of the week.

"Our first match against Monza was our toughest," said Penn State Club President Kyla Chipman. "We had just come off of two-a-day practices for four days straight, and this was our team's first competitive match of the season."

Despite the Nittany Lions 32-5 win over Monza, the currently-top-ranked Italian club posed problems for the collegiate side and forced Penn State to think on its feet.

"They were a very physical team that challenged our defense and attack," Chipman said. "It forced us to be creative with our attack, and urgent at the breakdown."

The following two contests saw Penn State beat Valsugana and Cogoleto by a combined score of 40-25.

The three-match tour included 39 players, five of which were injured and unable to play, giving at least 90 minutes of match time to 34 Nittany Lions.

"We stress player development on our team, and spring break is a great way to get all of our players - old and new - competitive matches that help them develop," said Chipman.

The majority of the 34 student-athletes showed well on tour, but it was a group of returning starters from last year's squad that led from the front. Junior fly half Gabby Cantorna continues to guide Penn State's attack, while sophomores Rachel Ehrecke and Tess Feury are dynamic line-breakers for Cantorna to target in the back line. Meanwhile, capped Eagle Bitsy Cairns and 2015 National Championship MVP Katie Mueller were fantastic in the forwards.

The tour also gives individuals pushing for a place on Penn State's first XV an opportunity to raise their hand for selection. First-year rugby players with natural pace Scout Cheeks and Gianna Solomon are picking up the game rather quickly, and made positive strides while in Italy. In the forwards, underclassmen Kira Garnett, Azniv Nalbandian, Kristina Perry, and Courtney Williams are looking more and more capable of replacing the two-thirds of the Nittany Lions' starting front row that graduated last year.

Of course, rugby tours are not solely about the rugby. Between training sessions and matches, Penn State spent its free time sightseeing around cities such as Milan, Venice, and others.

"We took a team stroll through Vicenza, and got to explore its history while overlooking the city with the Alps in the background," Chipman recalled. "We also had the opportunity to do some team building on the military base we were training at in Vicenza. We did an obstacle course, and had the opportunity to speak with a two-star general and many other decorated military members about leadership and the importance of cohesion within a team."

The three-match sweep and constructive training sessions in Italy does not bode well for the rest of the eight-team Women's D1 Elite competition. Penn State will host Indiana April 23 in the opening round of the D1 Elite bracket, but has more work to do before its quest for an 11th National Championship in 15s. The Nittany Lions will host McGill University from Montreal March 26, a day before they take on Women's Premier League's New York Rugby Club.

In April, Penn State will do battle with another WPL side in the D.C. Furies, as well as college-grade teams Grand Valley State and James Madison University. Caught in the mix of 15s preparation is April 10's Big Ten 7s Championship in South Bend, Ind., where the Nittany Lions will attempt to qualify for and defend its USA Rugby College 7s National Championship.