Black and Blue Rugby

By Joseph Terry The Daily Inter Lake

About 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh, in the Ohio River town of Wheeling, West Virginia, there is a small piece of Kalispell. There four former athletes from the Valley decided to forgo athletic offers in state to take a chance on Division I rugby. It's a growing option for athletes in the Valley and around Montana, as programs out east are beginning to trove the Treasure State for its hidden talent. Wheeling Jesuit University began playing rugby just three years ago, and made its first mission to upgrade the talent on its roster. Thanks to connections to the Kalispell Black and Blue rugby program, one of the first recruiting stops for the Cardinals was in northwest Montana. The Black and Blue, then fresh off a state championship, was loaded with talent, touting state championship wrestlers and Division I football recruits across its roster. The two that caught the eye of the Cardinals were all-state wrestlers Dawson Day and Nick Iavicoli. Day, a leader on the team at scrum half, was the first to join with Iavicoli signing on later in the summer of 2013. Together, the two found their way through the normal trials and tribulations of starting college while on a campus 2,000 miles from home. "The first semester was tough, definitely being away from my family and whatnot," Iavicoli said. ”Most of our friends stayed in-state for school. We always got pictures and all these things. We talked to them about hanging out with all our old buddies from high school. Once we started making good friends here and really getting into rugby, it kind of all went away for awhile." The experience outside of the region helped grow the pair more than on the field of play. "It's indescribable ... It's in a cool area. I've been able to travel all around and see a lot of big cities," Iavicoli said. "I have kids on my team from Africa, Fiji, Australia, all around. That's been really cool. I've made a lot of friends from a lot of different countries. "That's been one of the greatest benefits to coming out here. It's really opened my eyes to see what else is going on in the world and see how other people have grown up. There's a lot of other people just like me that did the same things we did growing up overseas." The pair found its way fast enough, as the Cardinals finished their first season in Division 1-A at 2-5 overall. While stationed in the Eastern time zone, they helped point out more talent back on their hometown club. This summer, WJU signed two more from the Black and Blue. Glacier's all-state safety Orie Mann and all-conference defensive lineman Brendan Windauer brought some power to the Kalispell rugby program last season, leading the Black and Blue to a runner-up finish. Already on the radar from the recruitment of Day and Iavicoli, the two were brought into Wheeling after camp and in their few weeks of work, they've already made an impression on the coaches. With four Kalispell players on the team, there's now as many Montana players in Wheeling as there are from the more populated areas of Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. That has helped ease the questions for some teammates that may be hard-pressed to point out Kalispell on a map. "Some people still thought we rode horses to school," Iavicoli joked. "'How close is your nearest neighbor?' and all that stuff. "It's always nice to have guys that know where you're from and have been where you're from, experienced everything you've experienced and grew up where you did. Being able to relate to them, or if you're feeling a little homesick, being able to talk to them about places you'd hang out." The two sophomores have helped smooth the transition for their Montana teammates, and are hoping to grow the culture of Montana rugby at the Division I level. Recruiters are starting to take notice of the Treasure State, with top programs coming to Montana to find talent. "What we stick out for the most is our tackling," Mann said of what the Montana kinds have brought as far as style of play. "That's the reason we got noticed, [along with] our aggressiveness and passing." Life University in Marietta, Georgia, currently ranked second in the nation, has six Montana players on its team from Frenchtown and Big Sky high schools. Along with Reece Erickson, now at No. 7 Cal Poly, the Black and Blue has sent five athletes to Division I rugby in the last two years. Wheeling Jesuit is ranked No. 16 in the nation. "There's more diversity coming out from our coast now," Iavicoli said. "We're bringing more of the Montana side to this East coast team." There's hope even more talent may flow out east from the burdgeoning pipeline from Kalispell to Wheeling, West Virginia. "I'm betting they'll recruit more out of Montana," Mann said. "There's going to be more recruits coming out of the Black and Blue I'm sure. There's some talented sons of guns on that team." For a fledgling sport in the state, the Big Sky is starting to have a big impact on the world of college rugby. And as a fast growing option for college-bound athletes, rugby is starting to have a big impact on Montana.

By JOSEPH TERRY The Daily Inter Lake
Down a score with five minutes left on the clock, the Kalispell Black and Blue needed a huge rally to win the state rugby championship on Saturday at Evergreen Junior High. The rally, and the winning try, came on the back of the smallest player on the pitch. Dustin Longtin, a small but quick back for the Black and Blue, scored the second of two tries for Kalispell in the last five minutes of the game, charging through a thick line of Bitterroot defenders to give the Black and Blue a 24-20 lead with a little more than a minute left. Kalispell struggled to score in the second half, allowing 20 straight points to the Warriors, beginning with a try at the last second of the first half. Bitterroot stole all of the momentum, charging down for three tries in the second half and taking a six-point lead on a penalty kick that bounced in off the crossbar. The lead was significant, putting Kalispell down more than a try with about 10 minutes left to play. Needing a boost, the Black and Blue picked up the intensity and went back to an attacking, aggressive style of play that allowed them to dominate the first half. Senior wing Mike Bare fought through to touch down a try in the corner with five minutes to play. Trailing 20-19, Kalispell had a chance to take the lead with a conversion kick, but Devin Jeffries, a star in the tournament who scored the first try of the game, missed the sharp-angled kick. As Bitterroot tried to advance back into Kalispell territory following the score, Bare came up again, intercepting a pitch at midfield and bringing the ball inside the 22-meter line. After a few rucks and penalties, Kalispell got the ball inside five yards, where Longtin was able to pick up the ball in a crowd and plunge into the right corner for a try. The Black and Blue missed the conversion kick, but was able to hold on for the win, despite a hard charge from the Warriors that saw them get inside the 22 and threaten with a game-ending score. "I was just trying to tell everyone to keep their heads up," Jeffries said. "We weren't done. We knew if we were just physical we could come back and win and that's what we did." Jeffries was the catalyst of the Black and Blue offense in the first half, using his imposing size to run through defenders. He broke through the middle of the Bitterroot defense in the first half and rumbled 50 yards for a try, dragging a pair of defenders the last stretch before touching the ball down in front of the goal posts to set up an easy conversion. "The adrenaline gets going and you just have to truck it hard," Jeffries said. "Sometimes they just get scared to tackle you and you just keep trucking at them downhill." The Black and Blue scored just a few minutes later when Dawson Day took the ball off the ruck and darted over the try line to touch down a score, putting Kalispell up 14-0 following a conversion from Jeffries. In the earlier match, Kalispell cruised by Missoula 31-5 in a game that got a little chippy at the end. The two teams had to be separated in the closing minutes after tempers boiled over between the conference foes. Jefferies scored the fist try of the game and helped set up two spectacular runs by Grant Tafoya, who made a pair of shifty moves to get free on both to score long tries. Kalispell led 26-0 before Missoula was able to score, and the Black and Blue capped the scoring with a quick try from Hunter Garbacz. "The kids worked incredibly during th offseason," Kalispell coach David Kenkel said. "We just really wanted it. They dug down, used the extra energy in the tank and got in done."

Rugby, for an unassuming spectator, can be a perplexing sport. Men, and sometimes women, dressed in collared shirts without any padding ramble around the field colliding and tackling like gentlemen brawlers. It appears to be orchestrated chaos with players relying more on survival instincts than a playbook. Not surprisingly, the collared shirts don’t stay clean very long. It’s fitting then that a town with some of the best high school wrestlers and football players in the state would naturally have a good rugby club. And Kalispell has one of the best. Fittingly named, the Black and Blue are back delivering lumps and bruises to opponents this spring. Last year the boys finished undefeated in league play before losing narrowly in the state semifinals to the eventual champ, Bitterroot. This year, the squad is 8-1 and recently won the eight-team tournament in Helena featuring every club in the Montana Youth Rugby Association. Opponents have only scored a handful of times on them all season. With just over three weeks before the state championship tournament in Kalispell, the Black and Blue are the team to beat in Montana. “It’s turning out to be a nice little program,” head coach Dave Kenkel says modestly. 

The program began four years ago when rugby barely had a pulse in the Flathead Valley. Bob Foley, Dave Reese and Rich Lapp organized a team in the spirit of Dave Himsl, a longtime rugby enthusiast who helped start the adult team, the Flathead Moose, and dreamed of founding a youth program before losing a battle to cancer. In Himsl’s honor, the Black and Blue formed and since then rugby has proliferated in Kalispell. There are now two high school teams; the Flathead Rugby Club took the pitch for the first time this season. The Flathead Moose are also rejuvenated and playing regularly again. The Moose are holding an alumni gathering on Saturday, May 5 at Hillcrest Field on Whitefish Stage Road. The Moose play the Missoula Maggots. The Moose will head to Missoula the following week, May 12-13, for the 36th annual Maggotfest. The Black and Blue won its final home game of the season on April 26, defeating Missoula 26-10. The squad plays Corvallis this weekend and then Billings the following weekend to finish out the regular season. This year’s Montana Youth Rugby Association championship tournament is at Evergreen Junior High on May 25-26. Kenkel, in his first full season as head coach, said bringing the state tourney to Kalispell helps solidify the sport’s local roots. It also stokes the enthusiasm even more. Kenkel said school administrators at Evergreen Junior High have welcomed the Black and Blue and allowed the program to even build a “pitch,” or playing field, in the open land behind the school so two games can be played at once at the state tournament. It’s more proof of a budding program’s successful rise. With barely enough players in its first season, the Black and Blue didn’t score a single point. By last season, the team was the top seed in the state. “Part of that I think is they’re just tough kids,” Kenkel says. “And as you see them parade in, you’ll see they’re good athletes.” The team is built with wrestlers from Glacier’s state champion wrestling team and playoff football team. Other players are just teenagers with a knack for the rowdy sport. “Rugby is a free flowing game. Yes there are certain plays but the coaches don’t send plays in,” Kenkel says. “I sit right here and substitute, but it’s their game. They take control of it or they don’t. I think that’s a big part of the reason why the kids love the game.” Jackson Thiebes, a senior at Glacier, played offensive line for the Wolfpack football team, but never felt the rush of carrying the ball down field. That’s part of the reason he loves rugby. “Everyone gets a chance to play and run with the ball,” he says, adding, “My mom was nervous but my dad played rugby in college so he was excited.” From the sidelines, the lack of padding or helmets seems suicidal. It stings a little at first, Thiebes admits, but after that “it doesn’t hurt as much as you think it would.” “In football you can just launch your body and head, but here you have to actually use form,” Josh Jenks, a senior at Glacier, says. In three years Kenkel said the Black and Blue have only had one injury beyond bumps and bruises — a sprained ankle. “There’s a different mentality to the tackle,” Kenkel says. “It’s not about absolutely killing the guy, it’s about getting the ball. Yeah, they’ll have bumps and bruises.” But, after all, they are the Black and Blue.


By DILLON TABISH The Daily Inter Lake

There couldn't have been a more fitting person to score the first points in Flathead Valley Youth Rugby history. Out of a brown cloud of dust and a pile of mashed-together bodies, 17-year-old Max Himsl emerged with the ball and dove over the goal line at Hillcrest Field off Whitefish Stage Road. The "try" - equivalent to a touchdown in football - was the first ever score for the upstart Flathead Valley squad and it came in the Montana Youth Rugby Association season opener against Hamilton on Saturday. The team of local high school aged kids, known as the Black and Blue, were winless and scoreless in their first season last year and never hosted a game. On Saturday that changed as a crowd of family, friends and rugby enthusiasts gathered to watch the only scrum in town these days. Head coach Bob Foley started the youth program - which now has 25 players from Flathead and Glacier high schools and Stillwater Christian School - last April along with Dave Reese and Rich Lapp. The idea for the team, as well as the Black and Blue namesake, came from the man considered by many to be the one who brought rugby to the valley - Dave Himsl. Years ago, Himsl started the Moose's men's adult team. It was always a dream of Himsl's to get a program started for kids in high school, but a year and a half ago he lost a battle to cancer before he could see it happen. In his honor, Foley and others followed through and established the Black and Blue. On Saturday, Max, son of Dave, did his family proud and muscled in the memorable score. "It was wonderful, it really was," Max's mother Susan Himsl said of the try. "It's special to me. It was my husband's passion and my son shares that passion." The Black and Blue finished with two more scores on Saturday but came up short, 25-17. Second-year player Dalton Hagen had the two other tries for Flathead Valley. "It was a start but we've got a lot to learn," Foley said. "We did score three times today, unfortunately they scored four, but it was a good start. "Our goal is to teach the kids how to play rugby and how to be part of a team. Hopefully they get a little better every week," he added. The Black and Blue are a talented mix of high school wrestlers, football and basketball players along with a few who haven't played an organized sport recently. "Not too many people know the sport too well and it's just fun to get out there and do something different," Hagen said. Hagen has played football but prefers rugby for one distinct reason. "I just like the physical contact and all the hitting compared to football, where there's still hitting and all the practices are kind of different. Here it's just hitting and going and hitting. I like how it doesn't stop. It just keeps going on and on." Ryan Burrington is in his second year with the team and remembers being a wary when he first stepped on the field at Hillcrest. "At first I was (nervous) because of the whole no pads thing, but then we got out to practice and played our first game and I loved it," he said. For Susan Himsl, who teaches at Flathead, she's happy to see that players like Burrington and Hagen have found a sport that they've embraced. "There's a lot of kids who aren't really involved in a lot of the other school sports and (with rugby) they're finding their niche, and that's important to a lot of these guys. It really, really is," she said. Plus, she can see the sport that her late husband loved so very much carry on with her son.

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