Rugby? In Central Oregon?

Bend Blues, lone high school rugby club

By Beau Eastes / The Bulletin / @beastes

Blues fall to Beaverton

The Bend Blues lost to the Beaverton Barbarians 29-24 on Saturday at Central Oregon Community College in both teams’ last regular-season game of the year. Mike Hageman led the Blues with two tries. Nolan Holmgren and Jeff Durante each scored a try and Keegan Bloss was successful on two conversion kicks. The Blues play Linn-Benton on Saturday at Portland’s Delta Park in the plate division playoffs.

Rugby was not a tough sell for Isaiah Felton.

“My freshman year I was only doing one sport at Bend High — football — and my coaches really urged me to participate in another sport,” says Felton, who at 6 feet 3, 240 pounds plays football at defensive tackle for the Lava Bears. “(Rugby coach) K.C. (Greenleaf) came out to a football practice and said, ‘If any of you big boys like running and touching the ball every once in a while, feel free to come on down (to a rugby workout).’ ”

After a few practices with the Bend Blues, Central Oregon’s lone high school rugby club, Felton, now a junior, was sold.

“It’s a lot of hitting and tackling and rucking and I love that,” says Felton, who has helped the Blues to a 5-3 record this year and a spot in the 2014 Rugby Oregon high school postseason. “I mean, it wasn’t like I was going to do tennis or golf. Those are too boring for me.”

While rugby does not yet have the crazy growth numbers of lacrosse in Central Oregon, the sport is growing locally. The Blues, made up of players from Bend, Mountain View, Summit, Sisters and Ridgeview high schools, has 28 players out this season, the most ruggers the squad has had in its six years of existence.

“Everyone comes in knowing nothing,” Greenleaf says about his player’s previous knowledge of the sport. “We call this a process. We tell the kids that all the time. … The main thing is to keep getting better every week. It’s not how you are at the beginning of the year but at the end.”

The Blues, who are affiliated with longtime Central Oregon rugby club the Bend Roughriders, have had a considerable amount of success since their inception. The Blues finished the regular season 10-0 in 2010 and were league runners-up in 2011. Last year the Blues went 7-3 and won the “plate division” playoffs. Bend plays Linn-Benton in the first round of the postseason at Portland’s Delta Park on Saturday.

“It takes a while for kids to get into the mode mentally where they’re not the man anymore,” Greenleaf says, explaining how passing the ball to a teammate in better position is of much more importance in rugby than gaining an extra yard or two by trying to plow through tacklers. “It took these kids most of year (to understand the sport). Most of them came in together as freshmen and it took a year, a year and a half before they actually played well.”

With 15 players to a side, rugby flows like soccer, is as physical as football and wrestling and requires the teamwork of an advancing army battalion. With no forward passing, teamwork and positioning are crucial. All players handle the ball, and tackling is done in a more controlled manner than football as players are not allowed to leave their feet when making a hit and are required to wrap up. Additionally, with no pads, ruggers have to be smart when taking down a ball carrier to prevent injury to themselves.

“As soon as I came out, I fell in love with the sport,” says Bend High’s Nolan Holmgren, another Lava Bear football lineman who has become a starter on the Blues. “It’s more hands-on than football.”

While the action on the field is the sport’s main draw, players are also quick to embrace the spirit of the sport. After every match, home and away, the Blues and their opponent sit down and eat together, which Greenleaf and his players say helps develop a brother-in-arms attitude all across the league.

“No matter how intense a game is — you can hate each other and be throwing (elbows) and stuff — after the game, it’s all about friendship,” Felton says. “And there’s always a ton of food. That’s another reason I signed up. I heard you got to eat a lot.”

Felton lists multiple reasons he plays rugby — the food, getting to carry the ball, cross-training for football — but he always brings the conversation back to the camaraderie the sport fosters, not just between teammates but also with fellow competitors.

“First, I’d tempt them with the large amounts of food they’re going to eat,” Felton jokes about his rugby sales pitch. “It’s a lot of teamwork and everyone gets to run the ball. That’s a big deal for me. I’m a defensive tackle (in football). I never get to run the ball!

“But,” Felton adds, “the biggest thing is you’re going to make friends you’ll probably have for life. There’s just something different about rugby teams. It’s a real tight group.”