Photo: Heather Szabo
The Szabo kids knew about rugby through their parents, who found the sport in college and bookmarked it as a potential activity for their children. Six years ago, the family found Superior RFC (est. 2011) outside of Denver, Colo. The youth program accommodates boys and girls ages 5-18, generally, and became the Szabo’s second home.
The youngest began playing U8 flag in kindergarten, and the team was looking for coaches.
“My husband and I, being the joiners we are, said, ‘Sure! We can coach,’” Heather Szabo said with a so-it-begins lilt.
The eldest, Lydia, didn’t play initially. One day, a schedule conflict meant Lydia had to travel with coach mom during one her coaching sessions. Her parents insisted that if she was there then she’d have to participate rather than observe.
Lydia, far right / Photo: Heather Szabo
“Afterward it was, ‘Can I play too?’ And that’s how our family got into rugby,” Szabo said.
Lydia’s in 7th grade and has been playing co-ed rugby for six years. Sometimes she was one of a half-dozen girls on the pitch, and other times she was the only one.
“She’s still eligible for U13 [co-ed] but next year she won’t be able to play with the boys anymore,” Szabo foreshadowed an issue. “Even [having girls play] U13 is cautioned and questionable, but since she’s been playing with them for so long she was grandfathered in, so to speak.”
Teammate Marley Gurmendi is in 8th grade and has been playing for nearly a decade. A year older than Lydia, Gurmendi aged out of the co-ed U13s this year but wasn’t old enough to play with the Superior high school team. So there was a stoppage where there were no competitive options for girls.
Gurmendi / Photo: Heather Szabo
“We’re going to lose them in that gap year,” Szabo feared. “We need a middle school team for the girls – for our kid, yes, but we realized there are plenty of girls in the same situation.”
There was a concerted effort to retain these players and thus the girls’ middle school team came to fruition. Rugby Colorado’s TRY program has been operating for five years and added a middle school competition to accommodate the interest. A circuit of round robin 7s tournaments weaved through the three regions, and clubs combined for full squads. Superior contributed six players as that first weekend drew more than 30 middle schools girls to the tournament. The season culminated last weekend with a final jamboree for all levels.
Sam Alegranti / Photo: Heather Szabo
“The enthusiasm level is high, and the families have been really great, too,” Szabo said. “It’s not necessarily convenient for all of the teams that are so far away or for families that have other children in the city league teams. There’s some juggling but the parents are accommodating that.
“Sometimes I think they get it – the significance of what we’re doing,” Szabo said of the players. “Earlier in the year my daughter and I were watching A League of Their Own and she did make a reference. ‘Hey, mom, we have a league of our own, too.’ Marley experienced this whole gap year issue so for her it has been really important and motivating for her to see. I haven’t talked to her specifically about how she felt about being a leader in this position but I know she’s made passing comments like, ‘Finally, we’re here. Gotta keep this momentum going.’”
Photo: Heather Szabo
Gurmendi and Szabo bring the most experience to the squad and it shows in their skillful play. Mariah Healey, a hooker and back, has played for four years while Tallulah Lyndon is building on her two years’ experience.
Momentum began to build and it was aided by the new girls’ middle school division in the Rocky Mountain Challenge. The longtime showcase for youth and high school rugby is also a USA Rugby Regional Cup Tournament (and also hosting a regional 7s qualifier for the women). Jamie Burke, who is head coach of the Rugby Colorado girls’ all-state teams (read more), spearheaded the collaborative effort to the division.
“There are so few opportunities for middle school girls to play,” Burke said, “so let’s create a space for them and they’ll come.”
Photo: Heather Szabo
Up until a couple of weeks ago, six teams were registered for the girls’ middle school division, but California’s Rhino Academy and Rugby Oklahoma have since dropped out. The three-team competition will pit Superior (in combination with Weld, Glendale and Parker), Amy Rusert’s 5785 and Texas against each other in a 10s format.
“We’re light on forwards and we’re playing 10s, not 7s, so our five-person scrum will be a little light and inexperienced,” Szabo said. “But hopefully we’ll be able to get the ball out to our backs and be O.K.”
“But really it’s about seeing what else is out there,” the coach continued. “Right now we’ve only been playing against girls here in the Front Range, but we know there are others in Colorado playing, and this is an opportunity to see them.”
Hopefully the Rocky Mountain Challenge brings more awareness to the girls’ middle school game and marks the first of many more opportunities to come.