Kitsap Grenades: explosion of talent

(Left) Amber Payne, who plays for the Kitsap Grenades U19 girls rugby team, makes a tackle during the team’s final game of the 2009 season. (Above) Players fight for possession of a flying ball. - Photos courtesy of Kitsap Rugby Football Union
(Left) Amber Payne, who plays for the Kitsap Grenades U19 girls rugby team, makes a tackle during the team’s final game of the 2009 season. (Above) Players fight for possession of a flying ball.
— image credit: Photos courtesy of Kitsap Rugby Football Union

U19 girls rugby team combines strength with skill on the pitch.

Kayla Calhoon-Renzo is a competition-crumbler, dusting opponents with explosive tackles.

Ask the Kitsap Grenades U19 rugby player about her first tackle on the pitch, during a game against Kent in which she shifted from the position of outside center to fly-half, and the 16-year-old hard-hitter beams.

“She (my opponent) was just breaking through everyone — I think it was her first time scoring — and she had this big smile on her face,” said the Bremerton High School junior-to-be. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do ... so I just charged up at her and jumped on her like an animal. I plowed her over. It was cool.”

Calhoon-Renzo, “KK,” plays alongside Jessie Alexander, 17, Amber Payne, 17, and Sarah Gozar, 17. They are teammates who enjoy the physicality and camaraderie of rugby, a sport that blends the grace of soccer with the power of football and speed of track.

Gozar and Payne attend Olympic High School, while Alexander attends BHS with Calhoon-Renzo. Each member of this Grenades quartet finds satisfaction through rugby, which, they say, bridges a gap between social circles, high-school hallways and the playing field.

“We’re a big family,” Calhoon-Renzo said. “We’re all really close. We see other teams playing together and they don’t connect like we do.”

So, really, who are these gals?

The Grenades belong to the Kitsap Rugby Football Union, a subdivision of the Washington Youth Rugby Union. Coached by Deane Shephard, who has played rugby for about 30 years, the all-girls rugby team competes from February to May. It faces teams from Kent, Redmond and Lynnwood and participates in regional tournaments.

The 2009 squad was comprised of 12 players, three shy of the required 15 to field an official team. On paper, that meant the Grenades forfeited every game — teams play between six and eight regular-season matches to go with tournament action — but they stepped on the field each week, playing shorthanded or borrowing players from the opposing side to level the numbers.

In the season finale against Lynnwood, the Grenades won 45-5.

“We have these people who, with all this energy they have, they use their adrenaline and go 100 percent for the entire game,” said Alexander, who broke her leg in an off-field incident following her first practice three years ago, but rejoined the team a few months later. “It shows the dedication that our team has to succeed.”

KRFU is comprised of four teams — U19 boys, men’s Division III and a brand-new women’s team — and holds off-season training as well as fundraisers and community outreach events.

Yet Shephard is convinced the rugby following in Kitsap could be greater. Whereas the city of Portland has 42 high school rugby teams, the entire county here struggles to field two.

“It is amazing how many people don’t know rugby exists in this county,” Shephard said.

“We struggle every year to have enough girls,” Calhoon-Renzo added.

Establishing the program

The Grenades hope to field a full roster in 2010 — Shephard is shooting for 25 members — and the current players will branch out between now and then.

Members of the team pass out flyers at school to encourage their classmates to become teammates, but it’s a difficult process because rugby is a big commitment. The sport is physical, requires travel and many students either don’t have time or choose to participate in other activities.

The Grenades, however, insist the sport is for everyone.

“I feel like I’ve grown as a person playing on this team,” Alexander said.

Payne, who has played for about four years, recently traveled to Colorado to compete in a tournament with Gozar as part of the Washington State Girls U19 Select Team. Seven Kitsap players were evaluated for the team and selected as either primary or alternate players. Also a member of an All-Star team that traveled to Oregon for a tournament last summer, Payne credits a friend for introducing her to rugby.

An outside center, she considers herself a physical player.

“I like the contact,” Payne said. “I like to hit — hard.”

With the 2009 season a wrap, the Grenades plan to share time together off the field — as friends. They hold frequent slumber parties and may set up a booth at the Whaling Days festival as part of an outreach effort.

“This sport is a life-changing experience,” Calhoon-Renzo said. “You learn so much, not just in sports, it’s amazing. I wish that everyone in the world played it.”

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