A-K Valley rugby finds its feminine side

| Monday, July 14, 2014, 11:45 p.m.

Erica Catone resents the misguided and often inaccurate label placed on rugby, the one that suggests its players need a psychological evaluation to play the rough-and-tumble sport.

But while Catone, pegged to coach Kiski Valley's inaugural girls rugby club next season, defends her stance, she would agree the game is one big ink-blot test to its participants. It's all about perception; what one sees is their reality.

“People think rugby players are all so different, these mean, tough people, but they're not,” Catone, 28, said. “It's a mindset when you go onto the field. Some people want to win. Some are there to hit people. For me, the mental gymnastics that you take with you on the field are fantastic. I don't see myself as a tough person. I've seen quiet people excel. It's where you are mentally when you step on the field.”

Catone has been playing the game for the past decade. She is the cofounder of the Highlanders Rugby Club, which started in 2009.

But the Penn-Trafford and IUP product will be a coach for the first time. She has worked summer camps before, but guiding a team from the sidelines will be something new.

As a captain at IUP, she was a veritable player-coach. While she has hinted at “retiring” from playing, she will be a rookie when it comes to solely calling the shots.

“It will be a different experience for sure,” said Catone, who lives in Brookline. “When you're on the field as a player, you worry about other things. On the sideline, you see a lot more of what's needed. Your mind's in a different place.”

Catone, who in October plans to marry Dan Houlihan, another former rugby player and current high school referee, became acquainted with Kiski Valley boys coach Seth Erwin in college.

Catone and Erwin both played rugby at IUP.

Erwin has full faith in his friend and in the growth of the game on the girls side.

“It's going to grow the sport and give the girls in the area who have been wanting to play a chance to shine,” Erwin said. “As a player (Catone) was very good. She was able to help new players pick up the game fast. She will be a great coach and role model.

“I think working alongside the boys program will bring the girls team up to speed fast, and be competitive early.”

With the fast-rising boys program in place, Catone believes interest and success with the girls can follow. The boys, made up of players from the Kiski Area and Leechburg school districts as well as surrounding areas, reached the RugbyPA state playoffs in just their second year.

If the sign-up sheet is any indication, the roster will be full. A total of 25 girls have indicated they would like to give the sport a chance.

“That's a huge number,” Catone said. “The main thing is I want the girls to fall in love with the sport like I did.”

And learning the basics is the first step.

“When I first started, rugby was very confusing,” Catone said. “I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off. The more I learned, though, the more I appreciated it. You want to be able to be a good teammate. If you have 30 people in one club, you're going to have different opinions. You learn to resolve conflicts and learn to be more positive.”

Physicality is the lynch pin of many great rugby programs. Catone plans to ease her players into that aspect.

“When I was in high school we didn't have rugby. I played golf,” she said. “I wasn't into contact sports. I want to try and teach in a way that is safe. People have this idea that rugby players launch themselves at each other like football players. That's not the case.

“One of the first things you learn is how to fall correctly. People teaching the sport understand safety is a huge factor. The first hit might be a little jarring, but you soon figure out if you love it or hate it. From my experiences, more people love it than hate it.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.

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