Sailors and soldiers set to scrum

Deane Shephard nearly bursts with excitement when the subject of the Army-Navy rivalry comes up.

For obvious reasons.

“It’s Army versus Navy, need I say more?” he said last week.

Shephard coaches the Bangor Renegades rugby team, who will take on the Fort Lewis Stud Dawgs in the 11th annual Pacific Northwest Army-Navy rugby match on Dec. 4 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The Renegades won last year’s match 36-24 under the evening lights at Strawberry Fields in Poulsbo, ending Army’s nine-game winning streak.

For the first time, Navy hoisted the Commander’s Cup.

Shephard chalked up last year’s victory to several standout players and teamwork.

“I don’t think Army had that same cohesiveness,” he said.

Shephard’s pedigree as a Navy advocate isn’t obvious. Despite prepping sailors to take on soldiers, he is a 1985 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and was a former assistant coach for the Army.

“When you talk Army-Navy, you really don’t know or make any predictions until one minute left in the game,” he said. “It’s a more dynamic match, so that’s especially true, but you just don’t know until it’s almost over.”

Players on both sides have no idea who will start for the opposition, adding more anticipation to the annual grudge match. Various deployment dates for servicemen in the Army and Navy have recently complicated the rosters, so coaches often scramble to find civilians. The Renegades host rugby games throughout the year so servicemen can play when they return to Kitsap.

Oliver Otterbeck of Bremerton isn’t in the Navy, but has played with the Renegades for 16 years. Otterbeck loves striking and scoring on the field, but mostly appreciates the camaraderie within the close-knit group of players.

“It’s not about this trophy, it’s about guys getting together and playing rugby,” Otterbeck said. “This is the only sport that I know that I can go play against another team, and afterwards socialize with them about rugby.”

The Renegades assembled Tuesday night at the upper athletic fields at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for one of their final practices before the game with Army. For now, the team is made up of mostly civilians with only a few Navy members. It’s an eclectic group of men, some of which are older and still have an itch to compete.

They also have an itch to beat Army.

For the most part, they just wanted to come out and see each other again. The players designate nicknames for each other, like Drago, Big, and Oli (Otterbeck), just to name a few. Brad White, who joined the Navy last spring, found out about the rugby team last week when he was assigned to Naval Base Kitsap - Bangor. For now, he’s the “new guy” to the rest of the team.

“I just found out about the league last week, and I’m really excited to play,” White said.

Despite the weather, the practice went on. For the players, it’s more than just a game.

“I can’t even really call it a sport,” Otterbeck said. “It’s more of a culture.”

Retired Navy Capt. David Schneegas formed the Navy rugby club 25 years ago. He’s still involved with the team, trading coaching responsibilities with Shephard every few years, and has become a legend to the players for his inception.

“I remember coming to Kitsap and finding the only nearby rugby team in Tacoma, and thinking ‘I can’t go that far for rugby,’” he said. “So I went ahead and formed my own team.”

Schneegas retired from the Navy in 2002 and said he doesn’t play rugby anymore. He helps coach the Renegades and youth rugby clinics in the Kitsap area to stay involved with the sport. Schneegas’ original goal for creating the team was that he just wanted to play. Now the team serves as an outlet for other Navy men and Kitsap civilians who enjoy the sport too.

“It was a lot of fun when I used to play,” Schneegas added, “and it still is a lot of fun.”

The Renegades are recruiting more athletes for the Dec. 4 game against the Army squad. The team needs more Navy or Marine Corps servicemen to fill its roster, which is currently thinner than Shephard wants. Athletes can be active duty, reservist, retired personnel, or Department of Navy civilians.

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