Jennifer Keeton was happy to take a break from the action to catch her breath.

She was feeling the effects of the wind sprints and other drills rugby coach Eric Gabriel was directing on Wednesday evening at Grecian Heights Park in Pendleton.

“My first practice was Saturday,” said Keeton, owner of Cimmiyotti’s and president of the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce. “I was very sore. Where it surprised me the most was my core.”

Keeton heard about the rugby program from Cheri Rosenberg, the executive director of the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce.

“She mention it last week and we went to practice on Saturday,” Keeton said. “After we were done, we went and got cleats. They make it easier to run on the grass.”

Keeton and Rosenberg were among six women at Wednesday’s practice, which also included men and children.

The women are first-time rugby players, with the exception of Courtney Stover. The group included businesswomen, a therapist and a professional athlete. Most are moms.

Players do not need to have a rugby background, or be an athlete, to participate. Gabriel is willing to teach them the game.

“There is a position for everyone,” he said. “Small, short, slow, fast, athletic.”

Keeton said the team atmosphere is what she enjoys most.

“Every day you go to bed and say, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to eat right and exercise,’” she said. “That never happens. I want to get in shape, but it’s hard to self-motivate. It’s easier to have a team that is there for you.”

Keeton also dragged her son, Bravery, 13, along. He plays football, and was a quick study Wednesday.

“I bought a rugby ball so we can practice at home,” Keeton said. “We’ve played a lot of (baseball) catch over the years. It’s his turn to help me.”

After the first practice, Keeton said she went home and watched a bunch of rugby videos. There is one thing she is certain of.

“The first time someone comes to tackle me, I will be afraid,” she said.

Rugby is not new to Pendleton

Gabriel, who is the Risk Management/QI Coordinator at the Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center in Pendleton, started a men’s team about 12 years ago, then added youth programs.

There has been a high school boys team the past 11 years — the East Oregon Sasquatch Rugby Club. There also is the Wendigo Girls Club team. The teams compete in a high school league in the spring through Rugby Oregon.

“Most of the teams are in the Portland area,” Gabriel said. “Rugby is the fastest growing sport in the U.S. Lacrosse is second.”

Gabriel played football at Marist High School in Eugene, then played college football at College of the Redwoods, and one year at Mississippi State.

“I played college football, but when I played my first rugby match in Germany (where he was stationed in the Air Force), I wondered why I never played before,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel came to Pendleton in 2006, and with the help of a few friends, the sport of rugby started to take shape in the Round-Up city.

Though the programs are strong, Gabriel knew there was something missing — the women.

“Just last week, I thought let’s see what interest there is in a women’s club,” he said. “I thought this was an incredible opportunity to the women in our community to have something to do. We have a handful of girls who have played before. It’s interesting what kind of people are coming out right now — it’s the moms.”

Adding a women’s team also brings the family together.

“We want to build a positive rugby culture,” Gabriel said. “Men, women and kids make a family-friendly atmosphere. Together, they can learn the culture of this incredible game.”

They come from all walks of life

Keeton and Ronsenberg are businesswomen, as is Shelley Whitney, who helps her mom, Deana Eckman, run Deana’s Auto Biz in Pendleton.

“I just started,” Whitney said of rugby. “This is my first practice. When you are a mom, you miss being competitive and the camaraderie of playing sports with other women. The social aspect is fun.”

Heather Smidt, whose husband Eric plays on the men’s local team, is a clinical social worker in Pendleton.

“It’s good exercise,” said Smidt, whose son Elijah, 9, also plays.

Kola Shippentower-Thompson looked right at home on the field.

She is a professional mixed martial arts fighter, fitness instructor at the Roundup Athletic Club and mother of three.

“This is my first practice,” Shippentower-Thompson said. “I’ve always been athletic. I thought I would give it a try.”

When she was in high school at Upper Columbia Academy in Spangle, Washington, Shippentower-Thompson played basketball, volleyball, soccer and softball. She also was the quarterback of the football team.

Stover is the team’s ace in the hole. She played college rugby at Elon University in North Carolina, and for a couple of years in the Washington, D.C., area before making the move to Pendleton.

Stover works with Gabriel at Yellowhawk, and it was by happenstance that rugby came up in a conversation one day. She’s now a regular on practice day.

“We have a few others who play, but we need to get a few more women to join us,” Gabriel said.

The rugby teams hold joint practices at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays, and at 9:30 a.m. Saturdays. All practices are at Grecian Heights Park, 1910 S.W. Athens Ave.

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