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Australian football makes inroads in Baltimore one bounce, kick and bump at a time

The Baltimore Bohgans are used to a small stage. Their sport — Australian football — is still just catching on in the United States. And now, with the Latrobe Park soccer field being renovated, they're just trying to keep a foothold on some turf for Tuesday practices. But spirits were high at the first June session as two lines of players relayed balls in the grass of the Latrobe softball outfield.

"One of the things that people like about footy is that it's pretty fun and welcoming," said Karen Stablein, who plays for the women's team. "Everybody here is an adult convert, so even if people have been playing for a while, everybody knows what it's like to be new."

The United States Australian Football League, founded in 1997, has grown to include 37 men's teams and 13 women's teams, but the sport is not well known.

"The biggest issue is just exposure," said Andrew Pike, who plays wing for the men's team. "It used to be on ESPN2 every once in a while, but not anymore, so I think most people just never heard of it. … They see us playing, they think it's rugby 'cause the ball's a similar shape."

An Australian football looks like a rugby ball or American football, but the way it's moved is "a little bit more free-flowing than American football," said Mark Salansky, 36, who lives in Federal Hill and plays for the Bohgans. A team of 18 works together to move the ball down an oval-shaped field that's often as long as 160 meters (about 175 yards), then put it between the opponents' goal posts for a 6-point goal or a 1-point behind. Players must bounce the ball off the ground periodically while running, or pass by kicking the ball or bumping it like a volleyball. Meanwhile, the other team can block passes or tackle players.

"There's no set plays. … You don't have those distinct positions where you only run out and catch the ball — like, everybody does everything," said Salansky, a Riverview Elementary School physical education teacher who played intramural softball, basketball and American football in college.

"The sport itself … really involves that volleyball punch, soccer kicking and running — the transition of it … the football aspect as far as the full contact, being able to do something with the ball even though somebody's trying to tackle you," Salansky said.

Lively leagues

The Bohgans are part of the Baltimore-Washington Eagles, a team that also includes the Washington Generals and the Virginia Hams. The Eagles compete about once a month against the other members of the USAFL's Eastern League — Boston, New York, Philadelphia and North Carolina. In 2006, the men's team made it to the national tournament and captured the Division II championship. Stablein and some other Lady Eagles play for the U.S. national team, which will travel to Melbourne, Australia, in August for the women's International Cup.

"It's a very competitive sport," Salansky said, "but once you pick up the rules of it, anybody can do it."

For beginners, Baltimore's metropolitan Ausball league offers a tamer alternative to "proper" footy. The nine-on-nine, coed game is touch, not tackle, and lasts 30 minutes instead of Australian football's 80. USAFL president and former Eagles vice president Denis Ryan invented Ausball and created the league in 2006. Now, six teams play weekly for two eight-week seasons each year.

"I think Ausball does a really good job at introducing you to the game, getting you to learn the rules, getting the basic skills down," Pike said. "I really enjoy tackling people, too … [but] since I came up through Ausball, I like to keep doing it to help other people, so maybe they can do the same thing I did."

Ausball players were arriving at Latrobe as the Bohgans wrapped up their practice. The first round was a pickup game, and the players arranged themselves around the field before Pike, serving as umpire, threw the ball up between the centers to start play. Centres, ruckmen, wings and backs hollered for passes as they charged up and down the field, skirting softball outfielders along one sideline.

Footy and friends

The Ausball teams are often formed by people who know one another from college or work, but friendships form quickly in the city league. Many of the teams are sponsored by bars, so most games are followed by events at Wiley Gunters, No Way Jose Cafe or other nearby establishments.

"It's a pretty big social sport — there's a lot of activities with your team going out afterwards," Salansky said. "There's a lot of drinking, but … that's a big social aspect of the sport, and I think Americans really like that about it."

Said Stablein: "The groups that we work with, they'll allow us to play footy on the TVs, and so it helps us and it draws more people in. One of the things that people like about footy is that it's pretty fun and welcoming."

The players are mostly in their 20s and 30s, and those waiting for their teams' turn chatted about jobs, weddings and baby showers behind one set of four goal posts.

"There's not a lot of drop-off until they get a little older," Salansky said. "For the most part, people keep playing. … I'm 36, so I've been playing for a while and will continue to keep playing."

It's a casual culture, proud of its traditions and relatively small membership. For Bohgans players, pride extends to their Aussie-inspired name. "Bogan" is a derogatory term that's distantly related to "redneck," but in Baltimore "we kind of wear it like a badge of honor," Salansky said. "There's a couple of us that have it tattooed on us, so we're pretty proud of it."

The second game of the evening, a league contest between the Lone Rangers and the Wallabies, went on as the sun set and the field's light poles blazed to life. A man responsible for the lights walked over and asked the waiting players, "Who's in charge of the rugby thing?" Unfazed, they pointed him to Salansky, who called out from within the swarm at midfield, then went back to umpiring.

"People are usually laid-back and don't take it too seriously," he said of umpire duty after the Wallabies recovered from a halftime deficit to win, 38-23, and the teams gathered for fist bumps and congratulations. "It is pretty fun, 'cause you see things you wouldn't normally expect."

nrabner@baltsun.com

twitter.com/NateRabner

For information, go to usafl.com, eaglesfooty.com and womensfooty.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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