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Tackles and tiaras
On weekdays, Miss Silverdale Brittney Rusinski dons her sparkling tiara and smiles wide.
On Sunday, she goes the other direction, lacing up cleats, biting on a mouth guard and jumping into the muddy center of rugby scrums.
“My mom was shocked,” said Rusinski, a junior at Central Kitsap High School. “She came to our first match and she never expected that from me.”
One of Rusinski’s close friends and teammates on the Kitsap Grenades female rugby team is Hannah Wood, a junior at Bremerton High School who also earned pageant honors when she was named Miss Kitsap Jan. 8.
Wood and Rusinski dutifully report for public appearances. But when they compete, they gear up on the grassy fields at Pendergast Regional Park in Bremerton.
“Usually people see pageant girls as people who just want to wear makeup and put on pretty dresses, but it’s more than that,” Wood said. “I can do both things well because I love doing both. We’re destroying the stereotype. If you enjoy doing something, go for it.”
Their parents eventually supported the decision, leading to a new chapter for Wood and Rusinski. Neither student-athlete has suffered an injury since joining the rugby club.
Wood, who’s already competed in softball, volleyball, soccer and basketball, said her curiosity led to joining the rugby squad.
For the girls, rugby has offered them more than just camaraderie, or bragging rights for playing a brutal sport not known to normally include girls.
“I thought it was too crazy and I would never do anything like that,” Wood said. “I found out I was tough, and it’s cool to find that out about yourself, that you can do anything.”
The two pageant winners are entering their second season with the Grenades, led by head coach Deane Shephard. Rusinski and Wood are very teachable, Shephard said, both learning the ins and outs of rugby within their first season together. He admires their willingness to work together as half-backs, while meeting expectations on and off the field.
“The reality is women rugby players are just like any other athletes,” said Shephard, who has since noticed similarities between the two. “The requirements for pageants and rugby are the same - leadership, getting along with others, engaging with the community and having a certain level of confidence. I look for these things in my young high school athletes, and Brittney and Hannah meet those standards.”
Rusinski said she became a member of the Grenades to engage in something new and meet friends. The teamwork in itself, Rusinksi said, is what makes every match and practice so fulfilling.
“When we win in the snow, hail and rain, sometimes a few players short, but knowing that we all worked together, that’s one of the best feelings in the world,” she added.
Following each rugby match, the Grenades and their opponent share a feast. The home team does the cooking. Wood and Rusinski each joined the club in January 2010, and said they never thought they would share these moments together, like singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” while running laps.
The two crown winners are also uniquely connected by their roles on the field. Rusinski is a scrum-half while Wood is the team’s fly-half. The scrum-half normally places in the ball into the scrum, while the fly-half usually calls set moves.
And nothing bonds this team together like a scrum, the start of play in rugby when teams crouch side by side, lock arms and fight for the ball.
“You always have to be there for each other in the scrum when you’re combining strengths,” Wood said. “You have to have that bond and that support, or else you’re going to fall apart on the field.”
Wood and Rusinski each won $3,000 for winning their respective pageant titles. They said their desire for scholarship money and community outreach sparked interest in vying for the top crown at Miss Kitsap. Wood, who was born deaf and received hearing aids at the age of 5, overcame the early obstacle by learning to read lips.
They agreed that the pageants and rugby have one thing in common – empowering young women – and they hope their efforts with the Grenades and Miss Kitsap pageants serve as a message for young women.
“It sets a good example for girls who want to grow up and do their thing,” Rusinski said. “It shows girls they can be anything they want to be.”
Wood said she doesn’t care about naysayers who question whether pageant winners can play a gritty sport while also walking the stage in evening wear. For the Miss Kitsap winner, it’s about the love of the game.
“I just say to them, ‘I am Hannah, and she is Brittney, and if we want, we’re going to go play rugby,’ because that’s what we love to do,” she added.