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FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. -- Sixteen service members reported Aug. 23 to the military’s first training camp for women’s rugby.
“Armed Forces Sports has been working for almost a decade to set up a female rugby program,” said Steven Dinote, who directs the sports program for DOD.
“It’s been a struggle finding a tournament we can actually participate in,” Dinote said, adding that this year when the weeklong training camp ends, the women’s team will compete in the USA Rugby Elite City Sevens Tournament in Philadelphia over the weekend.
Several women on the team said they have been waiting excitedly for Armed Forces Sports to stand up a program and have been playing in local clubs and tournaments in the meantime to keep their skills.
Rugby has been one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. over the past four or five years, said Army Capt. Andrew Locke, who volunteered to coach the women’s team. He’s leading the players through drills this week on the pitch at Fort Indiantown Gap.
Locke, who was a quarterback at West Point his freshman year before switching over to rugby, played on the USA Men’s National Rugby Team last year and now serves as a talent scout and coach for the national team, also known as the Eagles. In addition, he plays as scrum half for the Armed Forces Men’s Team.
“The Army wanted to get this off the ground and give women an opportunity to play,” Locke said. “The service thought about putting together an All-Army team, but decided that the way to go -- at least for the first year -- was to establish a joint Armed Forces Team.”
Marine 1st Lt. Jane Paar is player-captain of the inaugural team. Paar also plays as prop and hooker on the Women’s National Rugby Team and hopes to play with Team USA in the Olympics next year in Rio.
“This is an awesome opportunity,” Paar said after being able to captain the Armed Forces team. “I’m really excited.” She said the team has some good runners and everyone’s fit.
“What more could you want on a Seven’s Team?” she asked. In Seven’s Rugby, seven athletes play seven-minute halves and the game is fast.
“It’s physical, it’s mental, it’s such a great sport!” Paar said, adding that it also helps develop military skills.
Army Capt. Simona Shipp said rugby develops teamwork.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘superstar’ in rugby,” she said, emphasizing that it takes the entire team working together to win.
Shipp, a staff judge advocate attorney at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, plays with a Fairbanks rugby club when she’s not on duty.
She said rugby helps develop confidence, not only on the pitch, but in other fields as well. “In the middle of calamity, you have to keep a straight head,” she said.
Army Capt. Ashley Sorensen goes by the nickname “Viking” because she sometimes wears her blonde hair in two braids when she plays. Sorensen, who serves with the 303rd Ordnance Battalion (Explosive Ordnance Detachment) at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, broke the Guinness world record for the fastest mile run in a full bomb suit.
Sorensen ran the mile in 11 minutes, six seconds and broke the EOD record by more than 2.5 minutes. She brings that same speed and endurance to rugby, though she’s recovering from a knee injury suffered last year when tackled high while playing for the Hawaii Harlequins.
Air Force 2nd Lt. Emily Raney said her Army father supports her in the sport. Col. Lance Raney is chief of Consultants and Clinical Policy at the U.S. Army Medical Command headquarters in Falls Church, VA.
The younger Raney serves at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, where she plays for the Salt Lake City Slugs recreational rugby team. She also plays as wide receiver, safety and kicker for the Utah Falconz, a semi-pro women’s tackle football team.
Sgt. Cerrin Allyn Eldridge was one of only three enlisted players at the training camp. She’s a parachute rigger for the 725th Brigade Support Battalion at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
“I’d like to see the sport grow in the military,” Eldridge said, adding that she was delighted that the Armed Forces women’s rugby program has gotten underway, as her opportunities to play in Alaska were limited.
“This gives us an opportunity to come down here and play in beautiful weather against really good teams and meet other really good rugby players,” she said.
“The female players have come together to play well as a team in just a few days,” she said.
“Any kind of rugby team, usually the minute we meet, we all of a sudden start bonding,” Eldridge said. “We all play one of the roughest sports out there.
Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Mallory Michaels, a corpsman, was another enlisted player at the training camp. She serves as a full-timer at a Navy Reserve Operational Support Center in New Hampshire.
Michaels said she has broken her wrist and all 10 of her fingers at one time or another playing rugby. Sometimes she just splinters them in cardboard to get back in the game that she says she loves so much.
As a corpsman, Michaels said she often helps treat other players injured at rugby club games, even though she’s off duty. She said the sport not only provides her fitness training, it also provides training in her rate or military occupational specialty.
Michaels began playing rugby at Lock Haven University in central Pennsylvania. She said she felt right at home at Fort Indiantown Gap as Black Hawk helicopters flew along a ridge of the Blue Mountains in the background.
None of the players seemed to notice the helicopters landing and taking off as they practiced scrums, rucks, mauls, passing and tackling on the warm August afternoon. They were preparing to scrimmage against several of the Armed Forces Men’s Rugby Team there to help with practice.
The 12 service members who made the selection for the Armed Forces Women’s Rugby Team were:
-- Army 2nd Lt. Jacqueline Marks, 557th Military Police Company, Camp Humphreys, Korea
-- Army Capt. Ashley Sorensen, 303rd Ordnance Bn. (EOD), Fort Wainwright, Alaska
-- Army 1st Lt. Kelsie Whitney, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington
-- Army 1st Lt. Jessica Sexauer, C Company, 1-4th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 4th Infantry Div., Fort Carson, Colorado
-- Army Sgt. Cerrin Eldridge, 725th Brigade Support Battalion, Fort Richardson, Alaska
-- Sr. Airman Merideth Jordan, RAF Alconbury, United Kingdom
-- Air Force 2nd Lt. Emily Raney, Hill Air Force Base, Utah
-- Air Force 2nd Lt. Jamie Stewart, Los Angeles Air Force Base, California
-- Marine 1st Lt. Erin Bevacqua, Office of the Inspector General of the marine Corps, Arlington, Virginia
-- Marine Capt. Elizabeth Trujillo, Headquarters Battery, 11th Marine Regiment, Camp Pendleton, California
-- Marine 1st Lt. Jane Paar, San Diego
-- Navy Lt.j.g. Erin Fields, HSM-46, Mayport, Florida
First Lt. Tenesha Middleton of Fort Gordon, Georgia, was also at the training camp.
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