There will be no shortage of heart and hustle as the Airdrie Highlanders Athletic Association gets set for another summer of rugby action.
“My numbers are already up for youth,” said Jill Young, club president and head coach. “Last year, we only had 12 registered. This year, we already have 16, and we’re only in our first week – and they’re not done high school, yet. As soon as exams are done, I’ll expect a lot more, so that’s all positive for me.”
The Highlanders, which caters to youth and adults in Airdrie who want to learn and play rugby, has registered a team to compete at the upcoming Stampede 7s rugby tournament July 5 and 6 in Calgary.
This year, Young said, the Highlanders hopes to field teams for both high-school aged girls and boys, as well as senior men’s and women’s squads. She added the program is showing plenty of growth, particularly on the U18 girls’ side, as Airdrie's high schools continue to embrace rugby.
“A lot of the George Mac girls carried over and are coming out [to the Highlanders] this season,” said Young, who coached the Mustangs first-ever girls’ team this year.
“It was a successful high-school season and they’re only going up from there. As a first-year team, with the two big tournaments they played in, it was great. I was thrilled with how they did and what they showed me.”
The club holds practice sessions Tuesdays and Thursdays at the George McDougall High School field, with the U18 girls kicking off at 5:30 p.m., and the men’s team taking over at 6:30 p.m. At the practices, the players work on rugby fundamentals, such as passing, tackling and scrumming.
Returning to the U18 girls’ team and looking forward to the season is Damola Hodonu, a Grade-11 student at Bert Church High School.
“Last year, we were an up-and-coming team,” she said. “This year, we’re going to have more people, hardcore practices, and I’m just super excited.”
Hodonu said she feels rugby has had a very positive impact in Airdrie.
“It’s one more game that people can come watch and support, and it’s another sport people can get into,” she said, adding she enjoys the community aspect of it.
“No matter what happens on the field, you can leave it all out there. Most of the time, I’ll tackle a girl really hard, but we’ll literally become really good friends off the field. I feel that’s different from a lot of sports.”
Vanessa Tuff will suit up for the Highlanders for the first time this season as she tries her hand at rugby. Despite living in Airdrie, the 16-year-old attends Bishop Carroll High School in Calgary where she became acquainted with the sport.
“I really liked it and wanted to try it in the summertime,” she said. “It’s fun and it’s a welcoming sport. People who have played for years can join and people who haven’t even played before can join.”
After participating in the Stampede 7s tournament, Young said, the Highlanders will take to the field for various exhibition fixtures throughout the summer against teams from Calgary, Okotoks and St. Albert.
She said the Highlanders is still looking for players – including U18 and U15 girls, senior men and senior women.
“It’s an amazing community – the battles you go through on that field and the social events…it’s just a family," Young said.