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Rough and tumble: Bemidji State women’s rugby team makes strides

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If you’ve never seen a rugby match — that is to say, you wouldn’t know a ruck from a hooker — don’t worry: Most of the members of the Bemidji State Women’s Rugby Club started out the same way.

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Count club president Katelyn Arnold among the converts.

“There’s nothing really like it, and people don’t really grow up playing it,” said Arnold, a BSU junior who started playing last season.

“Most of us started out as completely new and grew to love it. Unless you come try, and play it yourself, there’s no way to explain what it’s like.”

Indeed, the rulebook doesn’t always make sense to American eyes used to football. What’s a scrum? How does scoring work? What are the positions?

The players on the team (known as the Ballistic Beavers) are hoping to change that — especially after going 5-2 and winning a state title last season. They’ve moved up a division for this year.

“I mean, it can be intense,” BSU junior Lisa Justin said. “But we encourage everybody to come and give it a try. Nobody really knows what to expect the first time. They’ll probably be surprised.”

Controlled violence

There’s an old British saying: “Football (soccer) is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans. Rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”

While rugby’s roots as a gentleman’s game in the United Kingdom are largely gone, the “hooligan’s game” remains true.

Lots of tackling, no pads, bodies diving on the ground every 30 seconds. It can often look like chaos to the outsider.

“When I told my family I was playing last year I got a lot of head shakes,” Arnold said. “My mom told me I was going to get hurt.”

But now that they’ve seen it?

“They like it a little better now,” Arnold said with a laugh.

That’s often how newcomers react.

“Rugby is so out of the norm that people are scared,” said Kelly Sandhofer.

A freshman, she joined the same way everybody else did — the club had a booth during orientation activities the first day of school. She was intrigued.

The former hockey player must have seen the skull and crossbones artwork on the cover of the rulebook the team carried during those first weeks.

“Most high schools don’t have it so people don’t really know anything about it,” she said. “They just see there are no pads and lots of violence. Most of the girls say, ‘Hey, let’s try out this new sport.’”

The game looks, to many Americans, like a more primitive version of football. There’s no forward pass — think lots of laterals on a kickoff — and points are scored by either crossing an opponent’s goal line or kicking the oval ball through uprights.

There’s more nuance than that, of course, but first impressions are often daunting.

Even watching the team practice can be an exercise in pain — every tackle, even at half speed, makes one’s spine shiver.

“That’s the thing though,” Justin said. “Once you learn the game and see that it’s not just chaos, learn the proper techniques and everything, it’s easy.”

Of the 18 listed on the roster this season, 12 are new players.

“It’s pretty much a whole new team this year,” said junior Donna Wicker. “Last year, we were really good but we still have a lot of turnover from year-to-year.

“We’re hoping this year we can get girls to commit.”

low funding, lots of success

Despite a roster full of eager (or at least, morbidly curious) newcomers each year — and despite being almost entirely self-funded — the six-year-old club finally started to earn some respect.

The Beavers finished 5-2 overall in Division III, won the Minnesota state small college championship and made it all the way to the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) region tournament before losing to eventual national champion Wayne State. They finished as the No. 10 team in the nation in Division III.

This season, BSU moves up to Division II. Aside from doubling the amount of regular season games — from four to at least eight — BSU also plays tougher competition.

The women move from the Golden Prairie conference (and facing the likes of Concordia, Minnesota Morris and Minnesota State Moorhead) to the Division II Northern Lights Collegiate Conference with teams such as Winona State, North Dakota State and St. Cloud State.

The BSU men’s team — which is two years older — has been playing in Division II for slightly longer.

“I think last season kind of opened a few eyes,” Wicker said. “It can still be hard to keep players around but now we’re moving up a division and playing more games.”

One of the problems, the players say, is funding.

The university doesn’t pay for much — if anything — so the team has to improvise. They pay for their own travel expenses to and from games and have to buy much of their own equipment.

They also can’t afford a full-time coach. Usually members of the men’s team fill in on game day.

“We’d really like to get sponsored through the school,” Arnold said. “We’d love to be able to pay a coach, even part-time.”

Most of the schools in their Division II conference are funded, at least in part, by their schools.

The Beavers recently had their first taste of Division II competition earlier this month against Winona State. WSU, one of the top teams in the conference, won big. But senior captain Megan Ehrnriter said it was eye-opening for the BSU players.

“They’re sponsored through the school,” she said of Winona. “You can tell that they have the funding. They have a coach and the school pays for their uniforms and stuff.

“They’re a really good team, though. And we think we can be at their level at some point now that we have the chance to compete with them.”

Of the eight regular season games on the schedule this year, BSU has two more home games: Sept. 28 against St. Cloud State and Oct. 12 against Minnesota Duluth. The team plays its home games at the Boys and Girls Club Field.

“We’d like people to just come and watch,” Wicker said. “I think when they do they’ll be into it. We’re always looking for more players and fans. And I think once you get into it, it’s hard to stop.”

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Jack Hittinger
Jack Hittinger is a sports reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on Bemidji State but also covering area high schools. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at http://thebeaverblog.areavoices.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.
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