They gathered slowly and some remained tentative, afraid to commit. A few of the gathered youths switched between English and their native language from the Marshall Islands as a coach encouraged them to take part.
Within moments, all the youths had flags draped from their waists and they ran for their lives. They laughed and flung the ball to teammates as they tasted their first thrill of rugby on the cold grass at Andrew Rypien Field.
A big kid, who had no business knifing through the defense, bulled his way through the team of all Marshallese players, many of whom played with bare feet, and scored a try.
“What was that?” one of the first-time rugby players yelled at his teammate who missed the tackle.
On the next play, one of the Marshallese players tossed the ball behind his back to a teammate, who scored untouched.
“Let’s go. Let’s go,” the passer said as he celebrated.
“These boys are loving it,” said Brett Rademacher, who is helping the Spokane Youth Sports Association introduce rugby to the local kids. “The play is a little sloppy. I don’t play all the rules. I just get them running.”
Rich Nay, who plays for the Spokane Men’s Rugby Club, said he’s seen several of the Marshallese boys playing basketball and had asked them to try rugby. But they had none of it.
Things changed when a Rademacher email was handed to Jason Anderson, who works with Communities in Schools, which is part of a national-dropout prevention initiative. Anderson works with Spokane’s large number of Marshallese students, who he said are reluctant to try out for organized sports.
Anderson recently hosted an information meeting and 22 of the Marshallese students showed up.
“These guys want to be in full contact as soon as possible,” Anderson said. “They have a lot of athletic ability. But they have to learn to crawl before they can run.”
But Nay, Rademacher and others make that easy.
“Soccer is all footwork. They don’t have those skills yet,” Nay said. “Rugby is user friendly for younger kids. Everybody gets to run the ball. There is more involvement, more enthusiasm.”
Nay then turned toward the ongoing game.
“They are having a blast out there,” he said.
Austin Allen, a 16-year-old senior at Rogers High School, agreed.
“It’s just really fun,” he said. “Jason (Anderson) brought us all together and showed us a couple bloody videos and we just wanted to do it. Some of us have never heard of rugby before.”
Rademacher and the SYSA are trying to introduce the sport to the youths using a noncontact version of rugby – sort of the flag-football version – called “Quick Rip.”
“It’s designed to be very fast, very offensive oriented,” Rademacher said. “All the kids get to handle the ball. They all get to run with it. They all get to score. It’s very easy to get the kids up and going in 10 minutes. I help them with the rules as we go along.”
Rademacher has the teams go seven-on-seven instead of the 15-member teams for full-scale rugby.
“We can modify that down based on the size of the field and the skill level,” he said. “There are a lot of conditions we can modify. We make sure the kids learn the skills faster and ensure they have a lot of fun.”
Rademacher, who is the commissioner for youth rugby in Eastern Washington and assistant coach of the high school boys team Goth RFC, said the hardest part has been to convince the youths to start slow.
“They want to play full contact,” he said. “We also have a higher level of contact rugby. Girls rugby is also one of the fastest-growing sports because there are not contact sports for them.”
Any high school aged youths interested in taking part just need to show up at Andrew Rypien on Tuesdays and Thursdays at about 5 p.m.
Rademacher is also hosting Quick Rip events on Saturday through Oct. 31. Youths can either register online at the SYSA website or show up and provide information when they arrive, he said.
“I get them playing and they get hooked,” Rademacher said. “They want to come back and keep playing.”
And the hook is definitely set within the group of kids who emigrated here from the Marshall Islands.
“We all know each other by heart,” Allen said. “It’s like one big family.”
Stanny Konet, a 14-year-old freshman, said he had a friend tell him to show up at Andrew Rypien and give rugby a shot.
“It’s my first time trying it,” Konet said. “I think it’s kind of cool. It was fun.”
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