AWYF Adds Youth Rugby To Its Spring Sports Lineup

Kaitlyn Houser attempts to toss a ball through a hoop while Anthony Wayne rugby coach Kevin Switzer watches. The AWYF now has a rugby club for students in grades 3-8. MIRROR PHOTO BY KAREN GERHARDINGER

BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Rugby has been around for more than 200 years, but in Northwest Ohio, the sport is still in its infancy – for now.

This year, the Anthony Wayne Youth Foundation (AWYF) is launching the Mad Anthony Youth Rugby Club (MAYRC) to show younger players just how fun rugby can be.

“The skills that participants learn will hopefully start them on a lifelong adventure of playing rugby for high school, college or women’s and men’s teams,” said AWYF executive director Taylor Kervin, who played the sport for 10 years. 

“Rugby is phenomenal – it’s a cross training sport and it’s a lot of fun.”

Boys and girls in grades 3-6 can learn the fundamentals, player positions, ball passing and kicking through flag rugby.

“The MAYRC skills sessions are a great starting experience for kids interested in learning how to play rugby,” Kervin said, explaining that time is split between drills and playing games on the high school rugby field, which is located at Browning Masonic Community, 8885 Browning Dr. in Waterville.

The flag rugby program begins on Sunday, April 7 and meets every Tuesday and Sunday through May 19, except Mother’s Day.

For boys and girls in grades 7-8, the MAYRC’s tackle rugby program adds in scrums, rucks and tackling to the other fundamentals, meeting twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays through May 19.

Coach Randy Swope knows that parents have some misconceptions of rugby – that it’s a dangerous, rowdy game rife with injuries. 

“While no sport can guarantee a lack of injuries, the statistics have shown in recent years that the number or severity of injuries is much less in rugby than soccer, American football or even basketball,” Swope said. 

“Yes, rugby is a contact sport, which inherently subjects a player to possible injury, but proper and safe tackling methods are a basic part of the training. “

Since there are no helmets or pads, players are taught to tackle through better and safer techniques, using their shoulders and wrapping around the waist instead of heads, he explained of the tackling that starts in grades 7-8 – when players are more mature.

“Younger players begin with flag rugby while focusing on developing running and passing skills,” Swope said.

Growing up in the 1970s, Swope said he didn’t learn of rugby until his last year in college. When he started working, his boss – a U.S. Navy veteran – was playing for the Toledo Celtics rugby team and invited Swope to join.

“I was hooked,” Swope said, noting that his team traveled to Hawaii for the Pan-American Tournament to play against teams from around the Pacific. Three years later, the team traveled to the Grand Cayman Islands, where they played against a crew on a British warship that was docked there. 

The camaraderie and ability to meet new people was a draw, but so was the excitement of the sport.

While he had played American football in high school, rugby is different, Swope said.

“The tackling is much safer and anyone can run with the ball and score,” he said.

Also, rugby is known as a “gentleman’s game,” where respect is a large part of the culture, especially with the referee, who is always referred to as “Sir.” It’s also a tradition for the host team to provide a social for the visiting team after the match.

Swope plans to find opportunities for the MAYRC players to meet up with teams from Northwest Ohio and Cleveland – which has nearly 1,000 players enrolled in a youth rugby program.

“The Cleveland director has asked us to travel to Cleveland at the end of our season to play in their championship tournament, so we hope to attract enough players to accept the challenge,” Swope said. “We also plan to play against our friendly rivals across the river in Perrysburg.”

As one of the coaches for the high school level Mad Anthony Boys Rugby Club, led by Kevin Switzer, and the Toledo Girls Rugby Club, Swope has seen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on participation. The two men are working to build those programs back up, and it starts with the youth.

For those who stick with the program through high school, opportunities abound.

“We have had players go on to play in college and on club teams,” Swope said. “We have even had a few players accept scholarship offers to play in college. There are many scholarship opportunities for college rugby, especially for women,” he said. 

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