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A new game in town

Girls rugby is catching fire in North Clackamas
by: JOHN LARIVIERE, Chelsea Pingo, one of the top backs for the North Clackamas Centaurs high school rugby team, fends off a defender during a recent scrimmage with Reynolds.

MILWAUKIE - There's a new game in town.

It's high school girls rugby. There are 31 girls from Milwaukie, Putnam and Clackamas high schools on a local team.

The team, the North Clackamas Centaurs, is only in its second year. But girls rugby is so new in the state that the Centaurs have quickly become one of the most successful programs.

'Last year our team was mostly freshmen and sophomores who had never played before and we didn't win a game,' said Centaurs assistant coach Hollie Petrie. 'Now we've got some players with experience, and we've got seniors on the team.'

The Centaurs are but one of 10 high school girls teams in the state, and they'll likely finish second in their five-team league, with a 3-1 record. Their overall record is 6-2.

'It's really rewarding to see the girls have success at something they probably weren't expecting to have much success at,' said Centaurs head coach Randi Ross.

The Centaurs lost this year's opener 35-0 to West Linn, the three-time defending state champion. Oregon has had high school girls rugby for seven years and the Lions sport one of the veteran programs, having been around for six of the first seven seasons.

Since the early loss to West Linn, the Centaurs have earned league wins over Reynolds (35-0), Westside (32-0) and Columbia County (12-5).

Their only loss, besides the early loss to West Linn, came in an exhibition game with a team from Washington, where Ross substituted freely.

'The first time we played West Linn, we had some girls missing, plus we had some new girls who had never played before,' said Ross. 'If we pull together as a team and play as a team, I think we have a shot at beating West Linn [in the state playoffs]….

'From last year to this year our improvement is just insane. Our goal is to win state.'

The team is made up of girls with vast differences in background and ability. A third of the players have never played any sport before. For others, it's just the intrigue of trying something new.

'I like the physical part of it,' said Putnam junior Autumn Swensen. 'I never played another sport, because it was just not enough. I thought rugby would be like football, only without pads. Once I tried it, I loved it….

'I've never been a part of anything before where you are a part of a team. My teammates are like sisters….

'I scored once, and it's really exciting. I love the game. It's just great!'

Milwaukie High junior Jen Prowell, who has played other sports, says that rugby is now her favorite sport.

'I love my team,' she said. 'I love the contact. I love how it incorporates football and soccer. It's right in-between.'

Prowell, who has taken advanced placement classes since she was a freshman and is an honor student, has had it in her mind for years that she'd like to join the Air Force after high school.

'I love our country and would love to support it, plus there's the traveling,' she said. 'But if I could go to college and play rugby, that would definitely kick out Air Force.'

Prowell has taken to rugby like a duck to water. Last year, her first year playing the sport, she made the Oregon All-Star team, and last fall she played for Repside, an all-star youth team that competed against college teams.

Chelsey Pingo, a senior at Putnam, gave up fast-pitch softball after playing the sport for 13 years so that she could play rugby.

It's an

adrenalin rush

'It's my senior year and I just wanted to try something new,' she said. 'I love it. It's by far my favorite sport so far…

'It's the adrenalin rush. It's a pretty intense sport. It's action all the time, and I love that.'

Pingo has also played soccer and basketball for years.

'I'm excited! I want to win state!' said Pingo, who plans to continue playing rugby for a women's club team while she attends Portland Community College.

For some, like Pingo, the attraction is the nonstop action. Teams play 35-minute halves, where the action continues, uninterrupted, except for penalties and serious injuries.

'We get kids who've come off the bench as the 10th or 11th player in basketball,' said Ross. 'They're not starters [in basketball]. But they've got decent athletic ability. They come out for rugby and find themselves the star player….

'With 15 positions on the field, we've got positions for girls of very different skill sets. There are positions where someone who is big and slow can be really successful. We also have spots for the fast, speedy girl. Even the girl who's teeny, tiny, we've got a spot for her.'

'Basically, we've got two sets of players,' said Ross. 'Forwards, who do the grunt work and win the ball, and backs who are speedier and good ball handlers.'

The game of rugby has similarities to football, except for the continuous play, even after a tackle. Teams may advance the ball by running with it, through a lateral pass, and by kicking it with their feet. But no forward passes are allowed.

Play may resume after a penalty through a scrum, where eight players from each team battle for possession.

Five points are awarded for a try, where a player touches the large football-shaped ball down in the end zone; a conversion following a try is two points; and three points are scored for a penalty kick that splits the uprights.

Teams have 15 players on the field at one time, drawing from a maximum roster of 22 players.

'If you're subbed off the field [usually because of an injury], you can't come back,' Petrie noted.

Much of practice time is spent working on ball handling - catching the ball and passing.

With the nonstop action, the sport requires pretty good conditioning. The North Clackamas team has been practicing after school every weekday since Jan. 21.

New programs

get a helping hand

Rugby Oregon, a non-profit organization that began promoting high school rugby in the state in 1999, helps new programs get a jump-start when they are forming teams.

Dues of $160 per player can be paid online, and they cover rugby shorts, socks, a mouth guard, rugby ball, referees, team supplies and equipment, secondary insurance, field usage fees, membership in USA Rugby and even some after-game refreshments.

'They also gave us jerseys our first season, to help get us started,' said Ross.

Host teams are required to treat the visiting players to 'a meal' following a game.

'When we sat down to eat [with our opponent] following our first game, I thought it was amazing,' said Prowell. 'You play so aggressively on the field, and then you sit down and eat with them. It's something you don't do in most sports. I've made a lot of friends.'

Rugby Oregon's website is www.rugbyoregon.org. High school girls interested in the sport can contact Ross through the website.

Ross, who grew up in Canada, said she plans to fund-raise and take her North Clackamas team to play in British Columbia next season.

She'd like to get a big enough turnout next season to support both a varsity and jayvee team, and perhaps someday have a big enough turnout to support teams at all three North Clackamas high schools.

This year's team sports 15 players from Milwaukie, 12 from Putnam, three from Clackamas and one from Portland Community College. Twenty of the 31 players on the team are underclassmen.

The North Clackamas Centaurs have an exhibition game with Eugene tentatively scheduled for Alder Creek Middle School at noon on Saturday, April 12.

They'll take part in the eight-team state playoffs Saturday and Sunday, April 19-20, vying for a spot in the state finals, which are scheduled for Delta Park on Saturday, April 26.