The only girl among her family’s five children, Compass Academy student Nikki Ritter-Truxal isn’t afraid of the rough and tumble.
Does she want to play soccer? Nope.
Basketball? She said she would be called for too many personal fouls.
Volleyball? What’s that?
No, Ritter-Truxal, 17, is making her name on the rugby pitch.
She’s a member of the Evolution 7’s Academy — a high school and middle school rugby academy based in Meridian that plays at the regional and national levels — and an advocate for a sport that’s quickly become her passion.
“I just wanted a sport that nobody had been playing during their younger career,” Ritter-Truxal said. “I wanted to play a tough sport.”
Rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in America, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
According to the website world.rugby, “the total number of registered players increased from 2.82 million to 3.2 million while the total number of non-registered rugby players rose from 4.91 million to 5.3 million” worldwide in 2016. That same year nearly 2 million children were introduced to rugby through World Rugby’s “Get Into Rugby” program.
Ritter-Truxal, who’s originality from Jackson, Wyo., and lived in tiny Lost Springs, Wyo., (whose current population is 4) before moving to Idaho Falls for high school, said her enthusiasm for the sport came after she noticed a poster for the sport at Compass Academy in the ninth grade.
An avid Denver Broncos fan who’s grown up with four brothers, she said she enjoys riding horses, ranching and hunting with her family.
So tackling and scrums? No problem.
“I grew up with brothers and threw the ball with them all the time,” Ritter-Truxal said. “I’m a big NFL fan, so I watch NFL football all the time.”
Ritter-Truxal, now a junior, said she was interested in playing football, but the team camaraderie and niche of rugby kept her interested in scrums and laterals rather than set plays and field goals.
Evolution 7’s plays rugby sevens, a fast-paced version of the game with players on each side. (Regular rugby is 15 players per side.) According to usasevens.com, each team is restricted to five reserves per game, and they’re permitted to make five substitutions. Games consist of two seven-minute halves, with a one- or two-minute halftime break. Championship finals are played with 10-minute halves. Regular rugby has two 40-minute halves with a 10-minute halftime.
“These rule changes are brought in to keep the game fast moving and free flowing, which is considered the aim of sevens rugby,” the usasevens.com website said.
Ritter-Truxal is the only member of Evolution 7’s Academy from Idaho Falls and is a member of the academy’s first girls team. The team plays in regional tournaments and is expected to play across the United States and world, Ritter-Truxal said.
“Rugby is one of those sports where once they get the taste of the camaraderie, they really stick by it and come back,” Evolution 7’s President Belinda van Tonder said. Van Tonder said the academy has about 26 players and two teams: one boys, one girls.
Evolution 7’s coaching staff said they enjoy Ritter-Truxal’s physicality and strength, along with her quickness to the ball.
“For a girl who started in the ninth grade, she’s acclimated quickly,” von Tonder said. “She’s got good ball skills. It’s not hindering to be far away (from the academy) because of her skill level.”
To train, Ritter-Truxal follows video instruction during the week and then travels to Meridian almost every weekend. Von Tonder said Ritter-Truxal will watch live practices and strategies via FaceTime or Facebook live, as her coach Jeff Harward sends workout routines to follow.
“It speaks to her work ethic and integrity for the game,” Harward said of Ritter-Truxal’s work ethic and learning Evolution 7’s plays remotely. “It takes a lot of discipline to keep on top of it.”
For the local 15s team, a traditional squad that encompasses players from local schools, Ritter-Truxal and the team practice at the Idaho Falls’ Gold’s Gym about twice a week.
For Evolution 7’s, Ritter-Truxal said she is looking for sponsors to help fund her trips and participation at the academy. This year will be first time the girls team will travel outside the Intermountain Region for competitions.
Ritter-Truxal and Evolution 7’s first matches begin Feb. 28 at the Las Vegas Invitational, the largest amateur rugby tournament in the United States. The girls’ team also plans to enter tournaments this year in Orlando, Fla., Ontario, Canada, and Salt Lake City.
“We have yet to have a proper match yet, but excited to see what she does on the pitch,” Harward said.