Interest in girls rugby on rise in Gwinnett, nation

Women's rugby has been identified as an emerging sport by the NCAA and participation levels are on the rise nationwide.

Though there are still a limited number of high school club teams -- and only one varsity program at Florida's Sebastian River -- growth at the prep level increased 1,000 percent from 2002 to 2008, according to USA Rugby.

The NCAA estimates 11,000 women are playing rugby in college, primarily with the nearly 350 club teams.

Emily Chosewood, who went to Parkview and played for one of Gwinnett County's two high school club teams, is now headed to the only Division I college program in the country. She hopes that may spark further local interest in the sport.

"I hope my teammates know there's college opportunities and they encourage people at the high school level to play," Chosewood said. "I want to see it grow into a more popular sport."

Just during her two years with the Brookwood team, the roster ballooned from seven to 25, she said.

"Definitely I'd say even in just the past year it's grown so much," Chosewood said. "Seeing the collegiate sevens finals were on TV was just, like, incredible for the United States. Now that we have even high school club teams, people at least know what it is. They don't think it's lacrosse."

Playing in high school is an advantage, but not necessarily a requirement for getting on a college team.

Chosewood's soon-to-be coach at Eastern Illinois University has developed a highly successful program -- the Panthers haven't lost in three years -- by recruiting high school athletes from other sports.

"If you look into all my student athletes, almost none of them have any rugby experience," Frank Graziano said. "There are only five club teams in Illinois. I recruit athletes. Sprinters and throwers from track. High school basketball players have great footwork, hand-to-eye coordination and the ability to make decisions in a small space."

EIU is one of just five varsity women's rugby programs in the U.S. and the NCAA allows 10 years for participation to grow to 40 schools across all three divisions before it can be considered a championship sport.

Start-up costs are estimated at around $15,000, but in an effort to have 10 programs by 2010, USA Rugby offers grants up to $5,000 toward that cost.

Having only recently discovered the sport and quickly coming to love it, Chosewood has high hopes for its future in the national consciousness.

"I think one thing that's special about rugby is it's so diverse," she said. "Like you can have someone that's my size and then someone that's 5-1, 110 pounds that plays the same sport, against the same team.

"Also, sportsmanship is a big deal. After your game, you go and socialize with the other team. Everyone's really friendly. It's like a little community."

A growing community by all accounts.