10/25/2011 - SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Second Lieutenants Nick Goirigolzarri, 4th Space Operations Squadron and Carson Cleveland, 2nd Space Operations Squadron, spent this past weekend running, tackling and passing an oval-shaped white ball around.
The pair of Schriever lieutenants are keeping in shape and enjoying the camaraderie of teammates, but their training on the rugby pitch this past weekend had a more focused intent. They're gearing up for next month's Armed Forces Championship Rugby tournament.
Both are former U.S. Air Force Academy rugby players. Their success with that squad caught the eye of Air Force Rugby team coaches, who invited them to compete along with the Air Force team in the Armed Forces tournament Nov. 1-5 at Fort Benning, Ga.
"Hearing the news was exciting," Cleveland said. "Ever since I can remember I've been involved in some kind of athletic team. I've always had something to look forward to like games and tournaments, but since I graduated from the Academy four months ago, I really haven't had anything like that. It's great to get back into the swing of competition."
Invented in England in 1823, the sport of rugby combines elements of soccer and American-style football. Though heavy physical contact is predominant during play, which includes scrums, rucks and tackling, players don't wear helmets or pads. Accordingly, rugby has developed a reputation as one of the toughest sports on the planet.
Goirigolzarri and Cleveland played three years together at the Academy, but they took vastly different routes to the sport. Cleveland had grown up around rugby as his older brother played it while attending West Point, while Goirigolzarri grew up playing football and knew only what he had seen on television before signing up to play at the Academy.
"I was recruited to play football, but when football didn't work out I was looking for something to fill a void," he said. "Athletics had been a huge part of my life since I was a little kid so I wanted to continue competing. I felt like it helped me focus, with academics and everything else."
He credits former Air Force assistant coach, Len Packer, with instilling the knowledge and techniques he needed to find success in the sport. And, as it turns out Packer also calls Schriever home. He's worked for the National Reconnaissance Office Operations Squadron since it opened here back in the 90s.
"Nick is a talented athlete who is speedy and aggressive," Packer said. "You can't teach that, but he also has that willingness to be coached. He's willing to soak up and process and he'll do anything for you, skills that make him a good officer as well. Carson is unbelievably fast, and he's a tough player, but much different than Nick, more of a finesse type."
When word of their selection to the team spread throughout the base, both found they've become ambassadors for the sport. Most people ask about rules and how to play. So, it's common to see them explaining.
"It's similar to football in a lot of ways, but like soccer, there's no stoppage of play," Goirgolzarri said. "The average rugby player runs about six miles a game."
Basically, one team attempts to move the ball down the field by running and passing to teammates. Offenses are not allowed to block or throw forward passes. Defenses attempt to stop opponents through tackling.
Rugby is fairly well known for its large scrums, which feature players from both teams, who lock arms and compete for possession. Both Cleveland and Goirigolzarri are backs, so they don't enter the scrums, but they are both instrumental to team success.
"Nick is a center, which you can compare to a middle linebacker and running back in football," Packer said. "Players at this position run with the ball and attempt to make it simple for a winger to score. Carson is a winger, a player who typically scores for a team. He's fast, agile, elusive and tries to beat opponents one-on-one."
Schriever's players will be joining an accomplished team, one that has been dominant in past tournaments. While facing teams from Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps, the Air Force has won seven straight championships.
Cleveland said it's dangerous to go in overly confident and assures fans that this Air Force squad won't be overlooking opponents.
Players will also be auditioning to be selected for the All-Armed Forces Team, which moves on to compete in larger tournaments against teams from around the world.