High school girls rugby gaining popularity in Western Pennsylvania

Friday, July 5, 2024 | 1:58 PM

Rugby is not a universally beloved sport in America, but that does not mean it is devoid of athletes who cherish the game.

The uptick in girls playing rugby in the greater Pittsburgh area and across the state has encouraged Rugby Pennsylvania to launch the Emerging Girls Rugby campaign. It seeks to help high schools across the commonwealth create girls rugby programs.

More and more athletes are turning to rugby and finding a team sport that best aligns with their interests.

One of those athletes, Jillian Orseno, a Deer Lakes graduate and rising freshman at Emory & Henry, has seen the sport’s remarkable growth firsthand. Appreciating the physical side of soccer, Orseno joined the North Pitt United Rugby Club as a freshman in high school and loved it.

“It’s one of the best sports environments I’ve ever been in,” Orseno said. “I’ve never found a bad person in any game I’ve played. They’re all very welcoming, even after we’re hitting each other all game. There aren’t really any injuries that I’ve noticed either because of the careful detail to using proper technique, which seems surprising to people who don’t know rugby.”

There were only three high school girls teams in the greater Pittsburgh area when Orseno started: North Pitt United, Hollidaysburg and Moon. That number has doubled to include Penn Hills, Mt. Lebanon and West Allegheny.

“There were three people on (North Pitt United) when I joined,” Orseno said. “Since then, I helped recruit seven more players to form a full team. Before then, we had to join with those other teams.”

While players have experienced rugby’s growth, coaches, obviously, have been around the game longer.

Alex Gralia, the high school girls coach of North Pitt United Rugby, has seen interest in rugby rise for years. He started playing at Slippery Rock in 1995, and he has been involved since as a coach and referee.

There are several cultural aspects of rugby that Gralia believes have contributed to the growth of the sport.

“There are certain qualities about rugby players like respect. You are told to respect the referee. You don’t argue. He’s the judge out there. You are taught to respect your opponents, and after the match, we are friends,” Gralia said. “The social afterwards is another cultural aspect of rugby. There aren’t many sports where after you’re done, you can spend time to eat and drink with your opponent.”

Safety is another crucial factor. While injuries are not always avoidable, steps have been taken by World Rugby to mitigate the risks, such as governing organizations of other sports.

“World Rugby has changed laws of the game to make it safer. When I first started playing, if you were lying on the ground, you could legally be stepped on,” Gralia said. “They also made some of the tackling safer. The tackling height used to be below the shoulders. Now, it’s below the sternum.”

North Pitt United has not been the sole rugby organization to yield improvement. Moon High School’s girls rugby program, operating for a decade, has facilitated growth, too.

Moon girls rugby coach Rocky Nurss just finished his 10th season and has been at the helm of the program since its inception. He has seen steady growth in girls participating.

“It’s growing nationally and, in particular, in Western Pa. in terms of quantity and quality,” Nurss said. “It is great to see growth in numbers as well as competitiveness, too. Our first practice had four people show up. This season we had 52 on our roster.”

Rugby Pennsylvania’s initial goal is to reach the 25 high schools threshold so it can obtain the Emerging Sport designation from the PIAA and receive sponsorship from the statewide organization that governs high school sports. There are nine schools in Pennsylvania with girls rugby teams: Conestoga, Cristo Rey, Cumberland Valley, Hollidaysburg, Moon, Mt. Lebanon, State College, Walter B. Saul and West Allegheny.

“We’re following a path similar to girls wrestling and girls flag football. Those sports have an advantage as they’ve been well established,” Nurss said. “Rugby has a slow climb, but we’re one of the few teams in contact sports. There are avenues for players looking for contact (by playing rugby).”

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