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Wednesday, Sep 20, 2017
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Rugby gains ground in Tampa area

V.M. YBOR - Joshua Felix knows why he plays rugby. "I like being tackled and returning the favor," the 10-year-old said. "It hurts but you have a love for the game. Ever since I was young I've loved to run." Running is a sure bet in rugby, a game of near nonstop motion, backward ball tossing, drop-kicking, goal scoring and Joshua's favorite – tackling. Teams of 15 players – or, in some cases, seven – run up and down an open field known as the pitch, racking up points in two 40-minute periods. On most Tuesdays and Thursdays, Joshua's parents drive him from Temple Terrace to Cuscaden Park where he practices with the Tampa Barbarians Rugby Club.
The Barbarians and other clubs used to train at a field in Wesley Chapel. But Coach Mark Van Trees recently moved his program to Cuscaden in V.M. Ybor, a neighborhood named for cigar maker Vicente Martinez Ybor. Van Trees also has donated a set of goal posts, and his rugby club will help maintain Cuscaden's athletic field. The park in recent years has been under-used. Cuscaden's ball field and above-ground swimming pool are legendary. Major League Baseball players who grew up using the ball field include Al Lopez, Tony La Russa and Lou Piniella. The pool was built in 1937 during the Great Depression. Cuts to the city's budget in recent years have curtailed after-school programs at the park's community center. The pool goes unused because it leaks, despite a $3 million makeover. "It's kind of fallen on hard times," Van Trees said. But with help from nonprofit groups including Van Trees' Rugby 4 Life, Cuscaden is on the rebound. A new playground was installed last year. The Dream Center, which will offer youth programs, has moved into the former Boys & Girls Club building. A renovated Academy Prep, in the former V.M. Ybor grammar school, uses the park's field for soccer practice. Van Trees sees Cuscaden's location in Central Tampa, near interstates 275 and 4, as advantageous. It is accessible to rugby enthusiasts from all over the area: Lutz, Westchase, Riverview and Tampa. It also adds to the mix of youth activities and privately sponsored after-school programs within V.M. Ybor. Nearly five years ago Van Trees – through his nonprofit Rugby 4 Life – introduced noncontact flag rugby to Polk County after school officials there became alarmed by numbers of overweight students. They wanted a sport easy enough for large numbers of children to play. Since then more Florida school districts have signed on to flag rugby. Osceola, Brevard and Hillsborough counties have programs. Pinellas County might be next. The U.S. Marine Corps worked with Van Trees to supply the outsized, egg-shaped rugby balls and small fees to University of South Florida rugby players who provided instruction. Training sessions for Hillsborough's physical education teachers have been held at the county's elementary, middle and high schools. More than 150,000 students have played flag rugby. The rules are simple and the cost to schools is only about $400 per school, Van Trees said. "Everyone gets an opportunity regardless of shape or size. Everybody gets to run around," he said. Van Trees, 56, learned the sport as a teenager when his family moved to Ireland. It has been his passion for nearly 40 years. He launched rugby teams at high schools in Virginia and Indiana. For the past six years he has helped coach the USF rugby team, which won the state championship in 2007. Jeff "Alaska" Herron, 26, grew up in Alaska and began playing rugby in elementary school. He was captain of USF's state championship team and now plays club rugby with the Tampa Krewe Men's Team for people age 18 and older. He and other older players help teach the younger athletes. For anyone with excess weight the sport can cause an "unbelievable change in body shape," said Herron. He had a college friend who lost 100 pounds within 18 months of taking up rugby. South African Wesley Eldridge, 17, moved to Tampa with his family about four years ago. Rugby is the national sport in South Africa. "It's a big tradition," he said. "Everybody plays it. It gives you a good rush." Obesity is less of a problem in South Africa, he said. "You notice the weight gap," Eldridge said of his move to the United States. "Basically [in South Africa] you had to play a sport," he said. "It's such a big part of life there." Abbie Hutchings, 14, and Haley Burns, 16, are in their first year with the Barbarians. Hutchings has played lacrosse; Burns, softball. They both enjoy the physical contact and quickness of rugby. "It's fun to tackle," Hutchings said.

ksteele@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7652

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