SIOUX CITY | Wiping sweat from his brow, Hank Zimmerman barks out orders to his fellow rugby players at Western Iowa Tech Community College.

"Remember, you gotta be able to communicate with your teammates!" he shouts as the Comets practice over-the-shoulder passes. "They gotta be able to sense your presence even if they can't see you there!"

Established more than three years ago, the 14-member WIT rugby team regularly battles teams from much larger schools, including the University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University and Iowa State University.

"The school's been behind us ever since we've proven we can go head-to-head with bigger teams," said Zimmerman, 21, a WIT student and the team's president.

The Comets will have an opportunity to show off their expertise on the field at next weekend's Battle on the Nebraska Prairie "March Madness" Rugby Tournament in Wayne, Neb. Eighty teams from across the country will compete.

Zimmerman is the team's most experienced player. He began playing rugby in high school and continued with the sport as a member of the Siouxland Swine amateur adult team.

"Before rugby, I was a skinny, non-athletic kid who never participated in sports," said Zimmerman, who is 5 feet 6 inches and 145 pounds. "Once I discovered how much fun rugby can be, I couldn't wait to play."

Originating in England around 1823, rugby was introduced to the United States in the second half of the 19th century.

The game is played on a pitch -- or field -- that combines elements of both soccer and American football. The object is to score either a try (similar to a touchdown) or kick the ball through an opponent's goal post.

But unlike football, play is continuous since possession changes frequently. It's also considered a contact sport, not a collision sport, because players only tackle the guy carrying the ball. Since players aren't outfitted with helmets or heavy pads, they tackle only to take the ball carrier down and not to inflict bodily harm.

"Call it a form of self-preservation," said Zimmerman, the team's scrum-half, or passer. "When you're making a tackle, you'll be going down just as hard as your opponent."

Don't tell that to Eli Clements. The 24-year-old from North Sioux City said he likes to hit and tackle on the rugby field.

"I'm pretty aggressive out there," he said.

Like Clements, Brian Vander Berg, 19, of Sheldon, Iowa, played football before trying rugby.

"I really enjoy rugby because it's a simpler sport than football," Vander Berg said. "Plus it moves a lot faster."

This is especially true for the Comets, who play a variation of the sport called "rugby sevens."

"A regular rugby match has 15 players on each side while in 'rugby sevens' we have seven players each on the field," said player Avery Lone Wolf.

"A regular rugby union match can last more than 80 minutes while a 'rugby sevens' takes place in seven-minute halves, with a one-minute halftime break."

This shortened time frame allows for more matches to take place, he said. It also places the emphasis on running as opposed to hitting.

That sits well with Zimmerman, who considers rugby both an intellectual endeavor as well as an athletic one.

"My old high school coach said the most important muscle needed on a rugby field is your brain," he said. "I always remember that."

Indeed, Zimmerman said the tough sport is also a rewarding one.

"We play hard on the field but we're friends after the match," he said.

The Comets' practice sessions are winding down.

"They used to say that soccer is a gentleman's sport played by hooligans while rugby is a hooligan's sport played by gentlemen," he said, smiling. "That sounds about right."

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