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Expanding the field

In new league, Tulsa Rugby continues to grow

Tulsa Rugby Club plays Wichita Valkyries

The Tulsa Rugby Football Club, celebrating its 45th anniversary, is going through a bit of a transition year, with the men’s team joining a new division and the women’s team opting for an independent, at-large season.

Still, rugby is the fastest-growing team sport in the U.S., and despite the minor upheaval, Tulsa RFC continues to expand its footprint in the area, drawing in both men and women, boys and girls, and even placing alumni on U.S. national teams.

Both men’s and women’s teams have a different schedule this season after opting to leave the mainly Texas-based Red River Rugby Union. In recent years, the games started in late November or early December, then took a brief hiatus over the holidays before resuming in January, with the season continuing through May.

This year, the men joined the Mid-America Rugby Football Union (MARFU), with opponents in Oklahoma City, Little Rock, Northwest Arkansas, Kansas City, St. Louis and Wichita, while the women will compete in tournaments and friendlies, although their schedule still mainly mirrors the men’s. Both squads have already played several matches in September and October, and, while they’ve already begun practicing again, will not resume playing actual games until traveling to New Orleans in February for a Mardi Gras Tournament.

The move, which will help cut down on travel, was made in conjunction with the clubs in Oklahoma City and Arkansas. The women will officially join MARFU next season.

“What was once almost purely a spring competitive schedule is now split, fall and spring. It’s a little difficult for those of us in the middle of the country to play during ice storms or snow,” said Luke Turner, Tulsa RFC’s president. He’s still a player on the men’s squad at age 37. “The decision was mainly one of closer competition and trying to focus on our region, rather than trying to cast our net all the way to Houston. It’s a more attractive league for travel purposes.”

And while there may not be as many kids playing rugby as say, soccer or football, there is a growing youth framework that the Tulsa RFC has put in place, including a high school league they formed in 1999 featuring teams from Union, Jenks, Broken Arrow, Bixby, Norman, Edmond, Bartlesville and Yukon. In fact, the Broken Arrow girls’ team, which won its third straight state title, also won the high school national championship last spring, a first for a team from Oklahoma.

“We have a long history of coaching, supporting and developing youth rugby,” Turner said. “Of course, we also actively recruit new athletes that have never played rugby—anybody that’s interested in learning more and wanting to play.”

The physical nature of the sport has been an obstacle when recruiting girls and women to play, but Tulsa RFC started its women’s team in 2011 and female participation at all levels continues to grow.

“There’s some hurdles with contact sports, there are some stereotypes that you have to crush,” Turner said. “I really think that once you are able to get over some initial hesitations, it’s a great sport for everyone.”

“I think that a lot of women are under the misconception that you have to be physically imposing to be able to play,” added Casie Whitney, the women’s team captain. “People are worried that they are too small, or even that they’re too big sometimes, [or] not athletic enough—but what is really wonderful about rugby is that there is a position for everyone on the field.

“What we find is that the more people get involved and the more they see people like them playing, the more willing they are to give it a shot as well,” Whitney continued. “Rugby’s supposed to be about camaraderie and building community and having a network of women who are strong and supporting each other and helping build each other up.”

Perhaps another reason rugby participation numbers continue to increase at all age levels is because of its inclusion in the 2016 Rio Olympics, where the U.S. competed in both the men’s and women’s competitions.

“Rugby’s been the fastest-growing team sport in the United States for most of this decade, and we especially saw a big bump after the 2016 Olympics when rugby was re-introduced,” Turner said. “There’s a pathway to the podium for all these athletes now, and we want to help facilitate opportunities for all these young people to realize those Olympic dreams.”

And with four Tulsa players seeing action with U.S. national teams, it seems more possible than ever. The local stars include three recent teammates from Union’s high school boys’ squad—Chance Wenglewski, Malon Al-Jiboori, and Lorenzo Thomas. Also, Neariah Persinger, who graduated from Broken Arrow in 2014, has also played with the women’s national team.

The Tulsa RFC plays its home games at its own field at 37th Street and Riverside Drive, just south of the Gathering Place, and admission is free. There are usually concessions available, including food, and the atmosphere is very family-friendly.

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