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Australian Rules football part rugby, part soccer, a bit of basketball/



COURTESY: PORTLAND STEELHEADS - Caleb Elliott (above) of the Portland Steelheads carries the ball in a recent Australian Rules Football tournament in Salem.If you happen to be strolling through Southeast Portland’s Clinton Park on a Sunday afternoon, you’ll probably catch a glimpse of the Portland Steelheads as they practice.

It isn’t fishing, and it isn’t rugby — it’s Australian Rules football.

At first glance, “footy” looks a lot like rugby. Players (18 to a side) are scattered all over the pitch, frantically throwing and kicking an oval-shaped ball with rounded ends. Footy players are quick to correct the instinctual comparison.

“It’s like soccer and rugby had a baby that they taught to play basketball,” says Heather Serpico, a member of the Portland Sockeyes, the Steelheads’ women’s team. “There are components of everything in there.”

Unlike its more physical counterpart, footy focuses on technicality and allows movement of the ball in any direction, using a kick or “hand pass.” The field has an oval shape rather than the rectangular fields of rugby and American football.

Standing on the sidelines as the men’s team goes through a practice, Serpico demonstrates a proper hand pass.

“You punch it between the stitches and the butt of the ball, and you’re trying to get a backspin on it,” Serpico says. “It’s fair play for anybody to tackle you, so hand passing is the way to move the ball to someone in a clearer position.”

Tackles are allowed below the shoulder and above the knee in footy, but you can’t go after someone unless they have the ball or they are going after it.

Scoring is (relatively) simple. Each end of the field has four posts — the middle two significantly taller than the others. Six points are awarded when the ball goes through the middle two posts, while one point is awarded if the ball goes between a middle post and a “behind” post on the end.

Make sense? Good. You’re ready to play footy, and the Steelheads and Sockeyes want you to play for them.

Will Sandman is president of the Steelheads and says the group is like one big, happy family.

“We’ve got a great group of guys that have known each other for a long time,” Sandman says. “We had a really good season last year, so it really brought us closer together — especially since we all travel together.”

The Steelheads play some 30 games a year; the season ordinarily runs from June to October. Home games usually are in Vancouver and Centralia, Washington, due to lack of a more-local regulation field, typically at least about 150 yards long and 120 yards wide. Common opponents include the Seattle Grizzlies, Golden Gate Roos, Sacramento Suns, Los Angeles Dragons, Orange Country Bombers and Denver Bulldogs.

Last season, the Steelheads won the club’s first-ever USAFL Division III national championship, defeating the Ohio Valley River Rats in the finale. Sandman and company utilized that success as a recruiting tool, and now almost 50 men (from about age 20 into the 50s) are playing for the Steelheads while the Sockeyes are up to 12 women on their roster.

Jarett Gilbert, in his first year with the Steelheads, was one of those recruits. Gilbert’s big personality and fun-loving attitude are contagious, with many of his teammates quick to smile and laugh along with him.

Gilbert says he moved to Portland this year with his fiancee and immediately ingrained himself with the Steelheads squad.

“I started out playing last year for the New York Magpies,” Gilbert says. “I trained with (the Steelheads) before nationals last season, and there’s just incredible camaraderie with this group. It makes training a pleasure to come to.”COURTESY: PORTLAND STEELHEADS - Jessica Blecher (right) of the Portland Sockeyes admires the championship trophy, as Cathy Hoha of the Minnesota Freeze shares in the local team's victory.

Gilbert isn’t the only transplant from the Magpies organization, either. Serpico also moved to Portland for work and helped start the women’s team that became the Sockeyes.

The Sockeyes recently had a big weekend in Salem, teaming up with members of the Minnesota Lady Freeze to capture the Western Regional Tournament

Both teams have Australian transplants, with 12 Aussies playing for the Steelheads and two for the Sockeyes.

Sandman lived in Melbourne for seven months in 2000, and says he did a colloquium in college on the history and rules of footy.

“I found out there was a U.S. league and started playing for Milwaukee,” Sandman says. “I played in Milwaukee for a couple of years, moved to Kentucky and played there for six years, and then I ended up in Portland.”

Gilbert’s introduction to the game was a bit more ... colorful. He says he found out about the game in an Aussie bar in Manhattan called The Sunburnt Cow.

“One night I stumbled in there, drunk, and it happened to be Grand Final night,” Gilbert says of the Australian Football League championship. “I saw the game on the TV and I was like, ‘This is awesome — I have to play this,’ so I contacted the Magpies and started playing.”

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Twitter: @RyanTClarke

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