Old rivals may soon be stepping out onto the playing fields united under one banner, although the banner may seem strange and foreign at the moment.
Aiken area high school rugby has begun, and it offers all high school-aged students to represent their city across the state. Aiken High School and South Aiken High School athletes, as well as others from the area, have the chance to put rivalries aside and scrum together.
South Carolina High School Rugby (SCHSR) is a competitive league playing all around the state. Since starting five years ago, the league has rapidly expanded in numbers and popularity, now boasting teams from all of the state's major cities.
Head Coach John Schwenker and his staff are putting together a team and has already attracted great interest from students, but they are still looking for more to join their ranks.
With cooperation from South Aiken, Schwenker recently set up a sign-up booth. More than 100 men and 30 women have expressed an interest in rugby.
Unfortunately for the female contingent, there is not currently a women's division in high schools.
"I was thrilled," Schwenker said. "I expected maybe 40 to 50 boys to sign up."
Expecting a drop-off, the Lions' first practice was busy, but more than 60 percent of signees did not show. Now, the team is down to about 25 boys and four coaches trying to teach the game.
The team has had some interest from the Aiken High Hornets but is looking for more from their athletes.
"We have two people who have ever seen rugby, and no one has ever played in a match," Schwenker said. "We're learning."
Rugby is a physically demanding game that Schwenker likens partly to basketball in that everyone has the opportunity to score and everyone plays offense and defense. It is physical, like football, with constant tackling but a lot more demanding of individual fitness.
"We're thrilled to add Aiken to our ranks and hope the city will embrace the sport of rugby just as Columbia, Charleston, Greenville and beyond have in recent seasons," said Simone Bontly, president of SCHSR. "The game is one that will suit all kinds of athletes and thrill their parents and school. SCHSR is a fast-paced, physical but safe game and a great way for students to get involved and stay active."
SCHSR boasts 14 teams for the 2010 season, which will begin mid-January.
Schwenker was one of those with the drive to start a team; he played rugby from early in his college days and for many years since with the Augusta Mad Dogs.
Setting up the team and playing will cost some money, as there is no backing from high schools. The teams looking for some corporate help as they must pay dues to join the national and state bodies, as well as pay for fields, referees and equipment.
But they do have a sponsor to have them look good on the field. The team kit is sponsored by URS Corp., who leads the liquid waste contractor at the Savannah River Site.
URS and the Aiken area team are partnering not only locally but also with friends and colleagues across the pond.
For several years, URS has sponsored a professional side near a facility they manage in England; they decided to get involved and reach out to the Aiken community through rugby.
"URS continues to support the community, and we saw some synergy with what we were doing in the Whitehaven club and what is happening here. We thought this was a good niche for us to continue to support," said Keith Wood, URS spokesperson.
To kick off the cooperative, the president of the English club, who is also a URS employee and retired U.S. Navy captain, is heading to Aiken. When he is in town, he will lend a hand in establishing the team.
URS sponsors Whitehaven Rugby Club in Whitehaven, located on England's northwestern coast. They wear blue and gold and have the mascot of a Lion. So the club is born and christened the Aiken Lions.
Rugby comes from similar roots to soccer and is the genesis of football. Those unfamiliar can imagine a game of football where the ball is kicked off, but the clock does not stop, and the ball remains in play. The ball can only be passed laterally and backward, while the ball is advanced by running or kicking it forward. Control of the ball is maintained by teammates "rucking" or driving over the ball so it can be played from the ground. Games are 80 minutes, split into two 40-minute halves.
Scoring is similar to football. A try - when the ball is touched down over the goal line - and the ensuing kick are worth seven points. A penalty or drop kick - where the ball is kicked from the ground or hand, respectively - are worth three points.
Those interested in playing or wanting more information can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on South Carolina High School Rugby, visit www.schsr.com.
((First Published in The Aiken Standard 12/20/209, written by SC Rugby Examiner))