Tough and smart

news  %tages Tough and smartU.S. Army Capt. Ashley Sorenson from the 303rd Ordnance Battalion (Explosive Ordnance Detachment) at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, pushes a defender away during the first-ever All-Service Female Rugby Team’s training camp at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, Aug. 25, 2015. (DOD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr., Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)
Accomplished Army athletes add women’s rugby to military playlist

A robust pioneer moral fiber pervaded the athletic field at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, in August as 16 mostly Army rugby players assembled to form the very first Women’s Armed Forces Rugby Team.
“I expect you’ll see me playing rugby when I’m ancient and gray,” said 1st Lt. Kelsie Whitney, a surgical nurse stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington. “They’ll have to wheel me off the field.”
Whitney is precisely the kind of player Coach Andy Locke started looking for when handed the groundbreaking task that has been equal parts recruiting, marketing, chief, teaching and game-day strategizing.
“First off, our thanks to the orders that were willing to let the players participate,” he said. Military women’s rugby is a bet-on-the prospect proposition but, with the encouragement of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, the traction is there.
“We do not yet have sufficient armed forces women in the (skilled rugby) pool for each of our five services to field its own team, so we have assembled an all-star squad,” said the Army infantry captain.
While traditional rugby can feature as many as 15 players on a side, “our format is ‘sevens,’” he said, recognizing not only the economy of the smaller unit, but the swiftness of the game, which is divided into two, seven-minute halves.
“Even the Olympic Committee favors the sevens,” Locke said.
“They like it for commercial television purposes, right, but it’s probably more exciting for the average spectator, as well.”
A excellent first showing
Led by team captain, Marine 1st Lt. Jane Parr — a strong, potential Olympian as a limb of the USA Women’s Eagles Sevens team — the assemble’s first competitive outing at the Greater Chester District Sports Association complex near Philadelphia was “more than a decent start,” said Locke.
Playing in a club-level tournament with seasoned teams including the Women’s Collegiate All-American Sevens, Locke said the military warrior-leaders were competitive in every game except the last one – a 31-5 shellacking at the hands of highly decorated Northeast Academy, “a team we stuffed 22-5 on the tourney’s first day.”
“But come Sunday, we had suffered some injuries that placed less-experienced athletes opposite some very strong rugby veterans from Northeast,” he said.
Meantime, the coach and his players continue the missionary work of educating the Services and the general public in this area the sport itself – not to mention the hard work associated with helping women’s rugby gain a foothold amongst a plethora of other, more well-known sports.
For Alaska-based parachute rigger Sgt. Cerrin Eldridge and others already hooked, the program’s success is inevitable. She acknowledges help of “the huge people who can make it take house,” but is persuaded that strong advocacy by the Army’s female rugby enthusiasts themselves is a requirement.
“Keep pushing your orders to approve it – and give them reasons to approve it,” she said, language to her female Soldiers. “Play in as many clubs as you can, as much as you can. Get in some games, even if it’s just ball handling or subbing-in. Give yourself a reason to come.”
One of only two enlisted players on the team, the Marion, Illinois, native was a clear leader and motivator during the women’s three-a-days in the sharp sunshine of Fort Indiantown Gap.
“This has been fantastic,” she said, “to play in gorgeous weather with really excellent teams hostile to really excellent rugby players.”
Extraordinary personnel
Locke was a plebe (freshman) quarterback at West Point who switched to rugby his second year and earned All-American honors three seasons running. But his passion for coaching and teaching is rooted in his genes, and in his tactical leadership experiences.
His father, Lowell, was the founding force behind youth rugby in football-crazed Texas. As a high school junior, Locke earned a spot on the under-19 national team, by the side of with football scholarship offers from several Ivy League schools in addition to the Military Academy.
But Andy’s Soldier bona fides are what he holds most dear, including serving as a scout group leader in Iraq and a Ranger group leader in Afghanistan.
He was helped during the Indiantown Gap iteration by a former Navy surface combat officer and accomplished Harvard rugger: Koma Gandy Fischbein, who is as comfortable writing for Cicero magazine as she is sweating and hollering with a coach’s whistle around her neck.
Another key contributor, as one might expect in rugby, was trainer Kyle Eckert, a Reading, Pennsylvania, native who works primarily with boxers and wrestlers at WCAP, but has a solid field sports resumé as well. The former Army sergeant’s credentials include a tour as a combat medic in Afghanistan and undergraduate and sports medicine-related degrees from the State University of New York College at Brockport and West Virginia University.
The formula is in house: Dedicated help up the chain, a credentialed, all-in personnel and athletes with a terrible case of the wants.
“The key now is to stab with it,” said 1st Lt. Jacqueline Marks, a Norwich University grad and four-sport high school star out of Northwood, New Hampshire, who flew in from Korea for the tournament.
“It’s the constant ‘go’ that attracted us to this game but it’s the collaboration that keeps us in it,” said the military police officer.
“Like meaningful your teammates will back you up on a tackle or being able to trust that they’ll be there for me when I go in and get tackled.”
“These ladies can drive through the opponent trying to poach the ball,” Marks said. “It’s pure joy.”
The team’s next outing, an invitational tournament hosting upwards of 150 women’s teams in Las Vegas, is scheduled for March 2016 in conjunction with the men’s World Rugby Seven Series tour.

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