Locals rubgy stars shine at Can-Am Sevens

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 14, 2013 

FERNDALE -- Among the hundreds of adult players enjoying the annual rugby fellowship known as the Can-Am Sevens, two special local enthusiasts exhibited the love they have developed for the sport.

Nick Wallace, who had always figured he'd play football as long as they would let him, and Erin Hickey, who not long ago had no idea she would fall in love with rugby, were a popular part of the 35th annual celebration at the Rugby and Polo Fields on Saturday, July 13, amid untold thousands of laughs, smiles and pats on the back, not to mention ferocious tackles.

After finishing a stellar rugby career at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif. -- and graduating in May with a degree in business administration -- the 23-year-old Wallace proved to the U.S. National Team coaches that he belonged on the field as the youngest player in games.

The former Squalicum football and basketball player last month played his first three games (called "caps") at the very top of the USA rugby heap in a prestigious international tournament, the Pacific Nations Cup, in Los Angeles.

Just for fun, Wallace leaped into the Can-Am Sevens lineup of the Huna Hogs, the eclectic group of the young and young-at-heart that plays only in pink and gathers every year from all over the Northwest and Canada just on this very special day.

"I love being with the great guys who have taught me so well," said Wallace of the Hogs, who were founded in 1978.

Not just a few local rugby parents wanted Wallace to meet their youngsters. And for good reason -- Wallace joins National Rugby Team veteran standout Shawn Pittman from Bellingham High as only the second Chuckanut Bay Steamer product to play on the national squad.

What are the odds that one small city -- Bellingham -- would produce two of the 22 men on the squad?

Meanwhile, co-founder Hickey and her Chuckanut Women, in only their third Can-Am Sevens, had a blast while showing their spirit by recovering from two lopsided losses to thump Tacoma 12-10.

Then Hickey did what the many men on hand would have heartily approved of - she put out a call for more women to join the program.

"We have about 15 women on our team now but we would love to grow," said Hickey, a 23-year-old Bellingham resident who played three years of club rugby while earning a degree from Western Washington University. She now works for Bellingham Physical Therapy, serves as Chuckanut captain and helps coach the younger girls in the Chuckanut program.

The former Coupeville High multi-sport athlete assures women -- they just have to be out of high school -- that they may well develop the same passion for rugby that she has.

"It's the most fun I've ever had playing a sport," said Hickey. "I encourage women to email us (ladies.of.chuckanut@gmail.com) or attend one of our practices" (Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. at Broadway Park).

The Chuckanut A men's team beat Black Rock 21-12 and Bayside 21-19. Chuckanut also lost to the Ravens 33-7, but by finishing third overall, Chuckanut qualified for the Pacific Coast Championships next weekend in Seattle.

Final scores in the title games were Old Puget Sound Beach 55, Eastside 0 in A; Eastside Axmen 27, Del Rey of Kent 5 in B; and Seattle Breakers 19, Oregon Rugby Sports Union 12 in women's.

The U19, U17 and U15 players will take over the field on Sunday, July 14, starting at 11 a.m. The Chuckanut Bay Steamers U19 boys, coming off their eighth appearance in a state title game in 12 years, hope to put on quite a show for any boys interested in trying the sport.

"We'd love to see everyone come out to see our guys," said longtime coach Neil Gardner. "We played two games this week with a Welsh team, including a rousing 43-40 loss. This was their first visit to us in three years, and they told us our quality of play has very much improved. We hosted 39 Welsh players in Bellingham."

Wallace, as usual, played for the Huna Hogs - who belted out with some amazing singing after their final game - with pink toenails courtesy of his sports-loving sister Jessica, who started in soccer during her first two years at Eastern Washington University.

Her burly brother, whose grin and gracious personality doesn't begin to hint how rugged he is on the field, has long since become a beloved part of the local rugby scene. But now he welcomes in the big time.

"I feel I belong," said big Nick, who did not play in his first five games on the national team but worked his way into the lineup with his practice showings. He started one game while playing in losses to Tonga, Fiji and Japan -- all nations where rugby is virtually sacred. "There really was a 'wow' factor for me."

He hopes to be invited back to the U.S. National Team - nothing is taken for granted in national rugby -- for two World Cup qualifying matches against Canada next month. One reason is that he wants the feeling of playing in his first U.S. victory.

"Eventually, I'd like to get a contract to play professionally in England or France," said Wallace. "I'd love to make a living in rugby. It's a matter of exposure, of catching the right person's eye and continually working hard to improve. The speed and aggressiveness (of international top-level rugby) is just a huge difference from the college game."

Gardner, who coached Wallace as a fast-growing youth, called Nick "just a great ambassador for the sport. The kids in our program really look up to Nick."

Wallace said he was thankful to attend Shuksan Middle School, where instructor Paul Horne - the longtime local rugby guru who directs the Can-Am Sevens - first talked Wallace into tackling the challenge of rugby.

"I've been very fortunate," said Wallace.

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