April 18, 2001 11:00 pm
ON THE FLY: Kelsi Sandoz of La Grande has taken up the fly-half position for Oregon State's women's rugby team as a sophomore, helping control the offense. (Submitted photo).
ON THE FLY: Kelsi Sandoz of La Grande has taken up the fly-half position for Oregon State's women's rugby team as a sophomore, helping control the offense. (Submitted photo).

By C.J. Gish

Observer Staff Writer

One was recruited after someone saw her working out in a gym. The other received a phone call from a friend of a cousin who played.

Now, Megan Kleck of Union and Kelsi Sandoz of La Grande are traveling to Orlando, Fla., to compete in the Womens Collegiate Division I Sweet 16 Tournament as part of Oregon State Universitys rugby team.

The two came to the team by different means. Kleck, who ran cross country at Union High School, was spotted by a coach and approached.

I was working out one day. A coach came into the gym and saw me. He thought I looked muscular, she said.

Now, four years later, Kleck, a senior, is the teams president and plays the eight man, which is similar to footballs quarterback, for the forward position.

Sandoz, a sophomore, was an all-around athlete coming out of La Grande. She was an all-league soccer player, helped the basketball team to the playoffs and played tennis before graduating in 1999.

She was called up and asked to play at the start of her freshman year.

Everyone who comes out never knows what (rugby) is about. It takes a couple of months to get into it, Sandoz said. I had never heard of the sport and thought (my cousins friend) was crazy for even playing it.

Now the two play for an Oregon State team that is 10-0, which includes playoff wins over Cal Berkeley and Humboldt State in the Pacific Coast Championships, held March 31-April 1 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

We havent beaten any California teams in 10 years for the right to go to the (Sweet 16), Kleck said.

The team, seeded eighth in the final 16, departs Friday for Florida and will play ninth-seeded Central Michigan University in the tournaments opening round at 10:30 a.m. PDT Saturday.

The Final Four will be held May 5-6 in Rockford, Ill.

Last year, Oregon State went 10-4 and advanced to the Pacific Coast Championships, but lost to Stanford 20-3 in the opening round.

This is the third-straight year the Beavers are in the playoffs since hosting the Final Four in 1992.

For Kleck and Sandoz, the opportunity to play in a national tournament is a privilege.

Its neat that two kids from a small community can go to a Division I school and compete and play, Kleck said.

Its pretty exciting. I didnt think wed make it this far, Sandoz said.

The team has two more Eastern Oregon connections. Head coach Craig Young graduated from Baker High School in 1992 and played four years on the OSU mens rugby team before taking over as womens coach in 1997.

Angie Henes is also from Baker City and is playing in her fourth season for the Beavers.

We have a pretty good Eastern Oregon contingent, Young said.

Rugby is listed as a club sport at Oregon State and receives some funds from the university. Players earn a letter like any other varsity sport, but all the participants pay to play, Young said. It costs $100 in dues per season, plus the players have fund-raisers year-round for meal and travel expenses.

Its a real grass-roots program, Young said.

Thats why coaches and club members have to recruit around campus to find players like Kleck and Sandoz. The two players have made big contributions to this seasons team.

Theyre both outstanding athletes, Young said. Megan came in and made an immediate impact. Shes been starting since her second game (as a freshman) and has been up a couple times for all-star balloting.

Young pointed to similar traits both Union County players have.

They work very hard, are students of the game and they dont learn just their roles but how to expand and help other people out.

Sandoz is playing a new position this season, moving from her freshman position as wing, which is similar to footballs wide receiver, to the fly-half, a position that helps control the offense.

She was vaulted into that position. We had an All-American there last year, but she went on an exchange trip this year, so Kelsi was the best person for that position, Young said.

Having a background in athletics doesnt necessarily mean a player will excel in rugby. Kleck and Sandoz said their high school sporting achievements helped in some ways.

Kleck said cross country running helped her endurance rugby games feature two 40-minute halves with a five-minute halftime.

For Sandoz, soccer did, with the whole kicking aspect. Basketball helped in that it developed hand skills. But a lot of the people on the (rugby) team never played sports.

Its a lot different than usual sports, but its nice to get away from sports everybody is used to.

Theres no precedent for women playing a contact sport, Young said. A lot of people think rugby players are a bunch of psychos out there, but its actually a very cerebral game. You have to take time to think about the game and learn it.

Sandoz agrees the sport has an unappealing reputation, but shes having a great time on the team.

I like the lifestyle of what it really takes. A lot of it is a mental game. You have to be with it (on the field), which a lot of people dont think about.