On a Friday evening in May, a group of women tossed a rugby ball back and forth across the field at Clark Middle School, running drills and practicing plays as shadows stretched over the grass. Music piped from a stack of iPods and iPhones on the sidelines. Beyonce.
…I dream it,
I work hard,
I grind ‘til I own it.
The Aurora Rams are one of the few women’s teams in the Alaska Oosik Rugby Union; a summertime sisterhood that meets most weeknights on a field in the middle of Mountain View.
The team finished its practice to the beat of “Formation.” A few minutes after 9 p.m., the women gathered at the side of the field, stretching out on the turf and gulping water from plastic bottles as the sun began to set behind them. Coach Samantha Fetui talked about the practice, the upcoming first tournament of the season and next week’s schedule.
“If you guys aren’t coming, we want to know why. If we can help you guys out…we’ll be there to help you guys,” Fetui said. “I just want you guys to know that. We’re not just a team. We come together, bond and we become a family. That’s what we are.”
Practice ends with a prayer; women standing shoulder to shoulder, heads bowed.
The team is still young. Going into the second season, there are rookies and veterans alike. Fetui, who has years of experience, was introduced to the Rams after moving from Hawaii last year. The fledgling team turned to her for coaching help.
Then came the car crash. Fetui suffered a collapsed lung and other injuries, she said, but the team visited her in the hospital, and the day after she was released following surgery, they all drove up to Fairbanks to compete in the SpringFest tournament. The Rams won, and Fetui returned to the field to coach from the sidelines.
“What pushed me was the girls’ motivation,” she said. “They came every day.”
“She was a storm, man!” said Vanessa Tufaga, who started playing with the Rams last year.
Tufaga said it took a few practices for the team to figure out what they were doing. Experienced players like Fetui and others stepped in to help. Tufaga had never played rugby before, but she was down to try.
“I love to make friends…so when I see all these girls, and we’re just trying to make something great, and we’re also in the community as well, I thought that was awesome,” she said. “And I just got out of high school, so I was looking for something to do.”
“I feel like if we’re not having fun at practice, then why are we playing rugby, you know?” she said. “That’s the whole reason why I decided to stay, is because our team’s so cool.”
For those who’ve never played before, learning the game can be difficult.
“You really have to watch everybody else,” said Darcie Sherrick, another new player. “I’ve been watching the girls who’ve been here the longest, like really paying attention to how they move, and if I’m not sure, I ask…they’re really good about showing you the right way.”
Sherrick joined the team this season, recruited by the mother of a boy in her son’s kindergarten class. She said she grew up playing hockey in Canada, and after moving to Alaska eight years ago, she was ready to be part of a team again. She never expected it would be rugby.
Some of her teammates were equally surprised to find the sport in Anchorage. Jessica Lauano played rugby in Hawaii, but gave it up when she moved to Alaska in 2010. When she heard about the new women’s team last year, there was just one problem.
“I was pregnant,” she said, laughing. “This year I lucked out.”
Lauano said her new team is similar to many of the teams in Hawaii. Almost all of her new teammates are Polynesian. The game is the same, too.
“When you get the adrenaline, you can’t feel nothing until after the game,” she said. “Then you feel everything.”
“Right when I got into the game, and actually got into tackling and stuff; the momentum; the adrenaline rush; I was like, ‘Ok, oh my gosh, I actually love this sport,’” she said.
She tells new players to stick it out: It might seem complicated at first, but it’s worth it in the end.
“I love my team members — we’re all so supportive of each other,” Hafoka said. “Sometimes it’s hard…at the same time, you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s just a game, we’re just all here to have fun, we’re all family,’ cause at the end of the day, we’re just here for each other.”
Abby Corral, who played flag football for Dimond High School, joined the Rams last year after hearing about the newly formed team through an old schoolmate. Like many of the other girls, she didn’t know much about rugby.
“I just knew that there was no pads, and you hit each other,” she said. It “sounded amazing.”
During her first game, she injured her ankle so badly she couldn’t play for the rest of the season. But she didn’t give up. This year, she returned to the field.
“All the people on the team, they make me want to come back,” Corral said. “It’s everything about the game.”
The first tournament of the season takes place on a drizzly Saturday at Davis Park. The parking lot overflows; trucks are parked on the grass around the field, and spectators barbecue and walk dogs and watch the games from the shelter of canopies set up along the pitch.
This day is a chance for new players to learn the ropes, coaches said. It’s a social, practice-run kind of tournament, and the results won’t show up on teams’ season records. In between games, the Rams wait in a team tent near the northern end of the field, snacking on slices of pizza, flipping through iPhones and chatting with teammates and family members. Half an hour before the final match, they head for the field.
They stretch, run through warmup drills and gather on the grass for a last-minute pep talk. Fehoko Pulu, coach of the Spartans men’s team and the neighborhood youth program, came to offer some words of advice: This game is more than just showing up.
“You have to put some sacrifice on top of it,” he said.
“All we ask from you is 110 percent on the field,” Fetui said.
The men’s game was coming to an end; it’s almost time for the women to take the field. The other team huddled together, ready to go. The Rams circled up for a cheer, then pulled together for a prayer.
“After the prayer, we’re gonna go over there and meet the other girls,” Fetui said. “Then we’re gonna go out on the field and beast out.”