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The 2008 Youth Conference on the Game: A Weekend to Learn, Play and Honor

GLENDALE, Colo., Dec. 12 /PRNewswire/ -- Standing in the gymnasium of the Glendale Event Center early Sunday morning, a chorus of laughter reverberated off the walls as the squeaks of hurried athletic shoes echoed throughout the room.

Without looking, the casual passerby would have thought they were overhearing a raucous game of pickup basketball, a herd of pre-teens running rampant, crying out to their teammates to pass them the ball: "I'm open! Over here!"

Sudden silence fell over the room as the neon yellow and blue World Rugby Shop ball soared through the air, hitting the hands of the waiting receiver, who gripped the ball with two hands before hurriedly diving over the makeshift try line painted across the wooden tiles.

Cheers rang out, ushering in a wave of high fives and fist pumps before a shrill whistle cut the celebration to an abrupt halt.

"Remember instructors, we want to do our best to discourage diving over the try-line when playing Rookie Rugby indoors. We want to prevent injuries in any way possible and gym floors are not the most forgiving. Make sure to tell them to simply touch the ball down across the line with both hands. OK, let's go again," said USA Rugby Youth Manager Katie Wurst, before giving a quick blow of the whistle to resume play.

Game on.

Upon further inspection, this was not the average weekend play date at the community gym, but rather day two of the Rookie Rugby Trainer Accreditation process, which was just one part of the action-packed 2008 Youth Conference on the Game agenda, held December 5-7 at Infinity Park.

Over the course of the three-day conference, more than 100 youth and high school coaches and administrators gathered among their peers to take in a series of presentations ranging in subject matter from State-Based Rugby Organizations (SBROs) to safety in the scrum and tackle to developing all-star athletes and administering a league.

The wide range of topics provided a little something for all in attendance -- some first-time participants and others three-year veterans of the annual conference launched in 2006. More importantly, the event gave them an opportunity to network with others in similar positions and exchange ideas and best practices, each taking away their own unique set of tools to benefit their respective programs moving forward, with special emphasis on the newly launched Rookie Rugby program.

First Time Around

First-year attendee Thomas Van Trees, who joined his father Mark in representing Florida Flag Rugby at the conference, found great benefits in listening to the diverse range of speakers. The Van Trees family has worked hard to utilize the core characteristics of Rookie Rugby in combating childhood obesity among the Florida youth and aims to grow their program in 2009.

"I had a great weekend. The most important thing was hearing about how different people approach situations within their programs. You kind of get stuck in your ways -- but you hear from people spanning from California to New York and learn about so many different pathways you can try and new ways of going about teaching children new things," the younger Van Trees said.

Likewise, fellow conference newcomer, Glendale Youth Rugby Coordinator Jenna Anderson took away a plethora of great ideas from long-time members of the youth rugby community that she can implement in her own programs.

Anderson, a veteran of the college club system at Illinois State University and former Women's National Team age-grade participant, is relatively new to the youth rugby community and gained valuable insight from the variety of presentation subject matter.

"The topics were great because you had a choice between the dual tracks and if one didn't necessarily correlate with your role in youth rugby, you could attend an alternate presentation. I found all the presentations highly relevant and the speakers were great," Anderson said. "The Positive Coaching Alliance workshop and the Physical Education Business Model presentation by Mark Van Trees were especially helpful regarding the proper follow-up after visiting area schools."

Honoring their Own

On Saturday night, December 6, Youth Conference participants took a break from workshops to recognize the honorable achievements of two of their peers: Ernie Vargas of the Hawaiian Gardens Rugby program and from Gonzaga High School, Lee Kelly.

Vargas, a soft-spoken gang prevention coordinator from the small Los Angeles area city of Hawaiian Gardens, was awarded the World Rugby Shop Award for Community Service for his active role in introducing a group of troubled adolescents to the game of rugby, diverting their intended pathway from the streets and possible gang life to the opportunities that can be found on a rugby pitch.

Initially, Vargas' intention had nothing to do with rugby. He was simply looking for an alternative outlet for middle and high school students who were bored in the flag football off-season. But the kids fell in love with the sport and since starting up the initial program of 16 kids two years ago, Vargas' rugby teams have now grown to 50 athletes that compete on both boy's and girls' sides around Southern California.

"These kids just love the game and they're learning. They're not the most disciplined team and I'm not the most experienced coach, but what I've learned about rugby is that it brings kids together like no other sport and it builds a bond that I think will last forever," Vargas said, proudly sporting his Hawaiian Gardens Eagles emblem on his shirt during his emotional acceptance speech.

"I want to tell you how excited I am to be invited here -- there is so much I've already learned. I'm just so honored to be among you as a guest because I've had a chance to interact with you and talk with you and learn a few things. I've got a lot of notes to take back with me," Vargas added.

Also recognized was Lee Kelly, Head Rugby Coach at Gonzaga High School, which was recently named in the top 20 sports high schools in the nation by Sports Illustrated magazine, due in special part to its successful rugby program. Kelly was also recently inducted to the Gonzaga High School Athletic Hall of Fame for his dedication to the sport of rugby.

Introducing Rookie Rugby

In addition to the long list of qualified presenters from across the country, an integral portion of this year's Youth Conference on the Game was the Rookie Rugby Accreditation course put on by USA Rugby staff members. Day one introduced participants to the administrative side of the non-contact game and ushered in a practical session on day two that gave participants an opportunity to get the blood pumping and stretch their legs.

"The Rookie Rugby gym session was just awesome. It was great to play and get a chance to feel like kids again. We're all coaches and administrators and deal more with the technical aspects of the game, so it was good to take a break and get back to the basics," said third year participant Tony Mattacchione, Jesuit High School Head Coach.

Led by USA Rugby Youth Manager Katie Wurst and Coach Development Officer Sadie Thomas, coaches and administrators were given the chance to experience first-hand the progression of Rookie Rugby activities, which take newcomers through the basic skills of running, passing and tagging and build into an eventual game of touch rugby.

"I love the Rookie Rugby program -- it's going to be fantastic and will be a great way to get more kids involved with the game at an earlier age," said JR LaPierre, Executive Director of Colorado Youth Rugby, following the conclusion of the conference. "Over the course of the weekend you could just feel the excitement building among the participants. My colleagues and I are rejuvenated and ready to go home and put these new ideas into action."

Glendale's Jenna Anderson shared LaPierre's enthusiasm for the Rookie Rugby activities: "I've been using the Rookie Rugby games for awhile and have had extremely positive feedback with it. I'll continue to teach my teammates and coaches the basics of Rookie Rugby so we are able to build off of this great foundation and run our own programs to benefit Glendale Rugby and ultimately all of Colorado Youth Rugby."

Three years strong ... and still growing

As USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville wrapped up the 2008 Conference on Sunday afternoon, he gave a special thanks to Youth Manager Katie Wurst for organizing a great event for all who attended.

Met by an appreciative round of applause, Wurst rose and gave only a modest nod, a wave and a "thank you" to her supporters. Although drained from the past three days of non-stop rugby, she couldn't help but smile when talking about the Youth Conference.

"Overall, I think the weekend went really well. Every year, we try to make changes to improve the selection of topics and the subject matter gets a bit more in-depth, which is certainly a testament to the constant growth of the game. I am confident we will continue to raise the bar building into next year's conference."

And her colleagues certainly agreed that her hard work had paid off.

In his second year at the conference, World Rugby Shop's Brad Kilpatrick, who was on-hand both to honor Ernie Vargas and as an active participant, was blown away by the phenomenal increase in numbers across the youth and high school game and impressed by the participation goals set for the coming year.

"I can't overstate the importance of the annual Youth Conference on the Game -- it's through events like this that we can work to lay the foundations and build the future of our sport. This is a great way for us to get involved with the game, grow the game, and become actively involved in the youth community," Kilpatrick said.

"It's hands down one of my favorite events of the year. Katie (Wurst) does a great job of putting together a dynamic schedule that carries beneficial takeaway value for all of the participants," he added.

Building on the momentum of the conference, the general attitude of attendees as they left the conference room for the final time last weekend was positive, and the masses were clearly embracing the changes afoot in the USA Rugby youth and high school community.

"The first time we came together in 2006, those in attendance were wondering what USA Rugby had done for us. It's been interesting to see how the philosophies have evolved. Those who have been here for the last three years can see big changes in the way the community operates," added Jesuit's Mattacchione, as he was headed out.

"I think it's greatly beneficial that we get to interact with representatives from the National Office staff -- not a lot of members can say the same about their sports organizations," he added.

SOURCE City of Glendale, Colorado
Copyright©2008 PR Newswire.
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