Aki Kalamafoni is short – just short enough to dodge and weave through the other team’s players as they try to tackle her to the ground. She ducks and gets low while running through a maze of players, solely focused on the game and the ball she’s clutching.
For Helena Klein, one of the team’s tallest members, running through oncoming players is the name of the game. And afterwards, she and her teammates stop to compare who has the most bruises.
Not only are the girls on the Generals Eastside rugby team tough, they are good. Last year, they won the State Championship for Division II with ease, beating the McMinnville Valley Panthers 71-15. This was despite the fact that at times the team barely had enough players to fill the roster for games during the regular season.
Grant’s team is a little known gem within the community. It has grown in size and skill since it was formed five years ago by head coaches Eric Zimmerman and Jim Brown, but some say it still lacks the recognition it deserves.
They were unable to grab a spot in the yearbook last year next to the other club teams. “It was exciting winning last year, but we weren’t surprised to win or anything,” notes senior Courtney Kawamoto. Because of success last year, the team is moving up this year into Division I, the highest possible bracket for youth rugby in Oregon.
Zimmerman says that this year the girls will “go all the way. No doubt in my mind.”
“We were all starting at the same level. None of us had played before and we were all confused with the game. But that left us room to grow as a team and really become a unit,” says Bailie Bowey, the first captain for that team.
Bowey, Victoria Brown and a group of their fellow classmates became the heart and soul of the team. “Rugby was my niche in high school. It’s where I wanted to be,” says Bowey, who now attends George Fox University.
To the uninitiated, rugby might seem like a mad scramble, with players running in every direction and the ball flying all over. It’s a rough sport but there’s strategy to it. The game goes beyond the tackling with set plays to get the ball up the field within the intense chaos of play.
After most high school sports games, the players go their separate ways. But after each rugby game, both teams host a “social” that consists of a good meal, laughing, fun and bonding over the game they just played.
“Rugby is a physical, demanding sport, but despite the nature of the game the players are able to shake hands at the end of the match, share stories and eat food. It’s really one big family,” says Zimmerman.
Emily Richardson, a senior who is starting her second year on the team, says she loves the physicality of the game and “the way you ache at the end of a well played match, and you know you did a good job.”
Injuries are common in the sport of rugby. However, the misconceptions people hear about the harshness of the game are ill-informed, players say. “People are apprehensive about playing rugby in fear of getting their faces broken,” says player Charlee Mackey. “But it’s really not like that.”
“Zimmerman prides on our no-drama team,” says Kawamoto.
The coaches take the philosophy seriously. Last year, they had to ask a player to leave the team for illegally targeting people during and after a game in a way that involved dangerous playing and a sore attitude.
It was difficult in 2011 when the rugby team graduated 18 seniors, a staggeringly large number that left a severe hole in the group.
Mackey was a freshman during Victoria Brown and Bowey’s senior year, and once they had left the team, she “completely embraced the sport,” according to Bowey.
“I was glad that she had just the same amount of passion for the sport as I did,” says Bowey.
Mackey began learning more about the sport. “I mean, I read books about how to play,” she says with a laugh.
“Rugby is a complicated game with a lot of rules. It was frustrating not knowing what I was doing at first. But then I realized that just being out there with all of the fun people and having a good time with them was what it was all about,” she says.
Although the beginning was rough for her, with time she gained skill and knowledge of the game and came to fully understand it at the end of her first season. It was then that she realized that rugby was the sport for her.
Last year, Mackey dove in and became a leader for the team. “She has a lot of heart for the game. That’s why she’s the captain,” Zimmerman notes.
“Rugby is definitely my favorite thing in the world,” says Mackey.
One of her favorite aspects of being part of the team is the camaraderie and bonding. Mackey is known to wear pigtails to every game and every practice, and her trend has become somewhat notorious. For her birthday last year, the entire team wore pigtails to practice in honor of their captain. “It was actually one of the best days of my life,” laughs Mackey.
Mackey is now drawing attention from those at the national level. She was nominated to be evaluated for the high school national team for rugby that chooses the best players from Oregon, California and Washington. Mackey is currently training for tryouts that are this month, and says she is “excited, but it’s terrifying.”
This year the Grant’s rugby team is the biggest it’s ever been in its short history. “We don’t even have enough jerseys,” says Richardson.
In its first year in Division I, the team is training harder than ever. “The actual game is really fun, but any game wouldn’t be fun if the people weren’t cool,” says Mackey. “They are awesome.”