Successful Scrum

The Flathead Valley is home to one of the largest and most talented youth rugby programs in Montana for boys and girls

By Dillon Tabish
Erik McAtee brings down Sebastian Koch during a tackling drill at Flathead Valley Black and Blue's rugby practice on April 5, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Last weekend, on damp green grass in Evergreen, black and blue were the defining colors of spring as one of the best youth rugby programs in Montana renewed its tradition of excellence.

Saturday’s home opener for the Flathead Valley Black and Blue rugby players erupted into a dominating display of power and grit at all levels. The junior high boys team won both of its matches, followed by a pair of victories for the high school girls team, which defeated the defending state champs from the Bitterroot Valley in two sevens matches. The day’s hardnosed festivities concluded with a bang as the high school boys team rolled to a 59-17 win over a talented Bitterroot squad.

The win put the local boys team at 2-0 overall in the new competitive season and further punctuated the program’s prospects as the reigning state champion squad eager to defend its standing as Montana’s best.

“Our brand of rugby is hardnosed,” head coach Lance Heavirland said. “We’re going to come right at you and make you stop us. That’s how we play rugby, and I’ve got a perfect group of kids to do that.”

Heavirland and his assistant coaches certainly have an impressive squad on the field this season. Naturally, a town with some of the best high school wrestlers and football players in the state is producing a talented rugby club.

This year’s high school boys squad is one of the biggest in the state with 27 players. It includes talented mutli-sport athletes like Matt Gash Gilder, a senior all-state wrestler at Flathead who has accepted a scholarship offer to play rugby at Endicott College in Massachusetts. The team also has leaders in Tucker Nadau, a junior at Flathead, and Sam Mann, a junior at Glacier.

“This year’s team is experienced and talented, and we have a lot of freshmen, which is really exciting for us,” Heavirland said. “We have been growing like crazy.”

The burgeoning program is still accepting new members of all ages and abilities. With its recent growth, the Black and Blue program has added the junior high team, which has eight boys, and the high school girls squad, which boasts 10 players, including standouts Payge Boyce and Clara Vandenbosch, both juniors at Flathead.

The large number of high school boys has allowed the program to develop varsity and junior varsity teams.

Last season, the varsity boys cruised to championship glory, defeating Missoula in the title match and bringing home the program’s second championship trophy. The team finished with an 8-0-1 record.

The team plays squads from across Montana as well as Spokane, Washington, and Post Falls, Idaho.

Adding extra motivation this season, Kalispell is hosting the state tournament, May 12-13, at Glacier High School. It will be the second time the Flathead Valley has hosted the championship event.

Rugby is growing in popularity across Montana and the Flathead Valley. The sport has a well-established tradition for youth and adult programs dating back several years, and it recently received a nice publicity boost with the success of Heavirland’s daughter, Nicole.

Nicole grew up in the Flathead Valley and competed on the Black and Blue program for years, while also playing other sports at Glacier High School. Last year, the 22-year-old was named a member of the USA Women’s National Rugby Team and earned a spot as a traveling reserve for Team USA at the Summer Olympics in Rio. Recently, she competed for Team USA at the Can-Am women’s rugby series in California, a prime event in the lead-up to this summer’s Rugby World Cup.

Not bad for an athlete from this far corner of Montana.

“Our goal as a squad and as coaches is to try to grow the game of rugby,” Lance Heavirland said.

“I think people are starting to migrate toward it. There’s really a position for everyone, every body type and every size of player. There’s a place for you on the team.”

Heavirland also loves seeing players take pride in the sport and embrace the hard work and toughness required to excel.

Lumps and bruises are inherent in this game, but they’re also products of passion and drive.

“There’s a lot of pride when you come off the field and you played a rugby match and you’ve been hit, knocked down and you delivered some hits yourself,” Heavirland said. “Once people play it, they get addicted. And it’s easy to talk about it but tough to do.”

For more information about the program or to register to play with the Black and Blue program, visit the Flathead Valley Youth Rugby Facebook page.

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