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Penn State with the try. Mimi Goodman Photo.

Dartmouth will welcome Penn State to Hanover for the first round of the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup. The Nittany Lions are making their first foray in the Varsity Cup and are hoping to come away a victory on the road.

The hosts, however, have played a tough schedule this year and are ready for the challenge. After undergoing a rough start to the fall, that included big losses to Lindenwood, AIC and Boston College, the Big Green went on to win its 9th consecutive Ivy League Title. With tough matches against fellow Varsity Cup participants Army and Navy this spring, Dartmouth is ready to take on the Rugby East heavy weight.

“We designed our fall schedule to really test ourselves against some of the best teams in the country to gear ourselves up for the Ivy,” said Dartmouth head coach Gavin Hickie. “We want to get tested out of our conference as often as we can and we welcome that challenge. The score lines didn’t go our way but it was a great learning curve.”

A traditionally smaller team, the Big Green always punches above its weight. Dartmouth narrowly lost to Navy in last year’s Varsity Cup and will be competitive playing at home. Led by three year starting fly half Dawit Workie and senior Captain Jack Braun, the Big Green has been gearing up for a physical contest. With the largest roster in recent years, competition is fierce and depth is a plenty.

“The boys have been working very very hard over the winter, particularly in the gym, indoors, on technique on subtle areas of the game,” added Hickie. “We are happy with where we are and we hope we are flying under the radar a little bit. We know Penn State are the heavy favorites and that is ok with us.”

The Nittany Lions have earned the reputation of being a very physical side, thanks in large part to the play of a pair of flankers and a prop. Malcolm May had a tremendous campaign during Rugby East play and earned conference player of the year accolades while leading the Pennsylvania school to a second place finish. Complementing the junior flanker is the equally athletic and dynamic Sean Mahon and loose head prop Brian McKellar.

“Sean is a terrific player and someone that I think projects to move forward if he wants to and works at it,” Penn State coach Blake Burdette said of his senior flanker. “McKellar is one guy who has really worked his butt off to get to where he is at.”

Penn State has been gearing up for the Varsity Cup by taking on two other VC squads and the formidable Indiana Hoosiers. The Nittany Lions lost a tight one to Navy, held off a Clemson surge and handily defeated an undefeated Hoosiers team. Playing some teams that have also played Dartmouth, Burdette has been able to gauge his own squad.

“A couple of those teams are Varsity Cup and they have also played Dartmouth. We just wanted to challenge ourselves,” Burdette said.

Although Penn State may be favored on paper and in the eyes of coach Hickie, coming into Dartmouth and walking away with a victory is no easy task.

“We need to play to our strengths. We have to worry about us. We can’t worry about them. We know Dartmouth is going to be well coached, well drilled and they are going to come after us, especially playing on their home field,” Burdette concluded.

The game kicks off at noon ET on Saturday.