When Kyla Chipman left Hong Kong for Happy Valley two years ago, she did so in part to follow in the path of her sporting hero. She did not foresee that hero one day planting her into the ground. “Kate Daley was my idol,” Chipman says. “I tried to be just like her. And in my first-ever Penn State rugby match, she rocked me so hard I couldn’t even place the ball.”
That encounter took place in the team’s annual alumni game pitting current and former players, and just so the implication is clear: Raised in China, Chipman chose to attend college 8,000 miles from home mostly so she could play a non-scholarship sport and emulate her role model, who, in their first meeting, tackled her with such ferocity in what was technically a non-competitive match that Chipman still remembers the impact that squeezed the breath from her lungs. She shares the memory proudly, because there is no shame in a young rugby player being walloped by a world-class veteran and living to tell the tale, and also because Daley ’09 Bus—her hero turned wrecking ball, and, now, her coach—is sitting just a few feet away.
Toughness, tradition, sisterhood, a sense of humor, and an international reputation for excellence; this scene might just tell you everything you need to know about Penn State women’s rugby.
This spring marks the 25th year that collegiate women’s rugby teams have contested an organized national championship. Penn State has reached the title game in 18 of the previous 24 seasons, including the last 11 straight. And they don’t just get there: The Lions have won three consecutive national championships, seven of the last 11, and nine overall. In May, they’ll head to Kennesaw, Ga., for the 2015 tournament, where they’ll be heavily favored to claim their 10th national crown.
In a sport that edges closer all of the time to mainstream relevance, they are something close to a dynasty.
It wasn’t always so. Existing as a loosely organized club team in the ’70s and ’80s, the Penn State women’s rugby program stood dormant in the early ’90s before Charlie Smith ’61 MS, ’68 PhD Bus, a native South African who played on the men’s team during his grad-student days, agreed to reestablish it. Not that it was Smith’s idea: Then the head of the accounting department, he was approached one day by a pair of undergraduates, Beth Baldwin Ashe ’93 H&HD and Su Blasi-Bombardieri ’92 Lib, who pleaded with him to start a team. He agreed, and the program was officially resurrected in 1991; the team reached the club national title game in 1995, and in 1997, the Lady Ruggers beat Radcliffe College for the program’s first championship.
By then, Smith had handed the reins to Pete Steinberg, a Brit who came to Penn State in 1994 planning to pursue a Ph.D. in geochemistry and play club rugby in his spare time. He ended up doing neither: his career path veered toward business, and as he quickly learned, only undergraduates were allowed to come out for the team. Instead, at Smith’s invitation, he joined the women’s program as an assistant. When the time commitment became too much for Smith to balance with his academic duties, Steinberg took over. Those nine national titles over the past 20 years have come under his guidance.
Steinberg is modest about his impact on the program, citing the “amazing foundation” left by Smith, the appeal of Penn State’s reputation as a “sports school,” and gradual increases in university support. “I feel like I’ve gone along for the ride, not been the driver,” he says. “I’m not going to say I haven’t had an influence, but the people that have really built this program have been the players, and the legacy that each generation has left for the people who follow them.”