Clifford starts, Kelter scores for USA at rugby event in China
She was a flag football and basketball star in high school and a four-year basketball starter in college. She wasn’t going to the WNBA, but she wasn’t ready for the rec league either.
Then she discovered rugby at a crossover introductory event for athletes from other sports. It hooked Clifford like a Pixee spoon.
“My first and greatest love is basketball, but rugby challenges my body and toughness in a way basketball never did,” she told me. “There were times when I wanted to tackle someone on the court. In this game you actually do it and not get ejected.”
Rugby came into her life at the perfect time. Clifford was looking for something to replace the void left by college basketball.
“I love to compete,” she said. “Working hard, sports and the atmosphere that comes along with a team and people counting on one another … I’m 23 years old. Why not find a family this way before starting my own; plus if a coach sits you down and tells you he wants you to help this country win a gold medal? There’s no turning that kind of opportunity down.”
Clifford has been with the USA Women’s Eagles since 2013 and she earned her second cap in China at the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series. She debuted with Team USA in Brazil in February.
Now she’s been joined on the team by former Chugiak High flag football teammate Alev Kelter, a world-class athlete in soccer and hockey and former University of Wisconsin two-sport star. Like Clifford, she’s now playing rugby and the two Alaskans were on the field together in China in the name of Team USA.
“Alev joined us a couple months ago and it’s been nice having another Alaskan on the team. It’s cool to see her growing and falling in love with the game like I have,” Clifford said. “We joke about how crazy it is that we’re here. If you would have told us this is where we’d be in five years when we were playing flag football I don’t think either of us would have believed you.”
Clifford was a regular in the starting lineup for the Eagles and played a hooker position, which is the first person to pick up the ball after a tackle to start the action all over again. A hooker handles the ball more than any other player – sort of like a quarterback, which is what she played in flag football.
Kelter came off the bench to play a position like a running back, which is what she played in high school. A physical and aggressive playmaker, she was born to withstand the ruggedness of rugby. She’s as tough as they come.
She’s also a skilled playmaker and proved to be a natural, scoring her first career 5-point try [or touchdown] in a 14-12 loss to France yesterday. A try is scored by grounding the ball in the other team’s endzone.
The Americans finished with a 1-4 record over the two days, beating Brazil 31-0 this morning in the eleventh-place game. They lost to China 17-7, Russia 19-10 and Canada 35-7 in addition to France.
The Sevens World Series featured the top 12 countries in the world, most notably top-ranked teams New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Rugby is typically played with 15 players, but the sevens format is designed to showcase elite players.
“It’s physical, but it isn’t as extreme as 15s because you have 7-on-7 on an entire field,” Clifford said. “It’s full contact but it’s usually more a side tackle versus straight on. Your head gets rattled sometimes but they teach us proper technique, so in ways it’s safer than football.”