When Penn State and Navy take the field in Annapolis, Md. Saturday, it will be to renew a rivalry, at least for one team.
“Huge rivalry. Two big East Coast programs that have been strong traditionally. Both teams, in the older system, went to Nationals,” explained Penn State’s Don Ferrell.
“We ran into each other a lot. When Penn State was in Midwest and Navy was in MARFU, even when we weren’t in the same league, we always played. A lot of respect between the two programs.”
“Every time you go to play them, it’s just a lifted physicality and a lifted energy that comes to play Navy,” said Nittany Lion scrumhalf Chris Saint. “All week we’ve been preparing for that. A whole week we have committed to Navy week.”
“I think everyone considers us their rival. We get everybody’s best effort,” said Navy coach Mike Flanagan. “When we play the best teams in the country or the worst teams, if the team’s 10-0 or 0-10, when we show up everybody’s looking to take a scalp.”
This time, Navy and Penn State enter the match 1-0 with wins over Rutgers.
Last season, everything clicked for Navy early on, and the Midshipmen reached the DI-A quarterfinals before being bounced by BYU. This year, Penn State could be primed to make a similar playoff run, as the Nittany Lions return virtually everyone and appear to be a year bigger and stronger.
“We had nine, 10 freshmen starting a year ago. These kids are sophomores now,” said Ferrell. “We have some senior leadership, so it’s been a process. It was a bit of a rebuilding time. We took our lumps, played good rugby, but took our lumps. I think our team has matured a lot.”
“This is definitely the best Penn State team I’ve played on. This is the most talent,” said Saint. “Last year we were really young, but we didn’t graduate a single person, so everyone has that extra year of experience. Everyone’s been growing and getting a little bit bigger, so it’s really starting to come together.”
One Penn State sophomore who caught Flanagan’s eye when he was in high school is Daniel Metcalf, who has moved to flanker from the second row this season.
“He’s playing extremely well, and he was a kid that we looked to get here into the Naval Academy, but it just didn’t work out for him,” said Flanagan. “But he’s having a great time at Penn State, and he’s rock solid.”
Navy did manage to land a blue-chipper this season in flyhalf Jack McAuliffe. The High School All American played for Gonzaga last season, where Saint (a fifth-year senior) graduated from and Saint’s father coaches.
“I know him well from being part of the program. I know he’s a really good player,” Saint said of the Navy frosh.
The East is a very competitive conference, so no one can claim victory as early as late March, but whoever wins in Annapolis Saturday will certainly be in good position for the playoff race.