CHESTER, Pa. — After nearly 14 hours of play over the course of Friday and Saturday, the stage was set for Championship Sunday at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships at Talen Energy Stadium.
With plenty of silverware to be handed out on a near-perfect afternoon, the only question left to be answered was which teams would be ending their 2017 campaigns as champions.
Winner, winner, chicken dinner
For the fifth straight year, the Pete Dawkins Trophy is headed back to Berkeley, California. The Golden Bears, who entered the weekend as the tournament's top seed, faced off against Life University in the Cup final — a rematch of the two sides' meeting from 2013, when Cal won its first title. Connor Sweet gave the Golden Bears a boost to close the first half with seven points at the horn before teammate Sam Cusano's try made it 12-0 midway through the second half.
The onslaught continued as Cusano added another score, pushing the Cal advantage to 19 points. And with the Running Eagle attack looking pretty much dead, Life was unable to get on the board, as the Golden Bears retained their crown yet again, 19-0.
The first trophy of the afternoon went to Life's women. After cruising to the women's Cup final, the Running Eagles blew past Lindenwood on their way to the title as Life scored 17 unanswered points following the Lions' first try. Although Lindenwood scored once again just before the final horn, it was not enough as the Running Eagles capped off their weekend with a 17-12 win.
After a hard-fought Plate final between Wisconsin and Dartmouth, everything came down to a kick. As time expired, Big Green scrum half Ollie Englehart barged in for a try that pulled Dartmouth to within a pair of the Badgers at 12-10. But the junior could not put the game-tying two-point conversion through the uprights, giving Wisconsin bragging rights in the second-tier bracket.
It was a Palmetto State clash in the men's Bowl final — Clemson and South Carolina met for the second time this season after the Tigers crushed the Gamecocks, 48-10, in the teams' late January matchup. This time around, though, it was a much more even affair as the teams traded leads throughout the match. Ultimately, South Carolina got the better of its in-state rival, 24-19.
Battle of the Golden Bears
In an early candidate for match of the day, it was a showdown between the two sets of Golden Bears on the men’s side — California and Kutztown. The teams did not meet last season but had faced off against one another each of the past three years at this same event, including twice in the title game.
This time, the Golden Bears met one another in the Cup Quarterfinals and once again, it was the West Coasters who wound up on top. Despite a Kutztown fan section that seemed to swell to close to 500 by match’s end, California jumped out to a 12-0 lead in the first half before the locals got on the board just before halftime.
Cal donned its traditional navy blue and gold striped uniforms, but with the hashtag, #TryForPaylor, emblazoned across its chests. Entering the weekend, the Golden Bears had not played since May 6, when sophomore Robert Paylor was paralyzed from the waist down during a match against Arkansas State. Cal posted an update regarding Paylor's health on its Facebook page Friday.
Although Kutztown eventually cut the California advantage to just a pair with less than three minutes to play in regulation, a Zach Tavenner try salted the game away and sent Cal to a sixth consecutive CRC Rugby Sevens semifinal.
Living the good Life
Among the top programs in collegiate rugby — on both the men’s and women’s side of things — is Life University. The private university located just 30 minutes outside of Atlanta in Marietta, Georgia, boasts an enrollment of only about 700 undergraduates.
Although the Running Eagles compete in just a handful of sports at the NAIA level, their rugby programs and neon green uniforms have become the school’s identity. And despite a small student body, Life brought plenty of noise to Philadelphia.
With a couple hundred 20-somes clad in bright green visors and sunglasses filling the southwest corner of the stadium, the Running Eagles had easily the best supporters’ section of the day — one that could certainly match up with the Union’s Sons of Ben.
Fortunately, Life’s fans had plenty to cheer about this weekend. After routing their first four opponents by a combined score of 227-0, the Running Eagles’ women made quick work of Dartmouth, 26-5, en route to the Cup title game.
Life’s men fared equally well on the final day of competition. After a late try and conversion saved the Running Eagles from a Cup quarterfinal upset against St. Mary’s, Life eased its way into the Cup finals behind a late surge, winning 24-14.
Out with a whimper
There was little standing in the way of Penn State’s women during their first two days in Chester. The Nittany Lions held their opponents to just 10 total points in three pool-play games Friday and cruised into the Cup semifinals thanks to a 39-0 shutout of Bloomsburg Saturday.
But Sunday, Penn State was sent packing early. Facing Lindenwood, the Nittany Lions dug themselves an early hole, going down 10-0 before finally scoring their first points of the day to cut the Lions’ halftime lead to just three.
Trailing 20-14 late in the second half, Penn State took control of the ball for the final possession of the match. And although the Nittany Lions were within just a few feet of scoring the potential game-winner after the clock had hit all zeroes, a Penn State turnover ended the Nittany Lions’ once-promising tournament run.
For the locals
A number of Delaware Valley teams struggled Sunday, with just St. Joe’s earning a chance to play under the bright lights of the stadium field. The Hawks and their bearded beast of a coach, Dan Yarusso, picked up a 21-14 win against Keystone State rivals Penn State on the Academy fields but mustered only five points in their Plate semifinal loss to Wisconsin.
After going scoreless and winless Saturday, Temple showed a bit of offense Sunday morning against Clemson. Still, the Owls lost 14-12 and were eliminated early in the Bowl quarterfinals. And Delaware did no better, dropping their own Bowl quarter to South Carolina, 19-7.
In the women’s matches, Temple fell to Notre Dame, 21-5, in the Challenge final and the Lady Blue Hens suffered a 31-point shutout at the hands of the same Fighting Irish squad.
My all-name team
Duncan and Zander van Schalkwyk, Life
Harley Davidson, Life
Kina Malafu, Kutztown
Kendal McCracken, Lindenwood (women)
Noah Niumataiwalu, Saint Joseph’s
Dawit Workie, Dartmouth
Mid-match competition of the day
Even though Dartmouth’s teams finished the tournament with solid performances (the women lost in the Cup semifinals and the men came up just short in the Plate final), the Big Green’s best showing came from a pair of robots.
The Mobile Virtual Player, better known as MVP, is a robotic tackling dummy developed at the New Hampshire college used to help mimic moving opposition during practice. We didn’t get to see them put to their true use, but instead, fans were treated to the hilarity of young children chasing the dummies around the field.
Yes, the kids came away victorious, stealing a ball from each of the helpless dummies — but hey, maybe a war of man vs. robot is closer than we previously thought.