Local rugby players make noise at national level

When people find out what Winter Lily O'Bryan does when she isn't rousing Trojan spirit as a member of the Auburn High School cheerleading squad, most are surprised.

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When people find out what Winter Lily O’Bryan does when she isn’t rousing Trojan spirit as a member of the Auburn High School cheerleading squad, most are surprised.

O’Bryan, a 16-year-old junior, recently completed her first season as a member of the Rainier Lady Highlanders Junior Rugby team, capping her rookie season with a selection to the USA Rugby Stars and Stripes Camp for junior players.Alongside teammates Hannah Lewandoski and Alaina Valenciano, O’Bryan traveled to Boulder, Colo. where she competed against 90 of the best junior girls rugby players in the country.

“It was really intense, it was so cool to be around other people that are so passionate about the same thing you’re into,” O’Bryan said. “It also helped to push me and my rugby career further. It helped me set goals for myself. It wasn’t just about playing rugby there, we had meetings about our mindset and nutrition. I knew I needed to go further with playing and working harder, not just training, but in my mind and in school.”

An ex-boyfriend got O’Bryan hooked on rugby.

“I just really enjoyed watching it and decided to turn out for the 15s [15 players per side],” she said. “I started a little late, but I fell in love my first practice. The adrenaline got me and pulled me in. I’m kind of like an adrenaline junkie, and tackling someone, there is no better rush.”

The camaraderie also appealed to her, O’Bryan said.

“The sisterhood is great, they’re all by your side,” she said. “Going in for a double-tackle or scoring a try [grounding the ball inside the opposition’s goal area], there is nothing like it. It kind of changed my life and gave me something to wake up and do every day.”

After the end of the season she earned a berth on the NorthWest Logger All-Star team, where she caught the eye of Team USA scouts.

“I didn’t know about [being picked to the Team USA Stars and Stripes camp] until we were at a tournament,” O’Bryan said. “My coaches just told me some people were looking at us to invite us to the camp.”

The invite was also a first for Valenciano, a senior at Fife High School, and a newcomer to the sport as well.

“One of my friends who is on the team asked me to come out when she saw me after wrestling practice one day,” Valenciano said.

No stranger to organized sport – she’s a veteran of eight different ones, including swimming, soccer, wrestling, track and field, power lifting and Brazilian jiu jitsu – Valenciano said rugby struck a chord with her.

“In the other sports there is not as much contact,” she said. “Until I did wrestling and rugby. I didn’t realize you could actually tackle other girls.”

After her senior season, which begins after the New Year, Valenciano said, she hopes to continue playing at the next level, either at Life University in Georgia, Dartmouth University in New Jersey, or Central Washington University, which competes at the NCAA Division I level in women’s rugby. Last season, Central finished as the national runner-up.

If she settles on being a Wildcat, she’ll again be the teammate of Lewandoski – a White River High School graduate – who begins college and rugby at CWU this fall.

This season was Lewondoski’s fourth with Rainier Rugby.

“I started as a freshman,” she said. “I played football in eighth and ninth grade and a football coach told me to turn out for rugby.”

No stranger to contact owing to her years as a guard on offense and defense, Lewandoski took to the sport immediately.

“I love contact,” she said. “And getting those pads off was good. The pads are so hot and sweaty and gross. I felt like losing them made it easier to breathe, and you could run more and didn’t have to carry a whole bunch of stuff on you.”

Lewandoski, who wrestles and won the 190-pound Washington State girls title last year, was chosen this year to the Stars and Stripes camp for her third time.

She’ll wrap up her juniors career Aug. 18-23 at the USA High School All-American camp, where she’ll compete against the Canadian all-star junior team, along with Valenciano.

“I just keep trying my best and putting in work,” Lewandoski said.

The Rainier Junior Rugby club accepts players from all three Auburn schools, as well as from Enumclaw, Bonney Lake, Buckley, Fife, Pacific and Algona.

For more information, visit rainierjuniorrugby.com.

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