December 8, 2009

Girls are playing rugby ... and loving it

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The ball is different: Think of a lopsided football - or is it an overinflated soccer ball?

The rules are new: So new, in fact, almost no one knew any of them.

The pace is stunning: How does non-stop running sound?

And then there's the action: Hard-hitting and bone-jarring.

It would be a challenge to get any group of high school kids to come out and play rugby. But Sebastian (Fla.) River High School was willing and eager to do just that.

With girls.

Yes, that's right, girls rugby is an officially sanctioned varsity sport at Sebastian River - the only such team in the country.

It's rough and tough ... and if you ask the competitors, a lot of fun.

"I didn't really know anything about rugby, but I am always up for new things," senior Christina Kellerman said. "I was always scared to try sports because people judge you so much on how good you are, but I figured no one else has played this sport before and if I didn't like it I could stop. But now I love it and I don't think I could stop."

Head coach Allan Dobson - who coached female university teams in Europe previously - has been thrilled by the response at the school, which began the team last fall.

"They were very nervous, but very excited coming into it," Dobson said. "They listened, and for three practices a week, they learned. The same is true of the novice girls this year. They are unsure of what they are doing, but one thing is, they are not afraid to tackle now. Once they get that first adrenaline rush of contact, it calms them down."

That rough-and-tumble play is perhaps the biggest drawing card for some of the players, but Dobson said players don't realize just how much contact there actually is until they get into it.

"It was overwhelming at first because it was a lot different than I thought it would be," Kellerman said. "I didn't expect as much contact and as much aggression, but I like it. ... You can take all your stress and anger out with it."

How did all this get going - at a time when schools are cutting back sports and in a state that already offers flag football for girls? Credit USA Rugby and the progressive thinking of Sebastian River athletic director Michael Stutzke.

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Expect the unexpected at Sebastian River High, a school in a town of just 20,000 people, located 90 miles southeast of Orlando and north of West Palm Beach. It offers lacrosse and crew teams in a state where the sports are far from mainstream. And when Stutzke heard USA Rugby was looking for a school to begin a pilot program, he volunteered.

"We're proud of it," he said. "USA Rugby was looking for a school that would be bold enough to say, 'We're going to treat it like any other sport,' and that's what we are doing. The idea is to give it legitimacy."

USA Rugby started an "emerging sports initiative" in 2007 to lobby for the expansion of high school girls varsity rugby. It offered nearly a $2,000 start-up grant for any school willing to give the sport varsity status.

And even though the sport would seem to be a bitter fit for boys, it pushed for it as girls sport because of Title IX considerations that make schools more likely to add a sport for females. Rugby is also the only full-contact sport for girls, and with flag football growing, especially in Florida, it seemed a natural choice, Stutzke said.

USA Rugby membership relations director Kristin Richeimer estimates there are more than 150 club girls rugby teams across the United States, but Sebastian River remains the only confirmed varsity team.

Sebastian River, which expanded to field two teams this year, has just three other girls teams to compete against within the state: Jupiter, Coral Springs Taravella and Naples Lely. Those schools field club programs and play with Sebastian River as part of the Florida Rugby Union high school division. No formal standings are kept because of the few number of teams involved, and there are no playoffs. Sebastian River's final game will be on Dec. 12.

Hillsborough County (Fla.) Schools, across the state in the Tampa area, recently adopted a non-contact version of rugby as part of their K-12 physical education curriculum, which Dobson said could naturally be a feeding ground for future high school teams. Beyond that "Rookie Rugby" program, no other youth leagues exist for girls rugby in Florida. Stutzke recently presented the program to the two middle schools that feed into Sebastian River, hoping it could catch on there and help develop players at an earlier age.

USA Rugby's initiative may be hindered by the current economic climate, in which many schools are facing cutbacks and don't have the means to add sports.

The won't deter Sebastian River. Even though the school had to cut funding of 11 sports this year, the rugby team remained intact. It operates now on gate receipts. Forty girls make up the two squads and Dobson believes the program's future is safe.

"We got what we needed to get started," Dobson said. "I think even though it's a tough economic climate, the cost to play is minimal compared to other sports - you don't need expensive equipment or pads. I don't think it will be hard to keep it going because it's one of those sports that gets into your blood."

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Rugby is played at a fast pace with few stoppages and continuous possession changes. It requires the running of soccer, but is similar to football in many ways, except there is no forward passing. All 15 players on each side must be able to run, pass, kick and catch the ball, but they also must also be able to tackle and defend, making each position both offensive and defensive in nature.

Points are scored on either a 'try' or a goal. A try is when an attacking player is first to ground the ball in the opponents' in-goal, which is worth five points. After scoring a try, the team attempts a conversion goal, which is a place kick or drop kick on goal for two points. Regular goals, which can be scored through a drop kick, are worth three points.

The nature of the game, which has two 30-minute halves, makes it ideal as a start-up sport. Simply put, there's a spot for everyone.


I didn't expect as much contact and as much aggression, but I like it. ... You can take all your stress and anger out with it.
- Christina Kellerman, a senior at Sebastian (Fla.) River High School.

"Rugby is for all shapes and sizes," Kellerman said. "If you are bigger, you can play forward, where you don't have to run a lot and just need to have strength. If you are smaller and quick, you can play back. You still need strength, but it doesn't matter your size and shape, you can fit in somewhere."

Kellerman, who did not play sports at Sebastian River before joining the rugby team, now can't get enough of it. And even though her varsity career will end on Dec. 12, her rugby career will not.

Kellerman and teammates Amanda Martin, Elisa Cuellar and Amber Cook are members of the USA Rugby South Region U-19 team.

Dobson, who coached the Edinburgh University girls rugby team to the 2004 British University Sports Association championship, feels the growth of the game on the international level will help it catch on in the United States.

The biggest boost will come in 2016, when it will played in the Olympics.

"I absolutely believe it can grow, as long as other schools have forward-thinking athletic directors," Dobson said. "The fact it has become an Olympic sport will assist with the ability to get other schools involved, but until principals and athletic directors accept rugby as a viable sport, it will remain a club sport for the majority of communities."

Another boost could come from the college level.

"Athletes are driven to excel in sports they believe they can get scholarships," Dobson said. "Rugby is not in a position to offer scholarships, so there's no vested interest from the athletic community to promote it. Four colleges offer scholarships for girls to play rugby, and when that becomes more mainstream, there is no reason it can't become a girls sport at the high school level."

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The National Federation of State High School Associations does not list rugby as a state-sponsored interscholastic sport. USA Rugby's initiative aims to change that by encouraging schools to not settle for club-only participatory opportunities.

"Every state has vastly different procedures and requirements for elevating a sport to varsity status," Richeimer said. "We have a strategy that focuses on states that have favorable gender equity legislation and those that are actively seeking ways to increase athletic opportunities for both genders, and specifically looking to increase participation among girls."

The Colorado High School Activities Association discussed adding the sport at its Board of Control and Gender Equity meeting in April but tabled the idea for lack of interest among member schools, according to the committee report. The state has several club teams from the youth level on up.

New Jersey also has vibrant youth rugby leagues but nothing at the high school level.

For now, growth must be measured game-by-game, season-by-season. It appears to be doing just fine in Florida.

The sport has caught on at Sebastian River with more than just athletes. Matches have attracted as many as 500 fans, including plenty of male members of the student body.

"It vindicates it as a sport," Dobson said. "With fans coming out to watch, it shows they are happy to have the sport. The girls have gotten the local community to come out and support a sport that is not football."

In Florida, that may be the biggest victory of all.

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