History on the Pitch
Although rugby is not new to Glenwood Springs or the Roaring Fork Valley, there has never been an official girl’s rugby team.
Rugby goes back to the 1990s in Glenwood Springs with Defiance Rugby Football Club, and even further back to the 1960s with Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club.
“I think everybody in the valley rugby community has wanted a women’s team for as long as it has been played here,” Valkyries coach Kyle Larsen said.
Larsen, who is the American Sign Language interpreter for the school district, started playing rugby his senior year of high school. He fell in love with it right away. He played college and men’s club rugby for the last 15 years. His passion for rugby drew him to coaching and passing on what he has learned over the years.
“It one of those things I always wanted to do, just never had the time,” Larsen said about starting a club. Larsen decided to have an informational meeting at the end of the school year. He put up posters and about 20 girls showed up.
“When I heard about rugby,” senior co-captain Ximena Gutierrez said, “and how aggressive it is, and how it makes girls strong and believe in themselves and their bodies, I had to join.” Glenwood Springs Junior co-captain Michelle Marshall, who transferred from Basalt at the first of the year, found out about the club through a basketball group chat.
“I didn’t even know who coach Larsen was, I got a message over the chat asking if anyone wants to play rugby that they should show up,” Marshall said.
With enough interest, the Valley Valkyries Girls Rugby Club formed, holding its first ever practice this summer.
“My mom and I showed up to the pitch the first day,” Marshall said, “and I almost didn’t get out of the car. I was so nervous.”
At first, the girls looked like the island of misfit toys. They never played the sport before and did not know the rules — let alone know how to play.
“One girl picked up the ball and said, ‘Is this a rugby?’” Larsen said.
He taught rugby basics for three full weeks before the team’s first match.
“As a coach, I take things for granted,” Larsen said. “When we started, day one we had to teach them how to fall. “Once they realized they are tough and the grass is soft things took off.”
“I think it was crazy to see the development we went through,” Marshall said. “When we first started tackling, it was so awkward.”
Marshall said nobody knew each other, and all of a sudden they were bringing each other to the ground.
“We were so light and delicate about it,” she said. “But now we will be in the hallways and ask each other if they want to be tackled.”
Aggressiveness came natural for Gutierrez, maybe a little too natural.
“I’ve always been an aggressive person,” Gutierrez said. “I’ve been playing soccer and basketball since seventh grade.”
Her style got her in trouble on the court, fouling out of basketball games regularly. She considered a few other sports.
“I thought about joining football, but it was too scary to do,” Gutierrez admits.
Gutierrez says she doesn’t like that so many girls believe they have to be delicate.
“I like being able to show them I can destroy someone on the pitch,” she said. “It felt empowering to join rugby, and not just be seen as a delicate little girl.”
‘We climbed the ladder’
The Valkyries season started in September with a tournament at Summit High School, the only other high school girls rugby team on the Western Slope.
The team went in with the goal of getting one try — a try is how to score in the sport, and it is worth five points. Marshall not only scored the team’s first try, but she led the Valkyries to their first ever victory that day.
The Valley Valkyries won all three games at the tournament, sparking a 14-game win streak to start the season.
“Every week we climbed the ladder of difficulty,” Larsen said.
The Valkyries began the season playing at the junior varsity level, and worked their way up to varsity development, ending the season as a varsity club.
This was an amazing feat, Larsen said, because of all the traveling to the Front Range and back for tournaments, including trips to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Chaparral High School in Parker, Arapahoe High School in Centennial, and Regis High School in Aurora.
The Valley Valkyries wrapped up their season in November with a trip to the Colorado Girls High School Championship Finals in Colorado Springs.
“It was scary and crazy to me,” Gutierrez said, “thinking that in our first year, we could make it all the way to finals.”
Out of 18 teams, the Valkyries finished third in the state.
“Its was such a team effort, without the parents involvement, without the people who came out and volunteer coached with me, we would never had the success we did,” Larsen said.
“Third in the state is awesome, but the friendships that came out of it mean the most,” he added.
Both Marshall and Gutierrez agree with their coach.
“I’ve made a lot of new friends, and it’s probably my new favorite sport,” Marshall said.
Gutierrez who will graduate next spring doesn’t want rugby just to be the sport she played her senior year.
“Because to me it was so much more than that. We built a community out of it,” she added. “I grew so much as a person, and I’m so thankful I played rugby.”
Marshall is already looking forward to next year, helping coach Larsen recruit players.
“Now that I know the game and the rules, I’m excited to get the community together again,” Marshall said. “Coming out of the season I feel like we are all better people, not just athletes.”
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“We’re lucky. We caught it in time,” Bill Kight of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society said of a leak in the photo archive room at the Frontier Museum.