Summit girl’s rugby players bring drills, enthusiasm to local elementary school students

Leo Wolfson
Special to the Daily

In America, rugby is hardly a mainstream sport like basketball or football. But, through the success of the Summit High School girl’s rugby team and CATCH afterschool program, it’s slowly gaining steam in Summit County.

“We never had anything like this when I was growing up here,” Summit High School girl’s rugby captain Meg Rose said. CATCH, an after-school program operated by the Keystone Science Center and BreckRec, focuses on providing active learning opportunities for children, from rugby to outdoor education.

Seeing an opportunity to help the community while growing their sport, Summit rugby decided to add one more piece to the puzzle. The team — a club program separate from typical high school varsity sports — recently partnered with CATCH and the Summit Lake Dillon Optimists to run rugby clinics at local Summit elementary schools.

The clinics line up with the CATCH vision — helping local children maintain an active lifestyle — while teaching kids a thing or two about the sport of rugby. The Optimists run a number of youth sports programs in the area and help support the rugby camps financially, including a number of kid’s-sized rugby balls.

“It was just another opportunity to add more rugby to the community,” soon-to-be Summit High senior and clinic coach Jodi Losch said. “We all kind of jumped into it.”

Her teammates regularly practice after school, and the youth camps were another way to spread their knowledge at a convenient time.

“It’s just great to give them a good environment to be in,” Summit rugby player Natalie Gray said.

New sport, new enthusiasm

Each individual clinic was held late during the school year and drew 20 to 30 elementary schoolers per session, ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade. Almost none of the kids knew what rugby was — or how to play it.

Since each clinic was held at a different school and with a new batch of kids, pressure was on for the Summit rugby girls to coach effectively. They essentially ran the show, and every CATCH staff member I talked to thought they did incredible as coaches.

“It was a great intro to a new team sport,” said Lizzie Meyer, the community programs director for the Keystone Science School. “The girls were super energetic and ready to go, even coming off Nationals the day before.”

Growing up in Maine, Gray participated in an after-school program similar to CATCH and says it led to the healthy habits that fuel her athletic lifestyle.

“Even if we’re not exactly playing rugby they’re having fun,” she said. “They’re getting introduced to the sport and it’s just a great activity for them.”

Learning from the best

Having fun was a big part of the clinics, but the coaches didn’t sacrifice organization and discipline. Each clinic kicked off with a lesson on rugby basics. After that, kids were critiqued on passing and running with the ball. Many drills were similar to those the high school team does in their own practices, only rearranged for younger kids.

As I watched the kids fling oval-shaped balls across the gym at Dillon Valley Elementary, I noticed everyone making progress. But most evident were the smiles.

“I think it’s great for her, and, being a single mother, I need to have someone watching her after school,” one clinic parent said and continued explaining as her 7-year-old rammed into her stomach. “Rugby’s the perfect sport for her — she’s my little bulldozer.”

Lineouts for all

One of the biggest highlights of the clinic was practicing sidelines throw-ins, which in rugby is known as a lineout. A typical lineout involves two opposing teams lining up with shoulders parallel to face the line and ball tosser. When the ball is thrown in, teammates lift each other on their shoulders to grab the pass.

At the clinics, the group practiced this almost exactly as they would perform it in a game: coaches lifted kids onto their shoulders amid whoops and hollers from the exuberated children.

“Weeks after they were there, they (the kids) were still talking about it being like, ‘When can we do this again?” Meyer said.

Elementary breeding grounds

Summit rugby hopes the clinics become a launching pad for future introductory youth camps and a possible “kick, pass, punt” competition this summer. Although it’s not a driving motivation, the team also hopes that these camps help sustain and even grow the Summit rugby program. The high school girl’s team is fresh off a second-place performance at Nationals a few weeks ago, not to mention eight straight state championships. The current captains make no secret that they want to continue their dynasty.

“You see the new talent coming up,” Gray said. “We’ve got a couple very talented kids.”

And rugby isn’t just for the girls anymore. This past spring, the high school launched a boy’s rugby club team. They struggled in their first season, but the fact that there were just as many boys as girls at the youth clinics is a promising sign.

However, all of that’s many years down the road, so, for now, Summit rugby is concerned with helping local kids stay active. If there’s a rugby in their hands while doing-so, that’s just an added bonus.

“If these kids just go out and be healthy, awesome,” longtime head coach Karl Barth said. “If they play rugby, great. If these kids play soccer, tennis, go snowshoeing, that’s what it’s about — different ways to be healthy and have fun with your friends. When they get to high school (and) they say, ‘I like this or that better,’ hopefully they say rugby’s fun.”

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