Cal mauls its way to 5th straight Collegiate Rugby Championship title

Cal mauls its way to 5th straight Collegiate Rugby Championship title

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.

California wins 4th consecutive Rugby 7s championship; St. Joe's falls short

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USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships

California wins 4th consecutive Rugby 7s championship; St. Joe's falls short

No surprise here. 

The California Golden Bears are golden again, taking home their fourth-consecutive championship, beating UCLA, 31-7, in the final Sunday afternoon at Talen Energy Stadium.

The game was much tighter than the score indicates, however. Cal held just a try lead heading into the half, but tacked on two late tries to put the game out of reach.

The Bruins tried to muster a comeback to begin the second half. Star senior Seb Sharpe tried to spark the Bruins with a 60-yard try, but that only seemed to wake up the Golden Bears.

Cal quickly added two insurance scores to seal the title. 

Cal proved why they were the three-time defending champs, steamrolling Arizona, 38-5, to get to the title game.

The Bruins at least decided to keep their semifinal game close. As frustratingly poor as UCLA played in the first half against Kutztown, they were equally unstoppable in the second, leading a furious comeback to reach the championship, topping the Golden Bears, 14-12. The loss ended a two-year streak of second-place finishes for Kutztown.

In the second-tier Plate final, Wisconsin held Indiana five yards shy of the game-winning try for a 10-7 win and Army shut out Maryland to win the Bowl bracket.

Hawks heartbreak
Just when it looked like St. Joe’s would break through to its best finish in school history (see story), it all came crashing down Sunday.

In the men’s Plate quarterfinals, top-seeded St. Joe’s fell to South Carolina, 19-12. The Hawks were driving downfield, looking for the winning score, when South Carolina stole the ball. The Gamecocks quickly grubbered (kicking the ball to gain ground quickly) twice all the way downfield. A 1-on-1 footrace was St. Joe’s only hope of staving off the Gamecocks, but USC's Nick Skalka was pulled down at the goal line and converted the ensuing penalty try as time expired to eliminate the Hawks.

The Hawks unofficially finished 13th, going 2-2 with a point differential of 28.

Comebacks in Chester
Maybe it was the early start, but tournament favorites Cal and Kutztown (see story) both got off to sluggish starts and looked as though their tournaments would come to an end sooner than expected.  

The second half was a different story, though. Three-time defending champion Cal rallied from 14 down against a powerhouse Arkansas State team, scoring 24 unanswered points to seal the victory. 

Kutztown had a tougher time getting past Pool F winner Dartmouth. With just four minutes remaining in the second half and down 12, the Bears rattled off 19 unanswered points to advance.

What a life
Sunday’s matches saw the Penn State stranglehold of the CRC come to an end, with Life University taking the women’s CRC title.

Penn State, vying for its fourth consecutive championship, was outworked by Lindenwood, last year’s runners up, falling 14-5 in the semifinals, a shocking loss for the Nittany Lions.

Life’s combination of speed and physicality proved to be too much for Lindenwood to handle. The Running Eagles used two long tries of over 80 yards to top Lindenwood. Just as it looked as though Life was about to put the game out of reach, Lindenwood’s Hannah Gauthreaux stole the ball and took it 80 yards to the house for the score.

It wasn’t enough, however, as Life’s Nicole Strasko added her second score of the game to ice it for Life.

Big 5 failure
Drexel was eliminated by Maryland in the Bowl quarterfinals, losing 24-0. Drexel unofficially finished in 23rd, was 0-4 in the tournament and boasted a point differential of minus-102, the second-worst in the 24-team tournament.  

Temple's fate wasn't much better in the Plate quarterfinals, getting manhandled by Wisconsin, 33-0. The Owls unofficially finished in 16th, with a 1-3 record and a minus-55 point differential. 

In other local news, the University of Delaware topped Mount Saint Mary’s, 36-10 in the local Philadelphia Division final. Now in its second year of existence, the division allows the winner to join the following year’s tournament. Drexel won in 2015. Other competing schools include University of Penn, Villanova, Rowan and West Chester.

Overtime thriller
The Life University men’s team saw their impressive run come to an end, dropping a thrilling overtime match to Arizona.

Life led for all of regulation time, but it was not enough to earn the victory. Arizona was finally able to punch in a try during stoppage time after flirting with the end zone for the final minute, to force the only overtime of the tournament.

The Wildcats broke free for a long run in overtime to again get the ball down within striking distance. With the man advantage, the Wildcats lunged into the end zone for the game-winning try, taking the game 17-12. 

St. Joe's shakes off tournament history, advances to Collegiate Rugby Championsip Plate quarters

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USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships

St. Joe's shakes off tournament history, advances to Collegiate Rugby Championsip Plate quarters

CHESTER, Pa. —- St. Joe’s history at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships is not a pretty one.

So after a 13th-place finish in 2014 and a 14th-place finish in 2015, head coach Daniel “Shags” Yarusso decided this would be the year things change.

And after day one of the championships, the Hawks are in position to wash off their label as disappointments and pencil in a new history.

Yarusso and the Hawks competed in a number of additional 7s tournaments to gear up for the championships at the end of the year. The team competed in Las Vegas, Bermuda, West Virginia, New York, California and Virginia, hoping to get more acquainted with the 7-on-7 format.

“We did play a ton of 7s tournaments this spring as we wanted to develop depth,” Yarusso said. “We certainly took our lumps during the spring 7s series but it allowed us to identify players for this event.”

Junior forward Jimmy Wolfer says the Hawks started the spring with three teams of 7s, competing in the different tournaments. In the end, the best players came together to form the team that would compete in the CRC (see Day 1 recap).

Although the results did not favor the Hawks in those tournaments, the experience did.

“With the level of play all the teams were coming with, we didn’t do too well,” Wolfer said. “I feel like it works out for us pretty well now.”

Not only did the team get some valuable depth during the tournaments, but Wolfer credits the team’s fitness and training during those tournaments for the team’s hot start on Saturday.

“I feel fitness is great for us, too,” Wolfer said after the team’s win over Army. “We work our butts off.”

It certainly showed on the field. After quickly falling behind to Army in the second game of pool play, the Hawks scored 25 unanswered points, cruising to an easy victory. As the game progressed, the Hawks fitness showed, as Army was not able to keep up with the Hawks’ speed.

But did the Hawks’ speed give them heavy legs in the final game — a 14-5 loss to Pool C champion Arizona?

Yarusso doesn’t think so. In fact, he believes his team controlled the pace during the match.

“I feel the guys played well as a team,” he said. “They controlled possession and pace during their matches. I also think they were well disciplined on defense.”

With two convincing wins and a hard-fought loss to Pool C winner Arizona, the Hawks missed out on the Cup quarterfinals by one point, losing the point differential tie-breaker, 22-21, courtesy of a Penn State garbage time try. The tiebreaker relegated the Hawks to the Plate division.

But that does not mean the tournament has been a failure. The top-seeded Hawks can still win the Plate, finishing ninth — which would be the best finish in school history.

“I would like to see them duplicate their performance from day one,” Yarusso said. “I think if we can be consistent with our play, we can have similar success.”