Penn State had a good weekend in Philadelphia, as both the men’s and women’s 7s teams put forth their best-to-date performances at the Collegiate Rugby Championship. The men advanced to the Cup quarterfinals (falling five points shy of Navy), while the women took the whole tournament, beating Ohio State 31-5 in the title match.
The women’s team is synonymous with winning national titles, but victory wasn’t the outcome during the last CRC. Elena Cantorna remembered the 2011 final's loss to Army.
“I broke my hand in 2011 leading into the stadium, so I never made it in,” the scrumhalf said. “I was just trying to get on the field [in 2011], so this was a turnaround year for me – and the team, too. We’re a lot closer this year, both in 7s and 15s, and we’ve become a really cohesive unit. It feels great stepping out with them, and there aren’t as many nerves because you know the person standing next to you has your back.”
PSU began their path back to PPL Park with three shutout wins against Georgia Tech, Temple and Drexel, then knocked out Texas 17-5 in the semifinals. Again, little surprise that Penn State was contending for the championship, but the team’s successes during the first two days of competition were the result of intense preparation.
“It was hard coming off a national championship,” Cantorna said of the DI college 15s title in early May. “We were still celebrating, and then all of a sudden we had to get serious again for a month’s push of 7s. It was a really hard turnaround, but we had some really good coaching [Bay of Plenty’s Chad Tuoro] that helped. We played some lead-in tournaments that were a little rough, but we kept building and by the time we got here, we were set, confident and ready to play.”
Ohio State was ready to play, too. OSU had defeated Texas, Boston University, Kutztown and Georgia Tech en route to PPL Park, and the Buckeyes wanted hardware just as eagerly.
Penn State started the scoring before a minute ticked off the clock. Once in striking distance, USA 7s and 15s Eagle Meya Bizer planted two huge stiff-arms on defenders before dotting down. Bianca Dalal, who proved incredibly effective off the boot and at sweeper, notched the conversion for the 7-0 lead.
Ohio State kept their heads up, and even though down 12-0 quickly, were able to run some offense, side-stepping defense and linking up with support. But once inside their 22 meter, the Penn State defense was impenetrable – save one instance.
Akua Adu-Gyamfi was the undeniable highlight of the OSU squad, but never took on too much by forcing an individual effort. After a PSU forward pass, Ohio State won their scrum and Adu-Gyamfi tap-danced around some Lady Lions long enough to put her winger into space. She then received the following offload and dragged some defenders into the try zone, 12-5 into the half.
The most telling series of play occurred early in the second half. Ohio State was building nicely to the 50 meter, and as the ball was working out of the ruck, a nice, steep OSU line stretched across the pitch. But the ball was kicked deep across the field, and had Adu-Gyamfi received notice, she might have beaten Dalal to the ball. But instead, the sure-footed sweeper kicked it immediately into touch for the OSU lineout in Penn State’s end.
Penn State stole the lineout but then a no-pressure knock-on awarded OSU a scrum right in front of the posts. The PSU defense made up for the error and stifled the Buckeyes’ attempts to compose themselves and move forward – or anywhere other than backward. Finally, PSU regained possession as Ohio State sent a forward pass (that would have been a try), typical of a retreating offense, and forcing a scrum.
The series showed that Penn State was not infallible – they dropped balls, slipped off tackles, got caught out of position – but there was always another layer of protection ensuring one mistake didn’t result in points-against.
The game ended the way it began: After a systematic advance downfield, Bizer dummied from a five-meter ruck and dove into the center of the try zone, 31-5 the final. OSU was a worthy opponent but couldn't match the uniform speed and precision of Penn State.
As the players remained in their jerseys, medals around their neck, while watching the rest of the CRC inside PPL Park, it was clear that the tournament was more than another title in the books; there was a different brand of pride that came with playing in front of thousands of rugby fans.
“We wanted to take this opportunity to have fun, because we don’t play in this kind of environment often,” Cantorna said as the crowd thundered above. “It was the one chance where we could show how good women’s rugby can be, so we wanted a good game from us, which we got. Women’s rugby deserves some of the respect that the guys get.”