June 4, 2010

Teens help keep rugby alive in Illinois

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - It's 4:30 p.m. and Darryl Sorenson, 17, is late for practice.

He jogs to the sidelines, rubbing his hand.

"Do you have any tape?" he asks coach Jim Carlberg. "I don't want to get blood everywhere."

"How'd you hurt yourself already?" Carlberg responds in mild disbelief, examining the teenager's hand.

"Punched a wall," Darryl says dryly.

"Well, get out there and get it out of your system," Carlberg says with a laugh and directs his player to another coach.

Darryl runs onto the field and into a melee of teenage boys, who are punting what looks like a funny-shaped football and tackling each other into heaps.

The sturdy, aggressive boys tackling each other on this windy, early May afternoon in Springfield, Ill., are rugby players.

But on other days, most are wrestlers, football players and track stars with worried coaches at a smattering of area high schools.

But after just one season of playing rugby?

"Hands down, best sport," 17-year-old Xavier Schroeder said. The Mohawk-sporting Springfield (Ill.) Lanphier senior has played practically every competitive sport and is committed to stick with rugby until, he says, he's confined to a wheelchair.

Xavier, Darryl and the rest of the 17 teenage players make up the area's first high school rugby team - the Junior Celts.

Rugby is described sometimes dismissively, by non-ruggers as American football without pads. It features tackling, an oblong ball and touchdowns. But the sport grew from soccer. Rugby players don't leave the field when possession of the ball changes, and the action doesn't stop nearly as often as in football.

The near-constant action keeps the attention of the 19 high school boys who have plenty of other distractions, and keeps them coming back each week for two-hour, twice-a-week practices and weekend matches in Peoria, Bloomington, the Chicago suburbs and other Illinois cities with a stronger rugby presence.

The Junior Celts were held scoreless in their first game.

"It doesn't matter," said 18-year-old Danny Walsh of Athens. "We still have fun."

Rugby likely gets its rough first impression from the players' lack of protection. Some players wear helmets, but the headgear can't be any thicker than 10 millimeters. Other than that, players just wear shorts, socks, a jersey and spiked shoes.

"(Rugby) blows testosterone out of the water," Carlberg said. "People who run long distance get a runner's high, and people who wrestle get a different high. Rugby takes all of those highs and puts them into one sport. It tends to make some people think they are bulletproof."

For a little more than 25 years, Carlberg has been a member of the Springfield Celts - the high school players' adult counterpart. To build awareness for a sport that -like soccer -is far more popular abroad, he's looking for some kids to carry the team forward.

One of the youngest Springfield Celts is 24-year-old Josh Downing. He's a standout on the men's team who helps coach the teens. But the Greenview resident who played rugby while attending Southern Illinois University Carbondale is leaving the Celts soon to try to play professionally in Ireland.

The teens clearly look up to Downing, hanging on his advice during practice and feeding off his love of the game.

"On the pitch, it's war out there. It's elegant violence," Downing said. "But as soon as it's over, you shake everybody's hand and go out and eat and drink together."

But a few victories would be welcome. The Springfield Celts haven't won in about two years. For the second time in 10 years, the team is struggling with an older roster. In 2000, the club shut down for about six months to figure out how to attract a younger group.

Carlberg continues trying to introduce more people in the Springfield area to the game, convinced that they'll love it. In addition to coaching the Junior Celts, he is introducing flag rugby to area elementary and middle schools and recently visited Williamsville (Ill.) High to teach rugby to the school's girls.

With rugby returning to the Summer Olympics in 2016, youth interest in rugby today could lead to increased popularity later, Carlberg said.

Dominique Stewart, Danny Walsh, Anthony Brady, Joe Burks and Xavier Schroeder are five teenage rugby players Carlberg has recruited in the past year for the Junior Celts. They represent three high schools, and between them they have competed in football, track, swimming and wrestling.

"After one practice, I fell in love with it," said Dominique, an 18-year-old Lanphier senior.

After just one season, the boys are committed to the twice-a-week practices and weekly games and hold a matter-of-fact understanding of what the sport's about.

"You don't need any skill at all," Xavier said. "Just have to have a drive."

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