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Hamilton grad Konvalinka huge part of Parkside rugby

April 26, 2014

Mike Konvalinka takes care of the schedule, the finances and his team's correspondence with the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. But his real business includes getting his hands dirty.

The Sussex Hamilton graduate and current Parkside sophomore was selected as the rugby club president for an organization that has won three consecutive WISCARFU titles — which governs Division 3 clubs in Wisconsin and Chicagoland — following the triumph in the fall (closing with a 32-26 win over UW-Eau Claire).

Konvalinka, who began playing rugby with the now-defunct Menomonee Falls high school club as a junior in high school, has been transitioning to a spring season that features "sevens" play with seven players on a side instead of the traditional style that includes 15.

"I'd say it's growing, but the problem is in high school, there are so many kids who tend to focus on one sport," Konvalinka said. "They're focused on football, wrestling, basketball. ... They don't even get a chance to experience rugby. People don't even start playing until college because then they don't find out about rugby. The rugby season for the high school is in the spring, so it interferes with track, baseball, even people playing football when workouts begin."

Rugby is a fluid game, like soccer, and in a most basic sense looks like football, where players aim to move the ball to the other end of the field and subsequently touch the ball to the ground. Passing must be lateral or backward, and players tackle the ball carrier as one method of jarring it loose. The sport will return to the program at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

"The two major things that kind of throw people for a loop is that you can't block in rugby," Konvalinka said. "Guys who played football all their life, they're used to throwing a block. They don't really get the concept right away. Another thing, you can only throw backwards passes in rugby, and when you're tackling, you have to make an attempt to wrap the guy up. You still get huge hits, but you don't get hits where one guy throws his head into another guy. A lot of guys have to re-learn how to tackle."

It's because of that greater emphasis on proper form, and perhaps lack of a helmet, that injuries are usually of the less-severe variety in rugby, even though the game might look like it shares the violent nature of football.

"I'm not going to tell you it's leaps and bounds safer than football because you're going to have injuries in any contact sport," Konvalinka said. "But they don't have a helmet around their heads, so they're not just throwing their body into someone. They're more aware."

Konvalinka, a four-year wrestler at Hamilton, also played football his first two years at HHS. He's traveled as far as Nebraska this spring for a sevens tournament and took third with his Parkside teammates, though the voyage included a zany travel schedule of driving through the night.

Most colleges and universities in Wisconsin have a club rugby team. Schools such as Wisconsin in Madison are slotted in Division 1, with schools such as Whitewater and LaCrosse in Division 2.

"I love the competition, it's a really great game, and it's especially amazing to see how much it's growing the last three or four years since I've started playing," Konvalinka said. "At Parkside the last two years, we've gone into elementary schools to teach kids the very basics of rugby. They've never heard of it before, so it's awesome to see they're interested in it."

The Lake Country Rugby Club for high-school athletes has been looking for numbers. For more, contact Todd Sandstrom at (262) 370-5938. No prior experience is necessary.

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