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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Penn State vs. Kutztown To Decide Rugby East

By Ryan Trost

“We are not, ultimately, successful unless we win this weekend.”
~ Dr. Gregg Jones (also known as, Doc); Head Coach, Kutztown University.

“The goal this fall is to win Rugby East, so we aren’t done yet.”
~ Blake Burdette; Head Coach, Penn State.

There is no putting the cart before the horse on Saturday. Penn State versus Kutztown decides it all in Rugby East. It names a champion, settles interstate rivalry, puts a capstone on an excellent fall season across the conference and, though they may not say it directly, it validates both teams’ journeys this year. Best of all, it happens this weekend on the narrow dimensions of Penn State’s home turf.

While the athletes have been playing their hands somewhat close this week, fans and alums of both schools know what is at stake. Happy Valley should expect larger than normal crowds on Saturday as two very proud rugby communities come together for an exemplary display of the rogue’s favorite game. Tom Feury is one such fan. A prominent high school development coach in New Jersey with former players on both sides of the stripe, he anticipates a spirited match, “I was at the PSU game last week and they really played with some desire. I expect they will bring it on Saturday.” He continued, “Kutztown has more experience and perhaps more talent right now… My guess is that bookies would have it: KU by 10.5.”

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He is probably not far off. For Kutztown, everything has seemed to fall into place this season. They’re undefeated, they are well oiled and machine-like in their culture and they have proven already just how deep their talent goes. Jones started a new scrumhalf and a new flyhalf this year, with seemingly zero hiccups to the team’s success ratio. They have three All-Americans from last year in the lineup this week (Wesley Hartmann, Robert Stortz and Alex Faison-Donahoe) and boast one of the best defensive systems in all of college rugby. “LC (Larry Chester) coaches our defense,” said Jones. “Our D is very-very formidable. I am not worried about their ‘plan’, but their pace. Of course, we have pace too.” Our interview with Doc was by phone, but I promise, his wink was audible at the conclusion of that sentence.

The speed of the Nittany Lions has been brought to our attention before. It is no secret that Burdette’s flyers can be found at many positions throughout his lineup. At fullback for certain, Kevin Trotter can insert himself in a blink, but also at halfback and loose forward with Malcom May, Penn State is a team that threatens gap exposure inside and out. Combined with the talented boot of scrumhalf Jimmy Ronan, Penn State can score from almost anywhere.

One particularly savvy point Jones brought up about his team’s preparations though, is how aware they are of the dimensions of State College’s rugby pitch. “It’s not a regulation field. It’s a football field made slightly wider with lines painted for rugby,” he said. Considering that the width of the field this weekend is falling somewhere between 50 and 60 meters, instead of the regulation 70, Kutztown expects a forward dominated match. What that means for spectators, with two teams renowned for their speed and size playing on a narrow pitch, is that they should expect some incredible displays of the elegant violence we all know and love. Like tides rushing through the narrows of two rocky shores, unrelenting waves of fast, fit and serious minded athletes will have to be at their reckless best if they are to put tries on the board this weekend.

To be sure, there is no shortage of talent and rugby acumen on either side of the ball in this battle.
Especially taking into account the two teams’ seasons so far, most do favor the Golden Bears to finish with the “W” they seek. A large part of that has to do with the roller coaster that 2015 has been for Penn State. Twice having to adapt to changes at Head Coach, there were losses to AIC and Army, along with a narrow getaway vs. Wheeling and an even more disconcerting 13 point “close” shave against conference newcomers, St. Bonaventure. With the second of those coaching changes coming mid-season the Lions faced, almost inarguably, more adversity than any other team in Division 1-A. Yet here they are, still with a puncher’s chance at the conference crown.

To be honest, they do have the feel of a team that has been lying in wait for some time. They are without a doubt playing their best rugby of the season right now. Their tradition is long and powerful and their program is a great one. Jones, in fact, credits Penn State as the model rugby institution that he followed when KU decided to move up a division some years ago. Given the start PSU had and the tradition their alums are used to, they’ve got something to prove now too. They will be playing with a bit of a chip on their shoulder come Saturday, which they deserve to wear proudly.

Rightly so, their turnaround should be commended. It is not often a team bounces back from two tough losses and coaching changes to still contend for a title in a conference as stacked as Rugby East. Since taking the reins in week three of the conference schedule, Burdette has provided the team a consistency that allows their pacey platform to develop traction once again. Burdette’s motto throughout the past couple of weeks has been, “You’re all-in or you’re just in the way,” and it’s pretty clear which side of that equation his players intend to be on. Minus the ten point loss to Army, Penn State has rattled off consecutive scores of 79, 122, 51 and 56 points. “I think the boys are working hard and smart,” said Burdette of the team’s recent results. “This is the same team; we are just cutting down on mistakes.”

That’s one way to put it. Jones opines that Burdette’s influence may have made the Lions more dangerous than they have been in years. “Not to say that they weren’t already good last year. They are a great team, but Blake has organized them,” he said. “In my opinion, if you take two talented teams, the more organized team will win.”

Kutztown is of course very well organized too though. They have a very well-defined culture of brotherhood, purpose and responsibility to the team and the school. In online interviews readily available across youtube and the team’s website KU players reiterate over and over again, “We work hard.” “We take pride.” “It’s a family.” The Golden Bears practice four times per week, are responsible for their own daily conditioning and attend team crossfit sessions with Chester, who also serves as Strength and Conditioning coach, an additional two and sometimes three times per week. “We target winning the Rugby East Conference in full every year,” Jones continued. “I expect we will score four tries, but we want to win.”

So, sure, KU could still take the conference title in a loss, as long as they earn a bonus. That is clearly not the way Jones and his men want to go out though, and it’s not the way Penn State wants to let them go out either. No matter how you slice it, this game is going to be a battle. They both want to win the title, and they both want to do it the right way.

For Penn State to win the game, that would be one thing. To win the conference, they would have to essentially knockout a Kutztown team that has looked every part a champion throughout the season. As good as Army was early on, so too has Kutztown been since the Golden Bears began conference play on September 26th. They, like Penn State also have a 100% buy-in from all of their players and staff. I suppose that’s what it should come down in the end, after all. For every positive we can post on one side, the other has it in equal measure. We can talk about it forever, but in the words of our friend Tom Feury, “All that matters on Saturday is ‘who wants it more?’ Only the players can answer that.” And that, what the players leave on the field this weekend, truly is everything.

*Footnote: Penn State Head Coach supplied a blanket statement of quotes to multiple news sources including This is American Rugby. Any likeness to other stories published this week is strictly due to this scenario.

Ryan Trost
This is American Rugby, Correspondent to Rugby East

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