Upon landing in Anchorage on Monday, Xane Gerasimo, captain of a traveling rugby team based in Wisconsin, got quite the reception.
“I got a car from somebody I didn’t know, got picked up at the airport by somebody I didn’t know, and fed by somebody I didn’t know,” Gerasimo said. “They gave me the keys and I was like, ‘Don’t you need my name or number or something?’”
Welcome to the fellowship of rugby, with some Alaska hospitality mixed in.
Gerasimo and her squad were in Alaska for the week to take part in the Kenai Dipnet Fest Rugby 10s Tournament, put on Saturday by Kenai River Wolfpack Rugby Club at the fields behind The Back Door Lounge in Kenai.
The tourney drew five men’s teams and four women’s teams. The traveling Wisconsin team won the women’s tourney with a 3-0 record, while the Manu Bears beat the defending champion Turnagain Boretide for the men’s title.
“We’ve spent the week hiking and sightseeing,” Gerasimo said. “It’s been one of the best trips of my life.”
Gerasimo said a trip to Eklutna Lake is just one of the things that had her wanting to come back some day.
“We woke up on the beach in Seward yesterday,” she said. “It was pretty breathtaking.”
The team also got to play a group of hastily thrown together Alaska select players on the iconic Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds in Anchorage.
“It was pretty unbelievable,” Gerasimo said. “That was on the bucket list for all of us.”
The Dipnet Fest tournament is all about using the lure of Kenai in mid-July to bring competition to the Wolfpack.
“This is the funnest tournament in the state,” said Wolfpack player Jason Young. “It’s a big social gathering. Everybody is in one place.”
Brendyn Shiflea, the assistant vice president for the Wolfpack, said his squad doesn’t get to play many games each summer. The Wolfpack only have enough numbers for weeknight scrimmages.
So when the Wolfpack started in 2009, the Dipnet Fest tournament was quickly put together the next year in order to draw competition.
And draw competition it has, with the main problem being that the teams that show up tend to be more polished because they have weekly games in Anchorage.
Three members of the Wolfpack were playing in games for the first time Saturday.
“We’re the Bad News Bears of Alaska rugby,” Young said. “But everybody works hard and we make the most of the numbers we have.”
Young, 44, started playing rugby in college in Wisconsin. He kept playing the game while living in Colombia. Then, one day the Kasilof resident saw a flyer for the Wolfpack squad.
“I was disappointed because I felt obligated to play again,” Young said. “I thought it was over.
“But I still had the boots under the bed, so I saw the flyer and showed up, and now it’s seven years later.”
Why was he obligated to play rugby again?
“Rugby’s a subculture, almost a fraternity,” Young said. “If there are people doing it in your area, you are obligated to come help them out.”
It’s that same spirit that brought the Wisconsin traveling group to Alaska. The group’s official name is two acronyms best suited for the rugby pitch and the tables of the Back Door and not for a family newspaper on a Sunday morning.
“It was a bad joke that was supposed to last for a weekend and has lasted for six years now,” Gerasimo said.
Gerasimo said she was invited to Alaska by Fairbanks player Liz Millman, whom she knew from college rugby days. The Wisconsin group is a mix of college and club players. The squad has 10 tournaments this year, mostly in the Midwest but some in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Nashville, Tennessee.
While Gerasimo, for obvious reasons, has a large player pool to draw upon, the Wolfpack are always looking for more players.
“There’s a place in the game for everybody, whether you are big or small, fast or slow,” Shiflea said.
Brown said supreme athleticism is not necessary in the game because positioning and spatial awareness is so important.
“You could be a complete barstool and show up and still be good at rugby,” Brown said.
Shiflea said the sport is physical, but not violent. That’s the price for entering a club that gives one instant friends at any rugby bar in the world.
“There’s always a social event after every tournament,” Brown said. “There’s always beer, food and plenty of fun.”
Those interested in the Wolfpack can check them out on Facebook or show up to a practice Tuesdays at the fields behind The Back Door at 7 p.m.
Kenai Dipnet Fest Rugby 10s Tournament
Saturday in Kenai
Turnagain Boretide 29, Kenai River Wolfpack 5
Wisconsin traveling team 27, Anchor Town Women’s Rugby 0
Arctic Legion 31, Bird Creek Barbarians 12
Aurora Rams 30, Foxy Lynx 15
Turnagain Boretide 12, Manu Bears 7
Wisconsin traveling team 55, Aurora Rams 0
Manu Bears 37, Kenai River Wolfpack 12
Anchor Town Women’s Rugby 42, Foxy Lynx 5
Wisconsin traveling team 61, Anchorage Selects 5
Semifinal 1 — Turnagain Boretide 16, Bird Creek Barbarians 7
Semifinal 2 — Manu Bears 19, Arctic Legion 7