Palestine grad travels country playing rugby

SAN DIEGO – For many people, an ideal day off from work does not include running up and down a 110-yard field or being tackled without a helmet and shoulder pads.

But for Liz Strohecker there is nothing better.

Strohecker, a 2003 graduate of East Palestine High School, is a member of the nationally successful San Diego Surfers Women’s Rugby Club. For nine years she has been getting battered and bruised by a sport that tests both a person’s stamina and tolerance for pain.

“Not a day goes by during the season where I’m not sore,” Strohecker said. “Playing rugby really makes you aware of your body and how much it can take.”

Strohecker has been with the Surfers since 2008 and during that time has helped them grow into a national power. In 2009 and 2010 they captured back-to-back USA Rugby Division I National Championships, setting up a 2011 promotion to the Women’s Premier League, the top women’s rugby league in the country.

“Southern California has not always been a region known for great rugby,” Strohecker said. “But when he won nationals in 2009, we started to change that. It’s taken a lot of commitment by everybody to make this a great organization.”

During the summer, the Surfers field a seven-person squad (down from a regular team of 15 players) which Strohecker also plays on. On Aug 10th and 11th, she will get a chance to play in front of family when San Diego travels to Pittsburgh to play in the 2013 USA Rugby Club 7s National Championship on Saturday and Sunday at Founders Field. The tournament-in its second year-will feature 16 of the best women’s rugby 7s clubs from across the country. The Surfers come in as the defending champions, having qualified by winning the Santa Barbara 7s tournament in July.

“We lost four players from last year’s team that won the championship, but it seems like we really came together last month in Santa Barbara,” Strohecker said. “It would be great to play well in front of my family, they haven’t seen me play since college.”

For Strohecker, rugby was love at first sight. After playing volleyball, basketball, and softball at East Palestine, she attended the University of Connecticut where she was looking to play something more competitive that intramural sports. She had never played rugby, and didn’t know much about it, but decided to join the school’s club team.

“People who take up rugby usually love or hate it right away and I loved it,” Strohecker said. “It incorporated everything I love about competition. In rugby there is always something new to learn, and a lot of decisions that need to be made during the heat of a game. I really liked that.”

The physically of the sport took some getting used to for Strohecker. She recalled lying in her dorm room after her first game barely being able to move. However, in addition to the pain, she also felt satisfaction, realizing that she had fully enjoyed the experience.

“I felt so sore, but it was not a bad feeling at all,” Strohecker said. “I actually felt great. It felt good knowing how hard I had played. I felt like I had really accomplished something.”

After playing all four years at UConn, Strohecker took a job in Richmond, Virginia where she joined the James River Rugby Club. She then joined the Peace Corps and spent two months in Ghana before returning home due to an averse reaction to malaria medicine. Upon arriving back in the states, she moved out to San Diego, and immediately joined the Surfers. Eventually she found work as a research associate at Hologic Gen-Probe, a biotech company.

“I had some friends out in San Diego and I thought it would be a great place to live,” Strohecker said. “I knew there was a rugby club out there and decided to join. I still wanted to play and thought it would be a great way to meet other people.”

The Surfers, who been in existence since 1975, have grown to a membership of 75 players. They rent out a San Diego Chargers practice field next to Qualcomm Stadium for their home games. Players are not paid, and cover travel expenses out of their own pocket. Whenever the Surfers play a regular season match, the host team provides housing. Fund-raisers and yearly dues ranging from $200 to $250 help pay for hotel rooms at the national tournaments, as well as a small stipend for their coach, Richie Walker. No prior rugby experience is needed, anyone who wants to join can.

When Strohecker arrived, the club was coming off of back-to-back Southern California championships. Competition was intense, but Strohecker credited her college experience with laying a solid foundation.

“I left UConn with a great understanding of the fundamentals,” Strohecker said. “The experience gave me a good base and really set me up for success at a higher level.”

After three years as a part-time player, Strohecker has started the last two years as a scrum half, which would be rugby’s closest equivalent to a football quarterback.

“The position is kind of a link between the forwards and backs, Strohecker said. “My job is to direct traffic and make sure the ball goes where it’s supposed to.”

Over the years, Strohecker has suffered a torn hip labrum as well as an assortment of broken fingers and black eyes, but she says that the competition and camaraderie make up for everything.

“I love getting to compete on a national level in a sport I love,” Strohecker said. Not to many people get to do that after college. Also, there is a great sense of community among the players. I feel like I could move anywhere in the country, join a rugby club and there would be an instant bond.”