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PSU Women, Still #1

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PSU Women, Still #1

The Penn State vs. Norwich friendly was highly touted, and the two best women’s DI colleges came through with a thriller. The first half was contested in Norwich’s end and yielded a 19-5 halftime lead for Penn State. The Cadets rallied like no other and eventually overtook the reigning USA Rugby champion 27-24. But Penn State legged out the final 10 minutes and scored three tries to win 43-27.

Norwich’s opening kickoff did not go 10 meters, and for the next 10 minutes, play barely – if at all – saw Penn State’s side of the 50. Norwich played a lot of defense but did well to turn over ball at the breakdown to prevent further penetration. The Cadets, however, did not have a strong clearance kicker, so Norwich often opted to run the ball out of danger instead of kicking for territory. That deficiency harmed Norwich around the field – for instance, Norwich (Sophie Mundell) stole several of Penn State’s struggling lineouts in the first half. But instead of quickly kicking for touch and getting another chance in the air, Hannah Bell or Emily Oor held onto the ball and waited for their teammates to reset. But Penn State’s defense swarmed quicker, and it was able to turn a lost lineout into a turnover and gained yardage.

With the back-and-forth all happening in Norwich’s end, it was only a matter of time until Penn State converted on the good position. After a punishing campaign on the goal line, a Penn State scrum preceded a hands-out to wing Kacy Dux, who the scored the first of her two tries, 5-0.

Fewer than two minutes later, the scoreboard was ticking over again, only this time it was for the hosts. Norwich turned over the ball shortly after the restart, but a passing error awarded Penn State a lineout deep in its end. Mundell stole the throw-in, and the ball worked out to inside center Ally Day, who had outside center Emily Colesworthy running in tight beside her. Wing Alanna Giradin was wide open, so Day sent the skip pass to the freshman for the try, 5-5.

Penn State went back to work and marched down to the tryline, sending punch after punch into the Norwich defense. A penalty gave Andrea Villanova the momentum she needed to lower her shoulders and pierce the line. In minute 30, good strategic kicking gave Penn State an attacking lineout, which eventually found Dux again for the try. Lauren Shissler hit this and the previous conversion for the 19-5 lead.

As the half wound down, PSU’s set pieces cleaned up (the scrums had trouble feeding the ball back cleanly), and the eightman picks off the scrum almost always yielded big gains. Conversely, flanker Elizabeth Cairns did a fantastic job of containing Norwich when the hosts tried the same maneuver. But the Cadets got to show their strengths as well, the most exciting of which is the running rugby they string together with passes out of contact and great support lines. Co-captain Vanessa Champagne did both for the team’s longest breakaway of the half. She stiff-armed the last defender and looked to be home free. And then PSU prop Beth Rose came sprinting into view and closed the distance insanely quickly. Not long after, Rose was supporting a breakaway and took the final pass into the try zone – although she was held up.

The second half was different. Norwich powered through tackles – top freshman prop Ilona Maher in particular – and then the space started to open up. One of Maher's breaks was kept alive by Day and Champagne, getting deep into PSU’s end. A handling error saw opposing players chase the ball to the touchline, both swatting at it with their feet, and the touch judge was unable to determine to whom the lineout belonged, so a Norwich scrum was called. Second-phase ball saw Colesworthy – who is so exciting to watch – send a perfect leading pass in front of the defense to Day, who took the angle to the try zone, 19-10.

Minutes later, Norwich was back on PSU’s tryline, punching away but being stood up. But some good, quick decision-making saw a shovel pass head to wing Denisse Zambon, another freshman, for the try, 19-15.

Penn State earned some breathing room about five minutes later, when freshman fullback Tess Feury – who was the impact player of the game – tore down the sideline, fighting off defenders until outside center Corey Meanix arrived for the pass and try, 24-15.

Play started to break down. Both teams went tooth-and-nail in the breakdowns; sometimes that meant slower ball for the offense, other times it meant a ball up for grabs, skittering around the pitch. Norwich was more prone to kick a loose ball on the ground, but instigating that type of chaos plays into their hands very often. One such instance occurred in minute 63, when flanker Meaghan Albert chased down a bobbled ball and scooped it up for the try, 24-20.

Two minutes later, in the 66th minute, Norwich took the lead. Penn State attempted to clear the ball out of its end, but it landed right in Courtney Sullivan’s arms. With the majority of PSU’s defenders offsides, Sullivan weaved through traffic and then some for the centered try. Bell converted for the 27-24 lead.

It’s always exciting when the underdog triumphs, but it was equally as thrilling to watch the champ reiterate why its number one. And that’s what Penn State did in the final 10 minutes of the game. When PSU wants to get moving, they do it. Norwich was making its tackles, but they were coming from behind, and the ball was recycling too quickly for the defense to contain it.

Flanker Kyla Chipman’s first of two tries came after a penalty linebreak. She worked the sliding defense perfectly and dove over for the score (31-27 with the Shissler conversion). Two minutes later, big, bad prop Rose was stretching her legs in the open field again. The ball was quickly secured after the tackle, and Meanix was there to continue the drive. The ball opened up quickly, and Chipman once again took advantage of an understaffed defense for the 38-27 lead (Shissler’s fourth conversion).

Penn State finished the game with one more try, which came off a Norwich scrum that went weak side. Feury scooped up a knock-on and sprinted into the try zone untouched, 43-27. The Junior Olympian’s first half of college rugby was an exceptional one.

Norwich plays another friendly against Dartmouth on Sept. 10 before starting its league season against Army (which lost 50-17 to Quinnipiac yesterday) on Saturday. The Big 10 doesn’t begin until Oct. 5, so PSU will play friendlies against teams like AIC, Pittsburgh, James Madison and Notre Dame College beforehand.

Penn State 43
Tries: Dux 2, Chipman 2, Meanix, Feury, Villanova
Cons: Shissler 4

Norwich 27
Tries: Day, Sullivan, Zambon, Albert, Giradin
Cons: Bell