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Huddled together in the scrum, arms locked and legs intertwined, the players on the field formed what looked like a giant spider. With the simple words "ready" and "engage," the game commenced and the giant spider began walking slowly and deliberately down the field. Soon an egg-shaped ball came rolling out from underneath the mass. Then, within seconds, the scrum formation exploded apart. The players scattered across the grass to their positions and, from that moment on, the action was fast, intense and non-stop. The ball and the players were in continuous motion, and the first half of the She-Wolves' game was under way.
Fiercely dedicated, ferociously competitive and more tightly-knit than most families, the She-Wolves are Colorado Springs' first and only women's rugby club. Formed in the fall of 1996, the She-Wolves currently rank second among the four women's clubs in Colorado that comprise the Eastern Rockies Rugby Football Union. And with 24 members on the roster and more athleticism and talent on the team than ever before, the She-Wolves' goal of ruling the state women's rugby circuit is not unrealistic.
Fresh from a Mardi Gras tournament in New Orleans where the team walked away with a pre-season fourth place finish (out of nine teams), the pack was out at the Air Force Academy over the weekend for another warm-up scrimmage. During the warm-up, they seemed oblivious to the crisp morning air and the increasing winds. Their concentration was absolutely undeterred and the collective energy level was audibly and visibly high.
Rugby combines the skills and styles of soccer, football, lacrosse and field hockey. There are 15 players per team on the field at one time. The game consists of two 40-minute halves, with no time outs except for injuries and the regulation 5-minute half time. The objective is to move the ball forward by either running it or kicking it, and points are scored by physically touching the ball down in the "try zone" (like an end zone).
Keeping up with She-Wolves head coach Lisa Rosen during the game was difficult, as she followed the action and her players from one end of the field to the other. "The game is about keeping the ball in motion, continuous play ... keeping the game going," she explained.
Rosen has been coaching the team full-time for three years. One of the founding members of the She-Wolves, she began playing Rugby in college in 1983. "I wasn't allowed to play sports in high school. My parents wanted me to concentrate on my grades. When I got to college, I guess I rebelled and picked the most extreme sport I could find. After my first game, I had to literally roll out of bed because I couldn't move. But I absolutely loved it and have played ever since."
Rosen's story is a variation on a theme. Many team members began playing rugby in or just out of college. Several were former soccer players. Others were field hockey players. Some had no athletic background at all. But after their first game, war stories or not, all were hooked.
So what exactly is it that drives these athletes to near obsession?
After the game, the team reconvened at Old Chicago. Despite the fact that they'd lost by one play, spirits were high. Rosen talked up the highlights of the game as well as things to work on for next time.
The She-Wolves were missing a few key players, leaving them short on the field Saturday. The Air Force team loaned them three players, a common practice in rugby. "There's great camaraderie in rugby, not just on the team, but between teams too," said one player. "This is one of the few sports where your opponents will lend you players, and then drink with you afterwards."
According to the She-Wolves, rugby is 100 percent a team sport. There are no individual superstars. "Every player on the field has a purpose and a function," said Wendy Motch, who has played rugby for six years. "When you've been playing with a team for a while, you eventually learn how everyone plays and how to make things flow out there. You also become protective of your teammates ... and learn when and how to help them out."
Rugby is definitely a contact sport, and the She-Wolves definitely play a physical game. That is another draw for these athletes. "Typically, women don't play contact sports," said four-year veteran Jolene Hanson. "But you really get a sense of empowerment and great self-esteem. I'll always remember the strength that this game has given me."
Most of the other players concur, adding that the physical element of rugby is part of what drives them to play the game and above all, the foundation for their camaraderie.
"You play your heart out, get all these bruises, help out your friends ... it just brings us all closer together," said Cecelia Richardson, who's played the sport since 1994.
"It's interesting," added Rosen. "Sometimes really sheepish women come out for the sport. And you can see a change in them after just a few games."
At 42 years of age, Dana Davi is the oldest player on the team. She has played sports for most of her life, and decided to try rugby because it looked fun and challenging. "It is definitely physically demanding. But it keeps me in shape and it keeps my mind young. It is one of the most complex games I've ever played."
"People think rugby is just for thugs and meatheads," chimed in team founder Amy Rusert. "But it's also truly a strategist's game. It's like a chess game on the field."
Rusert, who looks like your typical soccer mom, is a former field hockey player. She picked up the sport after college and, with the exception of maternity leave, has been playing for the last six years.
She has seen many changes in women's rugby since she, Rosen and three other veteran members founded the team, most significantly the development of high school and collegiate programs.
"Those programs encourage growth in the sport and bring in higher levels of athleticism," Rusert explained. "Kids are starting to play at younger ages."
Kelly Robinson is one of those kids. At 17, she is the youngest member of the team. After playing soccer for ten years, she decided to try rugby. "I just wanted something different," she said. "It's a much faster game than soccer, and a lot of fun."
Rusert sees the sport continuing to grow, but stressed that two things are still needed: First, the NCAA needs to give rugby more recognition at the collegiate level, and, second, there needs to be more acknowledgment of women's full-contact sports.
According to Rusert, when the team first began there was a very modest response. "Now we have depth and have developed great talent. We all come from different walks, but are here for the same reason. I can retire happy in a few years."
She-Wolves Upcoming Home Games
All games at Bear Creek Park, 21st Street and Argus
March 10: Snow Flurry Festival, hosting six other Colorado teams
March 24: vs. Fort Collins
March 31: vs. Black Ice (from Denver)
For up-to-date times and a complete schedule of She-Wolves games, go to www.shewolves.org, or call 630-8738.