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Tara Van Ness talks first season as head coach of the Cougars, and the trip to the championship

HERALD FILE PHOTO: TANNER RUSS - Canby rugby is on the rise again, after a season that led to the league finals. Canby—For the Canby rugby team, it was a pretty successful year when it was all said and done. The team made it all the way to the league finals where they lost to the Beaverton Lady Barbarians for the second time. It was a close loss, 32-31 in favor of the eventual league champions, but a loss nonetheless. Despite that, Canby rugby coach Tara Van Ness was encouraged by her team's response in the immediate aftermath of the defeat.

"The end of the game after state, they were all so emotional about it and I think it was for their seniors because they lost the state game," Van Ness said. "It showed me that they cared. They weren't just happy to have made it that far. I think how emotionally invested and passionate they were shows me that they want to play."

Van Ness helmed the team for the first time this year. At 23 and a former rugby player herself, Van Ness did not expect to be a head coach, not initially anyway. But things fell into place, and Van Ness set about working on rebuilding a solid program.

"I didn't think in high school that I would be a coach," Van Ness said. "I thought it would be too difficult for me once I gave the sport up. But even my degree, exercise and sports science, it does touch on coaching. But I didn't think it would be something I'd want to do, but it's been a really good experience."

Van Ness is a former Canby rugby player herself. As a freshman and sophomore, she and her team won league titles, and in the twilight of her high school career the teams took second. To hear her say it, the program has lost steam in recent years, and Van Ness aims to put it back on track.

"My mentality going in was to clean up the program," Van Ness said. "It's been passed down from coach to coach to coach and I just wanted to focus on bringing the basics and the fun back to the sport. I think for a minute it started having a negative toll on it. I played in the program for four years and it was the best time of my high school career. It was my goal to emphasize you can be a working athlete and having fun at the same time. That was what I wanted to instill."

Van Ness fielded a team of 15 players by the time the final game of the season rolled around. Injuries, sicknesses, and other things kept the team from being as big as the first time coach would have liked, but Van Ness ended up making do in the 10's league.

Rugby is typically played with a seven or 15 person team, but due to the low numbers and amount of growing teams in the state of Oregon, Rugby Oregon has a 10-player league that Canby participated in. It was an interesting change for Van Ness, who had played on a 15-person team in high school.

"The way I learned was 15's, that element of the game," Van Ness said. "I had to adjust to certain training aspects. Mainly more fitness, and there's the scrum, and peeling off the scrums faster. A little bit of adjustment. It was also new to me too because the positions that we stripped were the positions that I played. It was a little ironic. I can't coach a position that I played."

Despite the fact that Van Ness's position specific expertise was out, she did well in helping mold the team into a championship contender. Van Ness drilled the basics of the game into her team, how to tackle safely, and participated in conditioning drills when turnout at practice was low. It was a very hands on approach for the young coach, and it worked out.

Led by senior captains Ashley Martin, Mia Mitchell, and Sarah Perez, the team showed improvement across the board. Van Ness specifically mentioned sophomore Leanne Doman as a source of outstanding improvement.

"Coming into the season it was her first year, and she was shy, timid, and at the end of it she was playing scrum half," Van Ness said. "That's a really strong leading position because you're organizing the whole field's backs and forwards. She did a great job. She spoke up, she led."

Another part of the job that Van Ness was able to handle was educating parents and prospective players about the popular international sport. Thanks to informational resources from Rugby Oregon and a preexisting knowledge of the game, the first year head coach was able to answer any questions promptly and without too much difficulty.

"(Rugby Oregon) has a pamphlet which would tell you all the positions, and all those parents would have access and knowledge about that," Van Ness said. "If they did want to further their knowledge, they'd be like, 'My daughter is wearing this number because in rugby the jersey number is associated with the position.' That was kind of nice. I personally did my best explaining if questions were asked."

When asked if Canby would make another title run, Van Ness was hesitant to give an answer. Not because she did not think her team was not talented enough or skilled enough; she simply did not know which league the team would end up in, and in the rough and tumble world of rugby, nothing is given freely.

"Depending if we're in the 10's or 15's bracket, this is where recruitment matters," Van Ness said. "We'll still have to earn our spot every year. It won't be something we're guaranteed. That's the nice thing about rugby, you always earn where you're at. It really does reflect on your hard work, you're not guaranteed anything. We will not just go in being top. But now people have an eye out, and we're making a comeback."

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