East Champs Penn St. stave off Kutztown, finish undefeated

D1A Rugby: East Champs Penn St. stave off Kutztown, finish undefeated
Photo Credit: Mimi Goodman

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Penn State concluded its Rugby East Championship-winning season with a 41-34 win on the road against 13th-ranked Kutztown. The Nittany Lions had already staked claim to the East title after their victory over Wheeling Jesuit, but wouldn’t have been completely satisfied without finishing with an undefeated conference record and doing so against a Golden Bears team that prevented Penn State from the 2015 Rugby East crown.

“They are a good team,” said Penn State Head Coach Blake Burdette. “Well-coached and had some really good athletes. It was a grinder and we knew it would be. We did enough to win, and some games are just that way.”

The opening 35 minutes of the clash between Pennsylvania rivals saw both sides trade a pair of tries. Kutztown’s Johan Van Wyk’s try in the corner brought the score to 12-10 in favor of Penn State. The Nittany Lions, however, closed the half with a converted Kiefer Kei-Boguinard try and sent prop Jordan Crofts over the line just six minutes into the second period.

The consecutive scores on both ends of the halftime whistle were vital. The 16-point advantage was the first of two double-digit leads the Golden Bears would fight back from in the second half.

“I think anytime you can score before or right after [half] you take the momentum,” Burdette said. “We talk about the first 10 minutes of the half to be the most important to gain that momentum. That being said, finishing great at half is important for the psyche of our team, as well.”

Backs Tyler May and Selby Niumataiwalu scored at the 50th and 60th minutes, respectively, and appeared to put the match out of reach, 36-17.

Kutztown, having a down year of sorts given its incredibly high standards, forged back into the game by scoring 12 consecutive points. Dmontae Noble, Murphy Lill and Aaron Gray scored in a flurry to pull within 12 points of the visitors.

Penn State full back James Haley found the try zone for the fourth time this season to extend the lead, 41-34, and seal its undefeated season.

“We didn’t finish the game the way we wanted to, but I am happy the boys found a way to win,” acknowledged Burdette.

The Rugby East Championship is Burdette’s first. The former Men’s Eagle front rower is in his second season at the helm of the Penn State program. He took over a very good team at the beginning of the 2015 season that had lost just two conference fixtures the previous year. In Burdette’s first season the Nittany Lions beat East Champion Kutztown, but settled for second place in the conference. This year, the loss column remained unoccupied for the entire eight-match season.

The players have been enjoying the late-season success gradually. The Oct. 28, 66-5, blowout of Wheeling Jesuit assured them their first Rugby East title in several years, but a final conference game versus the previous team that ruled the East remained.

The hard-earned win over Kutzown and dramatic end to a perfect season was recognized and enjoyed, but not embellished. One last game for the fall campaign remains and it won’t be easy. The Nittany Lions (10-0) travel to Annapolis, Md., Saturday, Nov. 12, to face the always-tough United States Naval Academy.

“The boys have worked very hard this semester,” Burdette accredited. “They are pretty excited to win that Championship, and that has to be the standard here. We have one more job on the weekend and we will prepare the same way we have all year.”