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Peoria Bootleggers women’s rugby club offers outlet for hard-hitting physical activity, fun competition

Players for the Peoria Bootleggers women's rugby team call the sport a good way to stay physical while building camaraderie.
Courtesy Peoria Bootleggers
Players for the Peoria Bootleggers women's rugby team call the sport a good way to stay physical while building camaraderie.

Did you know Peoria has an active women's rugby team?

Established in 2018, the Peoria Bootleggers club organization continues to grow.

The team is getting ready for its upcoming spring season, and players say the sport gives them an opportunity to stay physically active while building camaraderie.

Briana Wikoff says she got involved with the Peoria Bootleggers about three years ago, after first considering the notion before the emergence of COVID.

“I've got a son going on being a teenager, so I was looking for a hobby – contact sport was a great thing, I know,” Wikoff said semi-sarcastically. “My dad played when I was younger; my brother played when we were teenagers, and I just didn't know it was even an option for women to play. Then I saw a Facebook ad and thought, why not?”

How did her family members react to Wikoff picking up a contact sport in her 30s?

“My dad said, ‘I retired from rugby at that age. What are you doing?’ But it's exciting, something to connect with them on,” she said. “They played football and rugby and, like I said, I didn't ever play a contact sport. So it's something for us to relate with each other.”

Wikoff is entering her second year as the club president. She says there are several aspects to rugby that she finds appealing.

“The continuous play, which I love about soccer. But also just the full contact, I mean, you can have a (tough) day of work and just get it all out on the field,” she said. “But then also, it's a very social sport. So you can be knocking each other out during a game, and then share a beer and laughs afterward and there's no hard feelings.”

Emily Hodapp is another of the Bootleggers’ more experienced players. She says she was drawn to rugby while she was in high school and observed other girls playing.

“I had wanted to play football when I was younger, but that wasn't an option. Then I saw them tackling and I was like, ‘I want to be in a contact sport. That's what I want to do,’” Hodapp said. “I had no idea what they were doing, so I talked to some people there on the sidelines and learned that they were playing rugby.

So I started researching it, and then when I went to Purdue, they had a team call-out and I was like, ‘I'm there.’ I showed up and have been playing ever since.”

Hodapp says she's remained involved with rugby through the years, because it's provided her with unique opportunities.

“The rugby community is great, that's why we all stay in. The sport's great, but I've been playing for quite a while so it's kind of hard to put your body on the line continuously for this many years – 21,” she said with a chuckle.

“I stay because of the community, and I know rugby players all over the world. I've played in South Africa, and I've played with people from New Zealand and from Scotland. There's not that many of us really that play here in the States, so I probably know somebody that plays in almost every state and can go visit them at any point in time and crash on their couch or jump on their team.”

Hodapp says she’s excited to see women's rugby growing in popularity, with more teams popping up on college campuses and in communities everywhere.

“There's a lot more coaches now. When I started playing, we didn't have a coach; we had player-coaches, or every once in a while there'd be an alumni that would come in and help out,” she said.

“There's college coaches now, even for the club teams. We've seen a lot more women's teams; there's NCAA-level teams as well. We're in the Olympics now, so it's really exciting to see the USA play against our international competitors at such a great level.”

The Bootleggers are affiliated with the Peoria Pigs men's team that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. The teams play home games at a field on the Catholic Charities campus in West Peoria.

The Bootleggers participate in the Midwest Rugby Union’s D3 Festival league, where players from any D3 program in the region gather on match dates and divide up into 15-player sides for the contest. This allows women of any skill set and experience level to participate.

Bootleggers coach Charlie Parod has been involved with rugby in Peoria for more than 40 years, playing and coaching for the men’s team and assisting high school programs before getting involved with the women’s club.

“It's a game I love. I mean, I've been doing it for most of my life and it's the camaraderie,” said Parod, the current president of the Peoria Rugby Foundation. “Actually the rugby community is like no other. I mean, you can go anywhere in the world and you can just go to a to a rugby match and you're instantly with friends.”

What does coaching rugby involve?

“Primarily safety, that’s a lot of it,” Parod said. “With the girls that come in, we hit tackle bags; we teach them how to tackle safely and learn how to be tackled safely. It's a very physical sport and anybody that's watched it would agree with that, I'm sure. But it's a game that can be played relatively safely.”

Hodapp agrees the physical nature of the sport takes some adjustment.

“For a lot of women who weren't raised playing contact sports, it's a new kind of way to think about how to use your body,” Hodapp said. “That's a very new thing to learn how to support your body correctly, what your body is capable of, and it takes a lot of practice and tenacity and learning the rules of how to get from point A to point B on the field.”

Anna Schweitzer leads the Bootleggers’ social media and marketing efforts. She says she turned to rugby after losing enjoyment in soccer.

“Every time I move, which is pretty frequently as of the past couple years, I just know that I need to find a rugby team because that's how I can make friends, get connections in the community and also just stay relatively healthy and athletic,” Schweitzer said.

“It's a good way to get your adrenaline out, definitely. It's it teaches you a lot of discipline while also having fun in a more disciplined sport. The community with rugby is a lot different than any other sport I’ve played. You make friends fairly quickly, and it's nice that usually where there's a women's team, there's a men's team so you get connections and friends from both sides of the perspective.”

Rugby consists of two teams of 15 players moving the ball around a field, or pitch, that's slightly bigger than a football field. Games are 80 minutes long. Schweitzer says it gets pretty intense.

“You're passing the ball diagonally backwards the whole time while moving up the field as a unit and yeah, it's pretty aggressive along the way,” she said. “There's plenty of tackling, there's plenty of hitting and throwing and a lot of endurance work.”

The Bootleggers kick off their spring season with a festival match at home on April 13.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.