Former Mustang trio pitch perfect for Polar Bear rugby squadsMount View graduates have love for grueling, physically-demanding sport
Brunswick — Rugby, truth be told, is an uncommon sport by comparison to others typically played in the Pine Tree State.
However, a trio of former Mount View High School student-athletes have enjoyed their experience on the pitch 70 miles south at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.
Hayleigh Kein and Anna Piotti were mainstays in high school on the Mustang field hockey, basketball and outdoor track-and-field teams, as was Justin Roberts-Pierel on the Mustang soccer team.
Now, all three play rugby for the Polar Bears.
The 19-year-old Piotti is a 2011 graduate of Mount View High school, while Roberts-Pierel and Kein, both 20, graduated a year prior in 2010.
The Bowdoin women's rugby team is a varsity program and plays in Division II's New England Small Conference. The Polar Bears sported a 9-2 record this year, won their conference championship and made it to the American Collegiate Rugby Association Division II quarterfinals.
The Bowdoin men's rugby team is a club program and plays in the New England-Maine division of the National Small College Rugby Association.
College rugby has 15 players per team on the field at a time — eight forwards and seven backs. The forwards participate in the “scrum,” which is the assemblage used to restart play. The forwards of both teams participate in the scrum, while the forwards are lined up across the field.
Positional names of the players consist of full-back, wing, centre, fly-half, scrum-half, number eight, flanker, lock, hooker and prop.
The object of the game, much as football (rugby is played with a slightly bigger version of a football) is to score a try, which is worth five points. Unlike football, the ball must be placed on the ground in the goal area.
Teams also can score in other ways such as conversion kicks (two points), penalty kick (three points) and dropped goals (three points). Games are divided into two 40-minute halves. The game is full contact, played with no pads and no helmets.
Of the trio, only Kein played a collegiate sport prior to rugby. The 2009-10 VillageSoup schoolgirl athlete of the year was on the Polar Bear field hockey team as a freshman but did not return to the team as a sophomore.
The Polar Bears went on to win the Division III national championship in field hockey.
“It didn't work out the next year,” said Kein of her field hockey experience. “So the rugby coach emailed me and asked if I wanted to come try rugby. I decided since she asked me, I at least had to go watch a practice or two.”
Kein, who plays fullback, came to grow quite fond of her newfound sport.
“I love it,” she said. “It's a totally different sport from anything I've ever done. It's full contact [and] it takes a lot of energy and brains. It's a great team sport.”
Piotti, who majors in German and minors in teaching, echoed Kein's sentiment, adding, “It's probably my favorite sport I've ever played.”
Piotti decided not to pursue field hockey as a freshman and instead joined the sailing team. She took part in all the preseason workouts before her roommate attended an open rugby practice and, in turn, coerced Piotti to give it a shot.
Piotti attended one of the informal practices on “The Quad” and the players convinced her to come out for the team.
Piotti did sailing and rugby for a few weeks before ultimately making her choice.
Piotti, who played lock this season and hopes to play flanker next year, said she likes the team camaraderie that comes with rugby, adding, “It's very much a team-dominated sport.”
“You can't play this game by yourself and you can't play it with three or four people,” Piotti said. “You need everyone out on the field and that makes it a great team sport. You depend on them. There's no sense of, 'Oh I'm the best one out on the field,' because you're not. You'd be nothing without your teammates.”
“You really all have to work together and know your teammates and trust your teammates,” said Kein, who added the game is more diverse than other sports.
“With rugby, all shapes and sizes, all types of girls play,” said Kein, who majors in earth and oceanographic sciences. “You don't necessarily have to have done a sport to be good at rugby. Every type of person can play.”
Piotti's first game, to say the least, was eventful.
“I'd been playing for about a week and we went to this big tournament in Massachusetts,” she said. “I wasn't expected to play. I'd been playing for a week.”
Not only did she go in, she made a significant impact on offense and defense.
“About 30 seconds in the biggest girl on the opposing team came lumbering down the field and I tackled her,” Piotti said. “I have no idea how I did it now, but I tackled her and everyone was clapping and I thought, 'Oh wow that was cool.' And then maybe five minutes later I got the ball, someone passed it to me and I just ran.”
She wound up on the other end of the field and scored on her first try for the Polar Bears.
Roberts-Pierel, who helped lead the Mustangs to the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B soccer title during his senior year, opted not to play soccer for the Polar Bears, “but still wanted to play a sport.”
“I came in with the decision that I would focus on academics in college,” he said. “In a way that prohibited attempting a varsity sport schedule.”
Rugby team members went around to all the dorms to recruit potential players, and much the way Piotti and Kein did, Roberts-Pierel “decided to go to a practice.”
“The team itself and the culture of rugby is unbelievable and something that I now can't imagine if I hadn't done it,” he said. “The sport is also very exciting and extremely team based, is a lot of fun and our men's [club] team has been undefeated in the regular season the past three years.”
Or course, being a full-contact sport with no pads makes it difficult to get out of a game without injury. Cuts, scrapes, bumps and bruises are the norm.
Kein received seven stitches in her forehead following a game, then sprained her knee the following day in another. Piotti was diagnosed with a concussion, while Roberts-Pierel broke his collarbone playing against the University of Maine.
Needless to say, while supportive of their children's athletic pursuits, the injuries worried the majority of the players' parents.
“My parents were not ecstatic about me joining rugby because of the obvious dangers, but supported the decision regardless and now accept that it was a life-changing decision,” said Roberts-Pierel, who is double-majoring in math and German and minoring in economics. “Considering that I have lived with the same group of guys every year, nearly all of them on the rugby team, my college experience would have been much less rewarding without the experiences I've had with the team.”
Roberts-Pierel, who plays full-back, added that his experience also helped him network when studying abroad in Berlin as he played there and “was immediately welcomed by German players.”
Chris Kein, Hayleigh's father, said he and his wife were “a bit apprehensive” when they heard the news of their daughter going out for the sport.
“Visions of men with cauliflower ear, bloody faces and broken bones came to mind but we knew very little about rugby besides these dramatic images,” he said. “Since she has joined the team she has had a great time with people she really like and is incredibly enthusiastic about the sport and her team.”
He added that the bruises and injuries players incur “seem to be a badge of honor with the rugby team.”
John Piotti, Anna's father, said he and his wife were “a bit confused by rugby at first,” but have “learned a lot in two seasons and have come to really appreciate the game.”
“As parents, we do worry that Anna is playing a game that is so physical, but we don't fret over it, perhaps because Anna seems to enjoy it so much,” he said. “Sure, it's rough, but it's not like football. Players can only get hit when they have the ball and the level of sportsmanship and fair play is very high, at least among the teams Bowdoin plays.”
Despite the risks, the numbers of people playing rugby have swelled in recent years, according to USA Rugby, the governing body for the sport.
Hayleigh Kein called the sport “exhilarating” when asked what makes rugby players want to subject themselves to such a dangerous sport.
“I think the best rugby players are the ones that aren't thinking about getting hurt,” she said. “They're just going out there to play a sport that they love.”
There's so many aspects,” said Piotti. “There's kicking, there's running, there's tackling [and] there's passing. There's just so many different sports to an outsider it would seem that are put into this one sport, which makes it so anyone can play this game.”
Associate Sports Director
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Mark has been covering local sports throughout Knox, Waldo and part of Lincoln county since 2007. He has a bachelor's degree in Mass Communication from the University of Maine and is also a 2000 graduate of Rockland District High School.
Mark is an avid fan of the Boston Red Sox, fantasy sports, the AMC drama "Breaking Bad" and iced coffee.
He resides in Thomaston with his wife Jenn and sons Beckett and Austin.
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