The difference between Army, 33-29 winners, and Penn State in the DI Women’s National Championship game Saturday? Army capitalized on nearly every scoring opportunity it had, while Penn State squandered exponentially more.
The Nittany Lions owned possession and territory at the start of the game, end of the game and the majority of time between, but four times they were held up in goal, and several more times they were turned away by a tremendous Black Knight goal line defense.
Penn State scored first, when prop Lauren Poole plunged into the try zone, but not until after two five-meter scrums and one Poole attempt at points that was held up. Fullback Sadie Anderson hit the conversion. The Lions scored second, when Army’s struggles to tackle Poole continued, leading to a Hanna Gregor try.
Up to this point, the game had been all Penn State. The much larger Nittany Lion pack was obliterating Army’s diminutive forwards, preventing Army from meaningful possession. The only thing stopping Penn State was Penn State. But Army’s pack, pride hurt from conceding the second try, would rise to the occasion.
“When they were pounding on our forwards a little bit, it just pumped us up more, really, and our forwards just came back out and gave it to them,” Army fullback Jess Sexauer said.
“We don't really get scored against that much, so after that second try we just had to kick it in,” added Army No. 8 Kayla Orvik, who sized up unfavorably to even Penn State’s smallest backs. “We realized we had to make a turnover and make a turn somewhere in the game, and it had to come from us.”
After already losing three set pieces to Penn State, Army won a lineout after a Penn State penalty, and Sexauer inserted herself into the midfield, sucking in multiple defenders, before distributing to the speedy Lee, who raced in Army’s first score.
Seconds later, Sexauer made another line break off the restart and crisply flung a long pass to Lee, who wouldn’t be caught. This time, she centered the try, making her conversion attempt easier. She nailed it, and in a matter of less than three minutes, Army had pulled even with Penn State.
Penn State pounded the ball back into Army’s try zone, but was again held up. The Lions swung it wide off the scrum, where Sexauer intercepted an errant midfield pass and darted across midfield. With Anderson bearing down on her, the fullback deferred to Lee, who took it in for her, and the game’s, third try in a row. With the conversion, Army led 19-12.
Orvik fielded the ensuing deep kickoff, and attempted a no-look pass, which Penn State wing Lauren Barber cleanly picked off and carried a short distance for the tying score.
Army, after being awarded a scrum via a Penn State knock, went back on the offensive. Wing Ashley Miller made the line break this time, and before being torn down, she found Lee, who again simply ran faster than the Penn State defense, which featured a pair of 7s Eagles, for a try. Lee again converted, giving herself and Army 26 points.
Army’s was really starting to come into its own, competing diligently at each and every breakdown. That hard work resulted in a turnover, a Miller line break, and guess what, another Lee try and conversion, putting Army up 33-19, which is how the half would end.
After intermission, Penn State went back to what was working in the first half, pick and drives from the base of the ruck, and they gained precious territory with hard-earned yards by Poole, No. 7 Christiane Pheil and others. However, like in the first half, they struggled when close to the try line.
On one possession inside Army’s five-meter, the Nittany Lions suffered two knocks, one held-up try and a scrum penalty before Army was able to clear its lines. As much blame should be levied towards Penn State, credit to Army’s goal line defense is also due.
“They do have some big girls. That was pretty nerve-racking,” said Sexauer of Penn State’s forwards and Army’s multiple goal line stands. “That was a real team effort, actually. I tried to throw in my two cents, but our forwards can hold their own.”
“We got a little scared when their forwards came at us, but Army rugby's all about our pack, so we just locked it down, post-monster, and went from there,” Orvik added.
Five-try scorer Lee credits Army’s tight bond for those stretches of resilience.
“We're a really close team. We all play together, and it's almost like a family; we're all sisters. When you train together and you serve together it's this bond that can't be compared to anywhere else,” she said. “We know that the people to the left and right have our back, and we have to have theirs as well.”
Penn State would break Army’s defensive line twice more, once when Pheil slammed down a try after multiple attempts off a scrum and once near full time as Barber notched her second score. But it was too little, too late. The uncapitalized on opportunities, especially the four tries held-up in goal, proved terminal.
“We actually think we scored a couple of them, but that's what National Championship games should be,” said Penn State coach Pete Steinberg. “We had a couple of lineouts near their line that we didn't connect on. We played really well in the second half, we were able to get down there, we just weren't able to score.”
Lee, who scored all 33 points for Army, collected the finals MVP honors. She was almost nauseatingly humble when asked about the award.
"There were 33 other players who had to do their job really well for me to score," she said. "I guess (MVP) just meant I did my job as well as they did. I'm supposed to score, and I did."