Kids on the pitch

The rise of youth rugby in Alaska’s largest community

The fastest-growing team sport in America is gaining ground across Anchorage.

Tuesday, more than six dozen young rugby players covered the field at Davis Park. Kindergartners lined up for simple drills in the evening sunshine, and preteens jogged warm-up laps around the perimeter of the pitch.

In Mountain View, rugby for kids is more popular than ever.

“Every Tuesday, it’s always new kids, new kids,” said Mary Vaitohi, a coach for the Davis Park kids’ program.

Now in its second summer season, the Alaska Youth Rugby Club has seen a surge in membership.

Last year, practices took place at Goldenview Middle School and there were about 90 registered players, said club leader Craig Cornichuck.

“And then we made a big push,” he said. “A lot of people wanted to get involved.”

This year, there are more than 325 young players. Organized into groups according to age, they practice in Mountain View, Eagle River, South Anchorage and on the downtown park strip. Thanks to donations from the Mountain View Community Council and other groups, the $40 registration fee is waived for any neighborhood kid in need of some help.

The summer season involves seven weeks of practice and six weeks of matches, Cornichuck said. The young team members play a simple kind of touch rugby, and the Tuesday evening practices involve a lot of running and passing and teamwork.

Each program in the youth club is led by volunteers from the local adult teams. In Mountain View, the Thunderbirds, the Rams, the Spenard Green Dragons and the Manu Bears pitch in to coach the kids Tuesday nights. Cornichuck has a long-term vision for the club.

“There are increasingly opportunities for kids to play at the intercollegiate level, both men and women,” he said. “Our goal is to build that conduit here through our club.”

Last year, the youth club operated after-school rugby classes at both Fairview and Mountain View Elementary School. This summer, there are finally enough youth teams to play more regular matches — “a big step,” Cornichuck said.

Part of the sport’s appeal is its adaptability. It’s easy to learn and suitable for all kinds of athletes, coaches and players say.

“I always tell my girls, when I’m recruiting, ‘Just come out and try it. If you don’t like it, you can say you at least tried,'” said Vaitohi, who plays for the Rams.

Mountain View’s rugby program grows mainly through word of mouth and social media, she said. With so many games at Davis Park this year, some people see the crowds and come by out of curiosity.

The youth rugby program continues to draw new players. Tuesday’s turnout was a record, Vaitohi said. And that’s a good thing for the sport.

“In order for rugby to grow here in Alaska, you have to start with the youth,” she said.

 

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