Outdoors

What’s Aussie ball? Sport draws loyal Sacramento players

jvillegas@sacbee.com

When it comes to recreational sports, everyone knows football, rugby and soccer. But Aussie ball?

On Tuesday nights, people walking or driving by Doc Oliver Baseball Field in William Land Park can catch sight of athletes practicing a sport that started in Australia more than 150 years ago but is about as rare as kangaroos here.

It’s called Australian football (a.k.a. Australian rules football), a cross between football, rugby and soccer where teams kick, hand-pass and run a ball down an oval field, trying to score on their opponents.

On a recent evening, the men’s coach, Matt Bishop, 41, can be heard yelling friendly instructions to players in his distinctly Australian accent.

Bishop, along with his wife, Amy, and their friend Helen Mondia, a longtime women’s team player, are responsible for launching an official U.S. Australian Football League team, Sacramento Suns, and its women’s team, the Lady Suns, in 2009.

The Bishops came here after three years in Washington, D.C., where he worked in marketing for the Australian red meat industry.

“When we moved out here (in 2009), there was actually no team in this area,” said Bishop. “We wanted a way to meet some new people, so we thought why not combine the two and start a club.”

Bishop and his wife started by putting up fliers and renting out a social room in Capitol Towers apartments, where they were then living. “We didn’t know if anyone was going to turn up or not,” Bishop said. “But we put a little bit of food and Australian beer out there, so that seemed to attract a few,” he recalls, laughing.

Melvin Chen, a chemical engineer who works for a Vacaville engineering firm, has been with the team since it started. He credits the Bishops with boosting interest in Australian football locally.

“A lot of it is the club mentality” that the Bishops have cultivated, he said. “People see how cohesive and really positive the club is and they really just want to be here. We could all be doing 10,000 different things (on a Tuesday night) … but it’s worth it.”

Over the past six years, more than 350 people have played on the Sacramento Suns teams and on a co-ed team called SacFooty.

The latter is a co-ed, tag-based version of Australian football called Ausball that Bishop created to entice those who are reluctant to play a tackle sport.

Unlike in the National Football League, Bishop said, concussions aren’t common in Australian football because there aren’t two teams rushing at each other. It’s more one-on-one play like soccer, he said.

“The more we show people that it’s not as scary as it looks, the more people will get interested and want to come out and play,” said Katie Klatt, 23, vice captain of the Lady Suns.

A college field hockey player, Klatt joined the team about a year ago.

“When I moved here, I didn’t even know what it was,” said Klatt, a nurse at UC Davis Medical Center. “Then I watched a YouTube video and came for a practice one day and loved it.”

The Lady Suns are coached by Brad Anderson, a former Australian, but most of the team’s players are United States-born.

Nationally, most USAFL teams have a number of players from Australia, said Bishop, which presents a challenge for teams like the Suns that have mostly local players who never grew up with the sport.

“We’ve got to try and train them and get them to learn as much as they possibly can in a short amount of time,” Bishop said. “Their learning curve is so steep.”

Despite that disadvantage, the Sacramento Suns won the Division III title last year. With last year’s victory, the team steps up in competition this season to Division II.

12 Australian Football clubs compete Saturday in Northern California’s biggest tournament, according to Sacramento Suns Coach Matt Bishop

Ahead of the national tournament in October in Austin, Texas, the Suns will host the USAFL Western Regional Tournament on Saturday at Nugget Field in Davis. The 12 teams include the Golden Gate Roos (from San Francisco), Seattle Grizzlies, Hong Kong Dragons and Portland Steelheads. (For details, see the accompanying box.)

According to Bishop, it will be the biggest tournament the sport has ever had in Northern California, with eight West Coast men’s teams and four women’s teams competing in three divisions.

Despite the stepped-up competition, Bishop is optimistic that the Sacramento Suns will show how they stack up in the tournament.

“In the past, we’ve struggled because the experience level was just not there. We’ve been competitive but found it difficult to win against those teams. This year, we feel like we can have a crack at the Division II teams and see if we can at least (win) a game or two down at nationals,” he said.

Before coaching the Suns, Bishop was head coach of the USA Revolution, the all-star men’s team that participates in the Australian Football League’s international tournament in Australia every three years. In 2011, he led the team to a fourth-place finish among 18 teams.

Several Sacramento Suns players, including Klatt and Chen, have been part part of the men’s and women’s USA teams.

Although still coaching the local team, Bishop recently stepped down from coaching the USA Revolution team because he wanted to focus on his daughter, born about two months ago. He’s turned his passion into a career, running an online small business importing Australian Football apparel and creating uniforms for U.S. teams.

Despite the Suns’ tournament success, Aussie football’s following here is minimal compared with other sports played in U.S. high schools or colleges.

“The truth is, we’re literally a fly on the wall. We’re a very unique sport. We’re a niche sport. Rugby has done a great job in growing and getting into the colleges,” he said. “Our sport is based on the community, rather than the schools.”

But Bishop, says he is hopeful that Aussie ball is here to stay. “It’s becoming an international game. Just about every country has a team. … It’s exciting that (Sacramento) guys (and women) can represent their country.”

Head’s up, it’s Aussie football

What it is: Started in 1859 in Melbourne, Australian football is a combination of rugby, football and soccer. It’s a contact sport with two teams of up to 18 players each. It’s commonly called Aussie football, Aussie rules or footy. There are both tackle and tag versions.

How it is played: Points are scored by kicking, hand-passing (not throwing) or running the ball. The field is oval-shaped with goal posts on each end. The ball is similar to a rugby football, with rounded ends. Games are typically played in two 20-minute halves.

How to join: Every Tuesday through mid-October, from 6 to 8 p.m., the Sacramento Suns and Lady Suns host open-to-anyone training sessions at Doc Oliver Field (near 11th Avenue and Land Park Drive) in William Land Park. The team is part of the U.S. Australian Football League, which has 34 club teams. For the co-ed, non-tackle tag version of Australian football, the SacFooty team is now starting its summer league, with games played Thursday nights, July 9 through Aug. 20. For more details or to register, visit sacfooty.com.

Western Regional Tournament: On Saturday, 12 West Coast men’s and women’s teams will compete in a USAFL tournament, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at Nugget Fields, 1801 Moore Blvd., in Davis. In addition to the Sacramento Suns and Lady Suns, there will be teams from San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Orange County and Hong Kong. For more details visit sacfooty.com.

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