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Renegade rugby team features local stars

by: Tracie Krellwitz, 
Zchonae Jones, far left, looks for running room around the right end during the Renegades’ state championship game against Canby. The Renegades, which are based in West Linn but feature several Lake Oswego and Lakeridge players, won that title game by a 30-10 score. The Renegades then advanced to the national tournament, where they beat Canby again and wound up with a No. 9 national ranking.

It is a physical, aggressive demanding sport and one in which the majority of Americans couldn't even spout off its basic rules of play. But, over the past five years, the West Linn Renegades have been nothing short of dominant at it.

Last May, the Renegades, which features a handful of Lake Oswego and Lakeridge High School students, won its fourth consecutive state championship, earned a trip to nationals, and won the plate division at the tournament in Milwaukee, Wisc.

The team has been virtually untouchable against Oregon opponents, so much so that the Renegades went the entire season without being scored upon, up until the state title match against Canby.

The program has already come a long way in just five years. When it began, the Renegades had 11 girls come out for its inaugural team.

Now the program boasts 45 players, enough for two teams. Rugby, as a popular sport for high school athletes, is still in its infant stages in Oregon, but that is starting to change as well.

'I'm very surprised with what it's become. I think we keep it simple. We don't make winning state titles our focus. We work on developing skills and having fun,' said coach Ernie Espinoza, who just finished his first year as the head coach of the Renegades.

This year, the state had 10 organized girls teams and 30 total teams, including boys' squads, the most it has fielded yet and the Renegades are the class of that group.

When lacrosse was just getting off the ground in Oregon, West Linn boasted some of the first and most successful teams in the state and that is the case with rugby as well.

However, unlike high school lacrosse, in which the girls game is far less physical than the boys, the rugby rules are virtually identical for both sides.

It is that physical and aggressive style of play that has made rugby and appealing sport for Renegades players.

'We have a number of girls who I think have always been rugby players trapped in the body of a soccer player. It's very physical and I think the girls either love it instantly or find out quickly that they're not cut out for it,' Espinoza said.

The team practices four days a week, starting in January, working on basic skills and organization. The Renegades pride themselves on their organization and ability to communicate on the field.

'Organization is the key to rugby. If you're just watching it can look pretty chaotic but, especially at the higher levels, you have to be very patient,' Espinoza said.

The Renegades compete in roughly 15 matches a year, including tournaments and now the difficulty has become finding another opponent that can give the team a competitive game.

In recent years, the Renegades have squared off in preseason battles against Kent, Wash., one of the premiere rugby teams in the country. The Pacific Northwest as a whole is viewed as arguably the most competitive region in the nation.

The team's dominance shows in the scores it puts up. In the playoffs alone, the Renegades were rarely tested. In a quarterfinal match against North Clackamas, the Renegades won 83-0. Then, in the semifinals, the team bested Westside 31-0, setting up a championship showdown with Canby.

'It's kind of weird because now we know that every week there is a target on us. If a team beats us, that's like winning state for them,' Espinoza said.

Canby, a first-year team, became the only Oregon team to score on the Renegades, but they stayed focused and won 30-10.

'Mentally, we were ready for them. Canby is a very big team and we knew they would be tough but we were able to limit their tries and stick to our game plan,' Espinoza said.

The Renegades followed up that performance by taking third place in the Northwest regionals to earn another berth at nationals.

At the tournament, the Renegades had little trouble against a squad from Wisconsin and another from Georgia and, as luck would have it, those victories set up another match with Canby for the Plate Division title.

The fact that those teams emerged out of the bracket clearly shows how competitive the Northwest is at high school rugby. Once again the Renegades came out on top to claim victory. With the win, West Linn found itself ranked ninth in the entire country.

A number of former Renegade rugby players have gone on to compete in college as well. Currently, a former player is on Stanford's team which has been the top-ranked team in the nation for the past few years.

In the future, Espinoza hopes that rugby will continue to grow in popularity the way that lacrosse has and that, eventually, the majority of high schools will each have their own programs.

'That's the big picture. I just hope it continues to grow because it's a great sport,' Espinoza said.

Until then, the Renegades will just have to be satisfied with being the most dominant team in the state.