Anthony Fleck embraces physicality. It's a good thing, too.
At 5-foot-7, 170 pounds, he's the smallest player on his Chuckanut Bay U-19 rugby team, and lack of size in an ultra-physical sport like rugby can have grave consequences.
In fact, Fleck's been the smallest player all five years he's competed. But what he lacks in brawn, he makes up for with speed and toughness.
"Anthony is an intense, hard kid," U-19 coach Neil Gardner said in a phone interview, "and he goes balls to the wall. He's just got a lot of talent and there's no slowing him down. He has a big heart."
Fittingly, Fleck, who also plays running back and safety for Ferndale High School's football team, earned last year's Chuckanut Rugby leather balls award - a team honor bestowed to a player who's constantly giving his all. The technical name is the guts, feathers and all award, Gardner said.
In spite of Fleck's atypical rugby size, he uses a glass half full approach, viewing his frame as a positive.
"I think it's a huge advantage," he said. "Guys go right over me." Fleck did admit, however, that tackling bigger players sometimes brings an uneasy feeling.
The U-19 team put together an 8-0 record during league play, earning the No. 1 seed into the state tournament. They settled for second place at the state championships.
Chuckanut Bay, with the help of Fleck and a host of other talented locals, is looking to translate season success into a strong showing during the 35th Annual Can-Am Sevens Rugby Tournament Saturday, July 13, at the Polo Grounds in Ferndale.
Fleck channels his love for physicality by playing football in addition to rugby. He couldn't place a preference on which sport he prefers, but rugby offers non-stop action that isn't replicated on the football field.
"I like the quick play and just the versatility you need to play rugby," Fleck said. "It's a lot different than other sports. It's more of an athletic competition. You have to battle. It's not just one guy who's running with the ball the whole game."
And as a scrum-half, Fleck often finds himself in the middle of the action. Gardner compared Fleck's position to a quarterback.
Responsibilities include receiving the ball from the back of the scrum and removing the ball from the scrum with a pass to the fly-half, being a good decision maker, an excellent passer and a deceptive runner. Fleck can do it all, and Gardner billed him one of the top scrum-halves around.
"He is definitely one of the top two or three in the state," Gardner said. "He's been on a couple of Washington All-Star teams. He is just real quick and makes quick decisions on the field and takes advantages of gaps in the defense."
The shiftiness Fleck displayed while averaging 7.7 yards per carry on the football field last fall makes him hard to tackle with a rugby ball, and when it comes to tackling others, Fleck uses his low center of gravity to his benefit.
"It's all about technique," he said. "When those big guys come at you with no pads, you have to stay lower. It's definitely more of an adrenaline rush. When it's about the time for the game to start, you know it's about to get real."
And there's no hiding in the sport. Gang-tackling is endorsed in football, but in rugby it's imperative players make one-on-one tackles, Fleck said. In the way Fleck plays, Gardner sees an athlete determined to show size doesn't affect his game.
"I think he has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder," Gardner said. "He takes a lot of hits that some people aren't able to. I don't think he's ever been injured, and I've seen (players) bigger than him go down with injuries. He's a good leader, not a real loud guy, but he plays his heart out and leads by example."
Fleck is expected to have an expanded role in the Golden Eagles' backfield this fall with a stable of Ferndale running backs now graduated, but the fleet-flooted incoming senior believes rugby gives him the best shot to play college athletics. Gardner agreed.
"Anthony is a great kid and hopefully he plays in college," the Chuckanut U-19 coach said. "He has the tools to play at the college level."
For now Fleck is focused on turning in a fine performance at the Can-Am Sevens with the rest of his rugby brothers.
"It would mean a lot to come out with the win," he said. "We didn't quite get it last year, and I was a part of that. I think we really improved over the season."
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862
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