Chesapeake Women's Rugby Club is a 40-year hit

Players sure to find exercise, good company and hard thumping with historic team

September 14, 2014|By Amanda Ghysel | The Baltimore Sun

Elizabeth McPherson hits the ground with a thud, an audible gasp of air escaping her lungs. But the rugby rookie's first thought when she lands is that her mother is going to kill her.

"She was worried when my sister, who is 6 feet tall and larger-framed than I, played, so I'd been putting off telling her," jokes McPherson, 33, of Mount Vernon, who had told her mother only earlier that day that she had joined the Chesapeake Women's Rugby Club the week before.

The team stands out on a recent Thursday evening at Leon Day Park. Amid a sea of youth football players in red jerseys and bulky shoulder pads, tucked away behind a neglected baseball diamond, is a group of adult women in athletic shorts and sweat-soaked shirts playing with an egg-shaped football.

Chesapeake Women's Rugby Club, the longest-running active women's rugby team in the nation, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this season. It's a collection of players of varying skill levels, fun nicknames and one thing in common: a love for the sport.

"I love that it's a great workout," says club secretary Jessica Cordero, 29, of Hollins Market. "It's fun and integrative. You don't get bored when you're doing it. There's something happening every second."

That quickly becomes evident during the team's practice. During a simple warm-up drill, five players run in a diagonal line and pass the ball to the player behind them.

On one run-through, a player trying to heave the ball to club president Maria McAllister drops it before she can. "It's all right! Pick it up! Keep going, keep going!" McAllister tells her. After Michele Troy, 25, of Baltimore brings down a player twice her size in a tackling drill, cheers of "Nice!" and "Yes, Michele!" erupt.

"On this team, everyone works to build each other up," says Shannon O'Leary, known as "Dr. Shannon" to her teammates. "If someone drops the ball, it's: 'Don't worry about it; you'll get it next time.' "

The team is welcoming of athletes of all shapes, sizes and experience. Players and coaches offer encouragement and advice, especially to the newcomers, because, as Troy says: "We all know what it's like to be new. Everyone starts from somewhere."

Adds Heather "H.R." Rodgers: "Whatever your skill set is, whatever your body type is, there's a position that's designed for you."

Also new to the club is its head coach, Gerard "Rusty" Cross, who has been coaching the sport for over 40 years. Growing up in Ireland, he and his eight sisters and four brothers were always playing rugby. Encouraged by their father, who played until he was 75, every Cross sibling represented Ireland on its respective men's and women's national teams.

The camaraderie the sport fosters also reaches beyond the field, says assistant coach Matt Heyman, who played college rugby at West Virginia and remembers trying to swap his apparel for gear from other schools' teams.

"Whenever you go out in public wearing rugby gear, someone will come up to you and ask if you play," Heyman says. "I was always trying to trade West Virginia gear to get Marquette gear or whatever school we were playing."

"It's almost like a sorority," says the 27-year-old McAllister, of Baltimore, who has been playing for 10 years.

With the Sept. 6 season opener just days away from this Thursday-night practice, Heyman is focused on helping players understand the rules of rugby. He spends time explaining to a new player what, exactly, a ruck is — the pile that forms when a player is tackled as teams attempt to recover the loose ball — and demonstrating proper passing technique.

The coaches "take the time to explain why we're practicing certain things and will go over ways to improve with the rookies during and after the drills," McPherson says. "Matt especially makes a point to make sure we feel like we're eventually going to learn what we're doing."

Cross spends part of practice with a group of new players working on proper tackling form — to reduce the risk of injury while pulling opponents to the ground, he explains, wrap your arms all the way around their legs — which can be the toughest part of the sport for a newcomer.

Most of the players concede that they've seen their fair share of tough hits. And McPherson has learned just two weeks into her rugby career how physically intense the sport can be. But the club's women are tough, and they're not afraid.

"It's less scary than people imagine it to be," Cordero says. "We all play to our positions and know where we're supposed to play, so it's not like melee on the field."

McAllister calls it "organized chaos."

"I think that's part of what makes rugby fun," O'Leary says. "You figure out where your borders are and you cross them a little bit every single time. If it scares you, it's usually worth doing."

What: Chesapeake Women's Rugby Football Club home opener vs. Severn River

When: Saturday, Sept. 20, 11 a.m.

Where: Frank Bocek Field Park

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