Rugby is undergoing a Surge in popularity in Lakewood Ranch.
A Sarasota Surge, to be specific. The Surge rugby club has been around since 2010, but has spiked in popularity in recent years as the sport itself has gained steam on the East Coast.
The club started with an adult men's team, but has since added youth teams, which President Gary Jones said have filled quickly since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. As it stands, the club offers a standard rugby experience with its U14, U16 and U19 teams, plus non-tackle U8 and U10 teams.
Jan. 20 was the organization's opening day for 2024. The Surge hosted matches throughout the day at its home Lakewood Ranch field, adjacent to the Sarasota International Cricket Club on University Parkway. The event brought so many people that overflow parking was needed and cars had to be parked, lining both sides of the road. It was a good problem to have, Jones said.
The match of most intrigue was the U14 team's game against Wellington Wizards Rugby. That level is the first to introduce tackling to the game, something that can raise safety concerns with parents and make the players nervous if they are not used to contact sports. After all, there are no helmets in rugby.
Surge U14 Head Coach Josh Melancon said he understands both of these perspectives, which is why teaching safety is priority No. 1 when a kid first joins the club.
"We teach 'heads-up' tackles," Melancon said. "World Rugby has actually lowered the (point of contact) standard. It used to be below the head. Now it is below the chest. So every tackle has to be below that point, at about the mid-hip level."
As the "heads-up" part of the phrase implies, players cannot lower their heads or lead with their head when making a tackle, either. They are taught to lead with their shoulder, then wrap up the opponent. Melancon said the club introduces these techniques slowly, wanting players to be fully prepared by the time they take the field for their first full-contact match.
This season, the vast majority of the Surge U14 team has one year or less of rugby experience, and there are some players who are much younger than the 14-year-old age limit, like 11-year-old Jack Kyle.
Early against Wellington, it did not look good for the Surge. The large number of Surge players on the lower end of the age bracket was instantly apparent as the Wellington team was noticeably bigger and taller. The first part of the match was contested almost entirely in the Surge's defensive zone, with Wellington controlling possession and taking an early 10-0 lead on two tries (more or less the equivalent of two touchdowns in American football, but worth five points each). This was not unexpected. Jones had said pregame that most of the kids on the Wellington club have three to four years of experience.
Jones thought the match could serve as a "wake-up call" for newer Surge players about how much hard work the sport requires, he said.
It did not take the whole game for the Surge to receive the message. After Wellington's early lead, Sarasota battled back, finding success moving the ball when not bottled in by the Wellington players' big bodies. When Wellington did get the ball, the players' tackling techniques shined, with players corralling opponents much bigger than themselves. Sarasota took a 17-10 lead into the game's final minutes on two tries and a penalty try, which is worth seven points. Wellington would add another try in the game's final seconds to make it 17-15, but the Surge would get the victory.
The young Surge players walked off the field hooting and hollering. They had big smiles on their faces and cakes of mud on their clothes, both of which served as signs of a good time. Kyle later confirmed those signs. Despite his age and a stomach full of butterflies, Kyle showed no signs of being afraid of the game once it began.
"I had fun," Kyle said. "They had some older kids and I was a little nervous at first, but I had to play through it. I'm big for my age and I love feeling the impact (of tackling). It's an adrenaline rush. I love getting in the scrums as well, because you have to be strong."
After the game, the Surge players had snacks and drinks inside the team's clubhouse, with some sticking around to watch their U16 teammates play. The whole event had a familial feeling.
Kyle said he'd recommend the sport, and the club, to anyone his age looking for something new. The Surge holds open youth practices every Tuesday and Thursday night at 6 p.m. No experience is required, Melancon said. It's an opportunity for kids to try the sport with no future commitments.
It won't be for everyone, but for kids in search of a sport where they can put their strength and speed to use, it might be for them.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.