Black and Blue Brawlers

By Beacon Staff

Rugby, for an unassuming spectator, can be a perplexing sport. Men, and sometimes women, dressed in collared shirts without any padding ramble around the field colliding and tackling like gentlemen brawlers. It appears to be orchestrated chaos with players relying more on survival instincts than a playbook. Not surprisingly, the collared shirts don’t stay clean very long.

It’s fitting then that a town with some of the best high school wrestlers and football players in the state would naturally have a good rugby club. And Kalispell has one of the best.

Fittingly named, the Black and Blue are back delivering lumps and bruises to opponents this spring. Last year the boys finished undefeated in league play before losing narrowly in the state semifinals to the eventual champ, Bitterroot. This year, the squad is 8-1 and recently won the eight-team tournament in Helena featuring every club in the Montana Youth Rugby Association. Opponents have only scored a handful of times on them all season. With just over three weeks before the state championship tournament in Kalispell, the Black and Blue are the team to beat in Montana.

“It’s turning out to be a nice little program,” head coach Dave Kenkel says modestly.

The program began four years ago when rugby barely had a pulse in the Flathead Valley. Bob Foley, Dave Reese and Rich Lapp organized a team in the spirit of Dave Himsl, a longtime rugby enthusiast who helped start the adult team, the Flathead Moose, and dreamed of founding a youth program before losing a battle to cancer.

In Himsl’s honor, the Black and Blue formed and since then rugby has proliferated in Kalispell. There are now two high school teams; the Flathead Rugby Club took the pitch for the first time this season. The Flathead Moose are also rejuvenated and playing regularly again.

The Moose are holding an alumni gathering on Saturday, May 5 at Hillcrest Field on Whitefish Stage Road. The Moose play the Missoula Maggots. The Moose will head to Missoula the following week, May 12-13, for the 36th annual Maggotfest.

The Black and Blue won its final home game of the season on April 26, defeating Missoula 26-10. The squad plays Corvallis this weekend and then Billings the following weekend to finish out the regular season. This year’s Montana Youth Rugby Association championship tournament is at Evergreen Junior High on May 25-26.

Kenkel, in his first full season as head coach, said bringing the state tourney to Kalispell helps solidify the sport’s local roots. It also stokes the enthusiasm even more. Kenkel said school administrators at Evergreen Junior High have welcomed the Black and Blue and allowed the program to even build a “pitch,” or playing field, in the open land behind the school so two games can be played at once at the state tournament.

It’s more proof of a budding program’s successful rise. With barely enough players in its first season, the Black and Blue didn’t score a single point. By last season, the team was the top seed in the state.

“Part of that I think is they’re just tough kids,” Kenkel says. “And as you see them parade in, you’ll see they’re good athletes.”

The team is built with wrestlers from Glacier’s state champion wrestling team and playoff football team. Other players are just teenagers with a knack for the rowdy sport.

“Rugby is a free flowing game. Yes there are certain plays but the coaches don’t send plays in,” Kenkel says. “I sit right here and substitute, but it’s their game. They take control of it or they don’t. I think that’s a big part of the reason why the kids love the game.”

Jackson Thiebes, a senior at Glacier, played offensive line for the Wolfpack football team, but never felt the rush of carrying the ball down field. That’s part of the reason he loves rugby.

“Everyone gets a chance to play and run with the ball,” he says, adding, “My mom was nervous but my dad played rugby in college so he was excited.”

From the sidelines, the lack of padding or helmets seems suicidal. It stings a little at first, Thiebes admits, but after that “it doesn’t hurt as much as you think it would.”

“In football you can just launch your body and head, but here you have to actually use form,” Josh Jenks, a senior at Glacier, says.

In three years Kenkel said the Black and Blue have only had one injury beyond bumps and bruises — a sprained ankle.

“There’s a different mentality to the tackle,” Kenkel says. “It’s not about absolutely killing the guy, it’s about getting the ball. Yeah, they’ll have bumps and bruises.”

But, after all, they are the Black and Blue.

For more information about the Moose, call 250-3698. For information about the Black and Blue, call Kenkel at 871-0277. For information about the new team, call 212-8119.