Bobcats rugby hasn’t even run two seasons, but it’s already changed the lives of everyone involved. Coach Woody Bennett has been coaching rugby for over forty years, and he’s never had a team as close as the Bobcats.
The first half of rugby season is over, and Alex Esselstrom, team captain, doesn’t know what he’s going to do on the weekends until spring term. Esselstrom, who has been on three other rugby teams in his years of playing, has never felt the brotherhood he’s felt with the Bobcats.
“[COCC’s] rugby culture is incredible,” Esselstrom, the team captain, said. “You share every emotion. The joy of winning, the depression of losing.”
But why are the Bobcats different than other rugby teams? Patrick Oldham, president of the rugby club, believes it’s because they started at the bottom.
“For the majority, people started out at a low level–no one had played before,” Oldham said. “We can always hang out, but working together toward a goal…is different.”
In other rugby teams Esselstrom’s been in, cliques where more experienced players don’t talk to less experienced players naturally develop. But with Bobcat rugby, the students who came only had one thing in common: Interest in rugby.
“We came from different classes, came from different schools, different programs,” Esselstrom said, “…everyone started out on the same playing field.”
And the students keep coming back only because they love rugby and love the team, according to Woody Bennett, Bobcats coach.
“There’s no scholarships,” Bennett said. “It’s not like football. You’re doing it because you like it.”
Though this brotherhood built the Bobcats into fierce competitors, it also translates into a deep sense of camaraderie with other school’s teams, Bennett said.
In rugby, there’s a tradition that after every match, every player on the home team is responsible for feeding and buying the beer or soft drink for their opposite number on the visiting team. In the case of the Bobcats, this is followed by showing the visiting team what Bend is like. It’s no different if they won or lost the preceding game, according to Oldham.
“You play your heart out and you might not like the other team,” Oldham said, “but you forget about the crazy game you played.”
Every emotion is left on the field, according to Esselstrom.
“Someone who punched you in the face is now someone you’re singing with,” Esselstrom said.
Much of this is due to Bennett’s strict rules regarding sportsmanship.
“I’m old-fashioned,” said Bennett. “There’s certain things I expect. There’s certain things where I say ‘Bobcats don’t do that. Bobcats don’t act like jerks. Bobcats don’t treat the referee badly.’”
And despite these high expectations, Bennett has never had disciplinary problems with the team.
The challenges of community college rugby
At the team’s first meeting in fall term 2012, there were seven people. Now there’s over thirty, Bennett said, but he never knows what next term’s numbers will be.
“70 percent of the players have jobs,” Bennett said. “Some have families.”
Many of the team members are in the outdoor leadership program and have to go on weekend excursions for class when the Bobcats are playing games. For others, their class schedule simply changes and they can no longer fit practice in.
Despite the challenges, Bennett still believes rugby is the most rewarding extracurricular.
“I’ve always said it’s the finest sport for college age males,” Bennett said.
Rugby isn’t for the athletes, according to Oldham. Every body type from short and skinny to tall and thick can be used somewhere on the team.
“It’s a sport for any size, any age, anybody,” Oldham said.
The fact that Bobcats rugby is community college rugby makes it even more accessible, according to Esselstrom. Whereas at a university players “work their way up,” at a community college, all the student has to do is come to practice and they’ll get playing time.
Building lifelong connections
In 1984, Bennett coached the Oregon State University rugby team, taking them as far as Wales, England. Next summer, his whole team is coming to Bend for a reunion.
“Forty years later,” Bennett said. “We’re still connected.”
Bennett has coached high school rugby and football, but of all the teams he coached, the Bobcats are still special.
“This is right at the top of the heat,” Bennett said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am.”