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The first big hit: Rugby takes hold in Columbia County

The Columbia County Crusaders, who jumped into the national rankings in March of this season, are bringing the sport of rugby into the local limelight


by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Kayleigh Horecky of Warren tries to break a tackle during the Crusaders' game against Battle Ground on April 19. Jumping into a full-contact sport like rugby can be difficult for some players, but head coach Ashley Baggett says all it takes is the first big tackle and they're hooked.Most little kids that step in to the sporting world at a young age dream of making that highlight play everyone remembers years down the road. Johnny can visualize scoring the game-winning touchdown, Suzie practices for the moment she'll hit the walk-off home run in the league championship. In the last few decades, kids have begun working soccer into their futures, competing with football, baseball and basketball for their attention.

But rarely will a child approach their parents with the words “Mom, I think I'd like to play rugby.”

Rugby, you say? Isn't that the Australian sport similar to football where they run around without pads? Nah, that's far too dangerous. Pick something else, something we know more about.

These are common perceptions when it comes to rugby: violent, played by massive Samoan men using a funny shaped ball, something about South Africa, crazed fans singing ‘ole ole' and somewhere, an announcer with a thick Aussie accent.

That's rugby in the American eye. It's a fringe sport, and a way for foreigners to make fun of American Football for being soft. Most have never seen a match, couldn't describe how the game is played and wouldn't be able to pick out a rugby ball from among the rest.

As it turns out, a shift in the country's sports culture may be about to happen, with a piece of the change happening in Columbia County's backyard. A pair of teams, both boys and girls, have been making strides in recent years in partnership with one of the country's most successful rugby organizations, Rugby Oregon.

The association, which oversees rugby from as young as third and fourth grade up through high school, was started in 1999 and has grown to include teams in three different high school leagues across Oregon and southwest Washington. There are as many as 1,500 athletes stepping into the game of rugby, and that number is set to grow.

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Kayla Letherman (left) makes a tackle during Columbia County's game with Battle Ground on April 19. Leatherman is a junior at St. Helens High School, and is part of a mixed roster featuring girls from across the county.Ashley Baggett, head coach of the Columbia County Crusaders, the local girls' team, has seen the league step up their efforts to educate kids on the excitement and sportsmanship of rugby, attempting to both break the stereotypes and raise the level of awareness in the state's youth.

One of the biggest concerns, first and foremost, is safety. It's a constant topic of conversation at practices and in meetings between coaches before and after the season, and coaches spend countless hours teaching players the safest ways to tackle and be tackled. In rugby, especially at the high school level, players aren't allowed to make contact above the shoulders without receiving a penalty, and plays deemed ‘dangerous' by the referee are instantly blown dead and can result in a yellow or red card.

In addition, the point of a rugby tackle is simply to bring the offensive player to the ground, unlike in football where players are allowed to slam into each other in an attempt to knock the ball out and force a fumble. In rugby, the play doesn't stop when a tackle is made. The ball is simply rolled or passed out of the tackle to the offensive player's teammate, and play continues.

Baggett's education efforts on safety are the biggest topic she brings to the table when discussing with hesitant parents, and she says the additional training and stringent rules have resulted in less concussions in rugby than in a typical football season. The sport's reputation of violence, too, is often misconstrued. Many of the injuries that happen often occur off the pitch, said Baggett, and are a result of horseplay or simple freak accidents.

Full contact, especially for a freshman who might have only played in little league or youth soccer, can be intimidating, but Baggett says it's only a matter of time before the sport's in-your-face nature becomes normal.

“Some of the girls who are more confident in themselves and are more athletic have an easier transition into full contact than some of the others,” said Baggett. “Once they get the technique down, once they make their first big tackle, that's when it really comes together for them.”

The biggest challenge, though, has been getting deeper exposure for the sport and finding players who are interested in joining the growing program. Baggett herself didn't get a start with rugby until the local boys' team, the Columbia County Operators, were started in 2003. She picked up the sport quickly, making the club team at Oregon State University and playing there until 2007, where she returned as an assistant for the Operators.

In 2010, Baggett stepped into the head coaching position for the girls' program, and it's been a wild ride ever since. The team has built up over the last two seasons, now boasting 26 members and nine seniors, winners of their first four matches. They've even garnished national attention with a No. 23 national ranking by www.rugbymag.com, and are looking for new inroads to continue their expansion.

The team members do all the recruiting, searching out in their schools and among their friends for interested athletes to join in what is quickly becoming a strong and vast interest in the Portland area. Locally, where the team participates in several community service projects as a way to be a role model and better teammates and community members, there's been an effort to invest in the younger generation. The hope is that interest at the youth level will feed into the high school programs, bolstering numbers and raising awareness in the parents of the youth.

“Last year, I had two girls go into St. Helens Middle School and introduce rugby in P.E.,” said Baggett. “It was a great way for the girls to do community service and it was a great way for the middle schoolers to actually see what rugby was and get that hands on experience.”

Columbia County has a pair of home matches remaining in the season, including April 26 against Cleveland and May 3, hosting North Clackamas. The state tournament begins on May 10 at Delta Park in North Portland. All home matches are played at Scappoose Middle School at 11 a.m.