The Times West Virginian

Sports

June 22, 2014

Rugby tournament displays growing sport: PHOTOS

FAIRMONT — “Rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen.”

Those words summed up the thoughts of all of the men who walked away with mud-stained skin Saturday following the Almost Heaven Sevens rugby tournament held at Mary Lou Retton Park.

The tournament, which returns to West Virginia for the first time in several years, brought teams from West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland together on a dreary day which is labeled as the first official day of summer.

But the weather didn’t bother the men on the field.

“This is perfect rugby weather,” Donald Lowe, who spoke the above words and is the vice president of the North Central West Virginia IronGuts, the only men’s club rugby team in the state, said. “It slows the game down a little bit, and it’s always fun to get in the mud.”

Between the mud, the rain and the eventual sunshine, members of the IronGuts and the West Virginia Select team, the Warhounds, were excited to see the tournament back in West Virginia.

“This is actually the 15th year for this tournament,” Troy Heaney, the IronGuts’ president, said. “But this is the first year in the past three years that it’s been back in West Virginia.”

The Almost Heaven Sevens tournament, when played in West Virginia years back, always coincided with West Virginia Day, but with college club teams starting up around the state, the interest died down and West Virginia was no longer considered a suitable fit, forfeiting the tournament.

The tournament now, though, is in its first year of a three-year trial period in which USA Rugby will be watching closely to see if the current location can once again provide stability to the tournament. If it does, the Almost Heaven Sevens will become a national qualifying tournament, giving the sport endless possibilities in the area and in the state.

“If this becomes a national qualifier, that means some Warhounds can become Olympic guys one day,” Lowe said.

Team West Virginia, as coach Kenny Levick called it, is a mixture of players from the entire state, including guys from Marshall, Fairmont State, West Virginia University and Wheeling Jesuit.

“There’s no stipulation to play for the IronGuts, but to play for the Warhounds, you just have to have some ties to the state,” coach Kenny Levick said. “We keep it pretty tight knit.”

With success at the tournament comes the chance to draw in more fans and ultimately more players. But even teams from outside the state like South Pitt, which won the tournament, recognize the importance of establishing a base for future success.

“It went pretty smoothly and timely. It was pretty cool,” Jim Dieterle, a member of South Pitt, said after the action was over.

Like any good sport, rivalries can help in terms of gathering fan support. That, too, is alive and well within the sport of rugby.

“(The Warhounds) are our biggest rivals,” Dieterle said following the championship game, which pitted his South Pitt team against the Warhounds. “We met in the championship of this tournament last year. They’re pretty good.”

The growth of the sport will depend on the current crop of talent and how well teams like the IronGuts can recruit.

With hopes of one day getting rugby into the high schools, Lowe understands the importance, too, of just a simple flyer encouraging people to join.

“I was just in the gym one day and saw a flyer, myself,” Lowe said. “I gave them a call and asked how to get involved. Now I’m the vice president of the team. That’s pretty cool.

“The good thing about rugby is that you can play your whole life if you want. I’m going on 40 (years old), and I’m still in it. Anyone from ages 18 and up can come out.”

Even the teams in Pittsburgh can see the growth in the sport, which stems from college club teams into local club teams and on up.

“I think in the future, those kids who are playing college rugby are going to funnel into the men’s system,” Dieterle said. “New teams are popping up all around.”

With sponsors like the Tilted Kilt and VFW Post 629, the IronGuts believe they have a unique product to offer the area.

For anyone questioning whether or not the sport is for them, Lowe had one final piece of advice: “It’s just fun.”

Email Matt Welch at mwelch@timeswv.com or follow on Twitter @MattWelch_TWV.

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