Gainesville rugby team adds to trophy collection
Published: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 at 6:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.
As the Florida football players scrimmaged at The Swamp on Saturday with dreams of returning to glory dancing in their helmets, another team of local gladiators was elsewhere in the state claiming yet another state championship.
The Hogs, Gainesville's rugby club, beat the top-ranked Sarasota Surge 20-16 for the Division III state championship — the team's fourth straight title.
After the win at the National Training Center in Clermont, the Hogs move onto the Southeast Championship in Charlotte, N.C. If they win, they will qualify for the USA Rugby National Playoff Series in Pittsburgh and a shot at the USA Rugby national championship.
The Hogs — a salute to Gainesville's former name, Hogtown — were founded in 2003. The team is made up of UF graduate students and faculty, Santa Fe college undergraduates and local professionals.
With a roster crammed with graduate students who stay in town only as long as it takes to get a degree, churn is a constant for the team. The team has seen more than 40 players cycle through during their four championship runs.
A key to the team's success and stability is head coach Kerri O'Malley, one of the only female coaches of a senior men's team in the country.
She credits “months of hard training, and our best efforts to minimize penalties in the game.'' But her mere presence may give the Hogs an edge.
O'Malley, a research assistant professor at the University of Florida department of surgery, moved to Gainesville in 2000 from Philadelphia where she used to play rugby. She coached the UF women's club from fall of 2000 to spring of 2008.
“The rugby community is small and I knew several members of the men's team. They needed a coach and I wanted a new challenge,'' she said.
“My first year we weren't very good, as we were building and that was tough on all of us. But when we started winning it almost became humorous for the guys, like they had this psychological advantage over the other teams because they thought they had us when we showed up because there was a woman coach.''
O'Malley said another reason for the team's success is team captain Jesse Bishop, a former Army Ranger.
“He really helped at first to push the idea of chain of command. So being the woman coach at first was easier with him there, he also stood by my coaching when times were tough,'' she said.
“We make sure the team culture is one of respect for each other and one that rewards hard work. In the beginning, players could show up on a Saturday and play. Now, they need to come to trainings to get play time, so they grow more individually and as a team.''
Because there is no high school rugby in Gainesville, many of the players learn the sport while on the team. Starting flanker Alex Bennett is one such recruit. He was part of the 2006 Gator football team and transitioned to rugby after meeting some of the players while lifting weights.
“This is a sport that people fall in love with right away,” said Gage Miller, assistant coach and team co-founder, who works for a local environmental consulting company. “It is a physical team sport that is both social and at the same time, very competitive.”
While the Hogs do not have the high profile of their gridiron brethren, their popularity is continuing to grow.
“When I joined the club we barely had 15 active players and it takes 15 to field a side,'' O'Malley said. “I think right now we have about 30 active players. We even have a few players that drive up from Ocala and one who drives from Starke to play with us.''