Santa Barbara Grunion Rugby Turns 40

Plus the Joy of Hustling, 10 Best Dodgers, Coach James Ranta’s Legacy, and Triathlon Hiatus

Playing without helmets or pads, ruggers put their arms into tackling, as demonstrated in the Santa Barbara Grunion match last Saturday.
Paul Wellman

Forty years after its founding, the Santa Barbara Grunion Rugby Football Club continues to have a bloody good time.

“The camaraderie was awesome. The parties were awesome,” said Jim Mathis, a charter member of the club who came from Austin, Texas, to join his former mates in a celebration of the Grunion’s anniversary last Saturday.

Most of the original Grunions played rugby at UCSB and did not want to give it up when they were too old for the college game. They started the Grunion in 1978.

A lot of thought went into naming the club. “We wanted it to reflect where we came from,” Lance Mason said. “We also sought something tongue-in-cheek.” The grunion, the little fish that is reputed to swarm local beaches on late-night spawning runs, fit the bill. “There was always the question, do they exist?” said Mason, the club’s first president. “Or were they an excuse to take your girl out to the beach in the moonlight?”

Paul Wellman

The design of their shirts also came to represent Santa Barbara ​— ​blue (the ocean) and green (the mountains) separated by a gray stripe (Highway 101).

Mason and Mathis were among the spectators as the current edition of the Grunion team played a rough-and-tumble game against the Fossils at Elings Park. “It’s an intense game,” said Mathis, who played until he was 40. “It’s always more fun to be fit.”

The Grunion team has a knowledgeable coach in Tiaan Bezuidenhout, who played rugby in his native South Africa. The team practices Tuesdays and Thursdays at the park and has a schedule of Saturday matches from January to April.

“We have 30 players from all walks of life,” Bezuidenhout said. “Some have good jobs, some have no jobs, but they all fit together as a team.”

THE JOY OF HUSTLING: After finishing a tremendous season with a defeat in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Women’s Basketball National Championship game, Westmont College sophomore Joy Krupa received what she considers the greatest honor ​— ​the NAIA Hustle Award. She led the Warriors with 15 points, eight rebounds, four assists, and two steals in the 76-64 loss to Freed-Hardeman of Tennessee at Billings, Montana.

“I’ve never been a scorer,” said Krupa, who doubled her average points in that game, but throughout the season was Westmont’s leader in rebounds and assists. “When I get an award for just giving it my all every game, it brings a little bit of happiness to me. I really enjoy always to be hustling out there.”

Westmont’s coaches knew Krupa would be a gritty player when they heard that she had played football during her junior year at South Hills High in West Covina.

“Everybody assumes I was a kicker, but no, I played wide receiver. I was catching the ball and actually running with it,” Krupa said. “Football is my favorite sport, but after that season, my parents were like, well, you ought to concentrate on another sport that can get you to college.”

Krupa played three years of youth football in Claremont. “I was wide receiver, defensive end, linebacker, cornerback, and safety,” she said. “I love contact. In basketball, I feel like I don’t get enough contact. There’s times you get hit and get the wind knocked out of you, but that’s just part of the game; it’s what you play for. Hitting people in football is so fun ​— ​you get to just let it out. Especially being a girl, none of the guys thought I could be at the same level as them. I proved them wrong.”

After making its second appearance in the NAIA final ​— ​it won the title in 2013 ​— ​Westmont will graduate its tallest players: 6’1″ Lauren McCoy, the school’s career scoring leader, and 63 Morgan Haskin. But for the next couple of years, 5’9″ Joy Krupa will be battling for every ball, befitting her high school reputation. “They called me The Beast,” she said.

TIMELESS DODGER BASEBALL: As a warm-up to the major league season, L.A. Times correspondent Houston Mitchell invited readers to vote for the top 10 greatest Dodgers of all time, including non-playing personnel. My list: (1) Vin Scully, (2) Jackie Robinson, (3) Sandy Koufax, (4) Walter O’Malley, (5) Don Drysdale, (6) Fernando Valenzuela, (7) Maury Wills, (8) Roy Campanella, (9) Duke Snider, and (10) Orel Hershiser.

More than 8,000 ballots were sent in. O’Malley, who brought the Dodgers to L.A., did not make the top 10, finishing at No. 16; nor did the great base-stealer Wills (No. 12) or Hershiser (No. 11). With the top three (certainly my own choices in some order) yet to be announced, Nos. 4-10 are: Snider, Drysdale, Clayton Kershaw, Campanella, Tommy Lasorda, Valenzuela, and Pee Wee Reese.

RANTA’S LEGACY: The Santa Barbara Water Polo Foundation is raising funds to support the James Ranta Scholarship, named in honor of the longtime Dos Pueblos aquatics coach who died last month. A deserving junior athlete will be selected from each greater Santa Barbara high school with an aquatics program and awarded $2,500.

Ranta helped establish water polo in area schools, and it achieved unprecedented heights in the recent girls’ CIF awards. In Division 1, Ryann Neushul (Dos Pueblos) was named player of the year and Chuckie Roth (San Marcos) coach of the year. Other players on the All-CIF team are Piper Smith and Sophie Trumbull (San Marcos) and Abbi Hill (DP). In Division 2, Santa Barbara High’s Grace Raisin is player of the year, and teammate Faith Tedesco All-CIF.

TRIATHLON HIATUS: The 2018 Santa Barbara Triathlon has been canceled because of the January debris flows that washed out bridges and roadways on the bicycle course. Race director Joe Coito said the popular event, scheduled in late August, will return next year.


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