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May 31, 2015

Cal wins third-straight collegiate rugby title with a little help

Rugby Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship
053015_Rugby_AP Tomasz Mihalek/AP

PPL Park

You may not find a tougher athlete than a rugby player. Each time there was a bone-jarring hit at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship this weekend it echoed throughout PPL Park like a large knuckle cracking. And each time, when you thought there is no way anyone could get up from that human car crash, they always got up. Maybe with a limp. Maybe with a broken nose, or a sprain. 

They always got up.

But this move seemed more WWE than it did anything suited for even rugby, when Kutztown’s Bilal Hassen grabbed California’s Paul Bosco, threw him up over his shoulders and pile-drived him into the turf. Bosco didn’t bounce off a padded canvas. His body bounced off grass and dirt that didn’t give. Compounding the senseless, game-changing move was the fact that there were :05 left in the tied championship game between the two-time defending national champion Golden Bears and Kutztown.

Hassen received a yellow card. Cal received a two-minute man advantage that spilled into overtime — and moments later, the Golden Bears’ Jake Anderson swiveled his way to a try through Kutztown to give Cal its threepeat with a 17-12 sudden-death victory before 11,023 at PPL Park (and a two-day total of 24,593).

“I think I’ll remember how everyone stepped up the last two days for us to win,” Anderson said. “It was a big moment scoring the game-winner, but anyone on our team could have done it. We’ve been here before and we know how to get it done." 

“It all happened quickly, and (Hassen) definitely had his hands on me, but it was a contest for the ball,” said Bosco, a senior who goes out as a three-time national champion. “(Hassen) is a big guy and I just stood up. Then I was staring up at him. I was lucky enough he didn’t drop me on my head. We had some things to overcome this year. We had to compensate for (graduating All-American) Seamus Kelly. I think the thing I’ll remember most about this team is the feeling you were always a part of something much bigger than yourself.”

Anderson, the tournament MVP, said composure and experience were the key.

“I think I’ll remember how everyone stepped up the last two days for us to win,” Anderson said. “It was a big moment scoring the game-winner, but anyone on our team could have done it. We’ve been here before and we know how to get it done. Kutztown forced errors from us, because they are a physical team. It was pretty sloppy at times from us, but we knew it would be close. The (Hassen) move could have been a red card. Really, a dangerous tackle like that. It was a big moment for us. I knew we would get the ball back after something like that.”

Kutztown coach Gregg Jones obviously didn’t think what Hassen did was that egregious. Jones contended that both players were going for the ball and when Hassen grabbed the ball, he took Bosco with it.

“They both had a hold of the ball and (Bosco) would just not let go, and my kid (Hassen) ripped at the ball and lifted the player up. He slammed him down, but he did not have his hands around the player’s body,” Jones maintained. “I’m not real happy with the call, but that’s life. This team is 46-4 for the season and they’ve played for this game and this moment. That’s what this season was about. We made good choices and we’re second place again — but we’ll be back.”

Hassen was beside himself. “I just took the ball and everyone makes mistakes, and we’re disappointed, it’s part of the game and I let my team down, that’s about it,” he said.

A few surprises came in the quarterfinals, when three of the underdogs advanced. Perhaps the biggest upset came when No. 7 Arizona, the same Arizona that lost to St. Joe’s in Saturday’s pool round, 12-5, beat No. 2 Arkansas State, 7-5, to advance to the semifinals. Arkansas State hadn’t lost a 7s match since March 17, 2012, when the Red Wolves lost to Life University, 30-14.

There is a local connection to the Arizona program. Wildcats’ coach Sean Duffy is a St. Joe’s grad who played for the Hawks. In a year’s time he has done a good job in getting Arizona back to the Final Four, which was last in the Final Four in 2012.

“I coached a lot of the guys on the St. Joes’s team and there was ribbing going on when we lost,” said Duffy, a 2009 St. Joe’s grad. “It was exciting beating Arkansas State and we had a good game plan and a belief in what we could do. We have a lot of young guys who did a lot of growing up.”

The locals received some nice attention. The Penn State women threepeated — and won their third national title in a month. The Nittany Lions’ championship run started by winning the 15s national championship over the Mother’s Day weekend May 9 in Atlanta, beating Central Washington. It continued last weekend, May 23-24, winning the USA Rugby 7s in Denver, over Central Washington again. The Nittany Lions completed their triple crown by winning Collegiate Rugby Championship on Sunday over Lindenwood, from St. Charles, Missouri, 24-7.

“It was difficult to transition from 15s to 7s, especially in such a short period of time, but we had three weeks to prepare,” Penn State coach Jon Swart said. “These girls are an incredible group. It’s exciting to see them win three national titles in three weeks.”

Penn State senior Elizabeth Cairns, a Downingtown East grad, has another year of eligibility. Cairns doesn’t know what it’s like to lose in this country (Penn State has lost abroad). The last time the Nittany Lions lost was to Army, 33-29, in the 2011 15s national championship.

“We look for any way to challenge ourselves,” Cairns said. “It’s about coming out and performing the way we know we can. We always say our composure is our best friend, and we trust in our skills.”

Temple finished 17th overall by winning the Shield level, and St. Joe’s suffered its second heartbreaking loss on the final play when Notre Dame scored with no time left to win the Bowl level, 22-17, and finished 13th overall.

Championship
California 17, Kutztown 12 OT

Semifinals
California 33, Life University 5
Kutztown 19, Arizona 14

Women’s Final
Penn State 24, Lindenwood 7

Bowl Level Final
Notre Dame 22, St. Joe’s 17

Shield Level Final
Temple 20, Boston College 12

Small College Final
New Mexico Highlands University 22, New England College 19

City Four Championship
Drexel 22, Villanova 10