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From The Morning Call -- June 5, 2003

High school rugby players give Allentown area 'the Blues'
The new team has athletes from around the Lehigh Valley.


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Lehigh Valley high school athletes have plenty of options. And now, thanks to the new Allentown Area Blues, they can add one more.

High school rugby made its way on to the local landscape this spring with the Blues, featuring players from Parkland, Freedom, Emmaus, Central Catholic and Dieruff, among other schools.

''There's 15 on a team at one time, but we had as many as 32 kids at practice, and it's great to see kids from all different schools getting together,'' said Blues head coach and president Dan Benedict. ''It's never been done before in the Lehigh Valley to have a high school team. It turned out to be quite successful.''

The team competed in the Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union, sanctioned by USA Rugby. The Blues were 5-2-1 and reached the league semifinals before losing to York.

Not bad for a first-year program.

''I've been playing rugby here in the Valley for about 20 years,'' Benedict said. ''But my background is in football. I coached at North Parkland for six years and my son, Jared, who will be a junior in the fall plays for Parkland High.

''My son wanted to play rugby and I thought it would be good for him. I started coaching at North Penn, driving down there on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It got to be too much. I thought, why not start a rugby club right here?''

Rugby has a lot of similarities to football and can be used as a way to keep the guys in shape in the spring.

''It's a spring sport, so it doesn't affect the fall sports,'' Benedict said. ''It develops good hand-eye coordination and it stresses working as a team, confidence, and things like that.

''It benefits a lot of athletes. But there's a misconception that it's football without pads.

''What happened in the early 1800s, a gentleman named Web Ellis picked up a soccer ball and began to run with it,'' Benedict continued. ''Everyone tried to tackle him to tell him not to do that and basically that's when rugby was born. American football is a derivative of rugby. It's a competitive, rough game and you need many skills.''

Just like in football, a player must take the ball over a line, but rather than calling it a touchdown, it is called a ''try.''

''You have to get it over the try line, but the difference is you have to touch the ball down,'' Benedict said. ''You can't just run it in and celebrate. If you're in the clear and no one is behind you, you should try to touch it down in the middle of the field because you then kick it 20 yards out from where the ball is put down. That's a conversion kick similar to the extra-point in football.''

The team played its home games on Sunday afternoons at Alton Park in Allentown.

''It was better than I ever thought it would be,'' Benedict said. ''I think next year we're going to grow into two teams. And the key is that I've a lot of good assistants like Bob Gotthardt, who initiated rugby in Allentown back in 1966. He coached the forwards and did a great job. He knows rugby.''

Benedict began meeting with kids in the winter, showing them videos created by USA Rugby to introduce them to the game.

''I came on in March and Dan had a good nucleus in place,'' Gotthardt said. ''His son was instrumental in bringing a lot of Parkland players to us. But then other kids at other schools got wind of it and came out. It was great to see because a program for high school had never taken off before.''

Gotthardt said that even when the team lost to York in the playoffs, he was smiling.

''York was a team with a whole bunch of seniors,'' Gotthardt said. ''But we had a lot of sophomores still learning the game.''

After the high school season ended, a group of Blues went to Lewes, Del., and won the Subaru 7's tournament.

''A lot of the kids just want to keep going,'' Benedict said.

The Allentown Blues will be on display July 12 at SportsFest at Allen High's football practice field near J. Birney Crum Stadium. The Blues will host a round-robin high school tournament.

Also part of SportsFest will be an under-14 developmental camp and an old boys game between Allentown/Lancaster and Philadelphia/Whitemarsh.

But the feature attraction is a game between the EPRU Under-19 All-Stars and the Ontario, Canada All-Stars.

For more information about the Blues, call Benedict at (610) 432-8281 or check out the team's Web site at http://www.gotthardt.net/blues

keith.groller@mcall.com

610-820-6740

Copyright 2003, The Morning Call