At Lakewood Ranch High School, Austin Rushnell was a skateboarder.
Now, as a history student at the University of South Florida, he’s embraced the ancient Gaelic sport of hurling. And how did that happen?
“I was over in Ireland,” he jokes, “and somebody handed me a stick.”
Back in Florida, Rushnell found the Facebook page of the Tampa Bay Hurling Club, which is based in Lakewood Ranch. A core group of about 10 players practice twice a week and sometimes travel to out-of-state tournaments.
In hurling, players use a flat wooden stick called a hurley to hit a small leather ball called a sliotar. Teams score when they hit a ball between their opponents’ goalposts.
The sport is a lot like lacrosse, only faster, with players racing back and forth across a huge field. “The easiest part of the game, at least for me, is all the running,” said Rushnell, a 23-year-old with a Gaelic harp tattooed on his wrist. “The hardest part is picking up the skills. I practice every day. I was playing in a game after the first month. I was passable in about two months.”
The Peach Cup
John Hanlon, a 47-year-old commercial lender for Homebanc in Lakewood Ranch, started the local hurling club three years ago. His parents are from Ireland and he grew up hurling in New York City. Now he’s returned to the sport.
“A bit of exercise, a lot of running,” he says. “I like the competitive nature of it and the camaraderie. I don’t think anybody takes it too seriously, though they can get their Irish up.” This month, the hurlers will travel to a tournament in North Carolina. Last month, they surprised themselves by winning the Peach Cup in Georgia. “I think we played better as a team and we had a deeper bench,” Hanlon says. “And the games were close. One game, we had a tie. Another game, we won by one point.”
Picking up players
At Sunday’s practice behind Lakewood Ranch High School, I watched players scoop up balls and pass them back and forth. The best part was watching them run and then turn to swing and hit a ball in stride.
Imagine Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays loping across a field and lifting a long fly ball.
Newcomers included a 27-year-old ringer from Ireland named Mark Earley. He had the fluid swing and easy ball control of someone who grew up with the game.
On the sideline, his girlfriend, Jennifer Griffin, explained that they had just moved to Brandon, Fla. She’s from Limerick. He’s from County Clare. “Where Mark’s from, this is such a big deal,” she said. “It’s a way of life.”