On a Saturday morning at Maurie Jacobs Park in Eugene, Seth Hoggard, 10, wields a hurley — a wooden tool about a yard in length that resembles a paddle, beginning with an axe-like handle and ending in a curved toe. Hoggard and his 12-year-old brother, Evan, take instruction from Killian Condon. Seth bends his knees and scoops a small leather ball into the air with his hurley.
“That’s good!” Condon says. “Now try a running start.”
The brothers are learning hurling, a sport that blends elements of lacrosse, hockey and baseball. Hurling is the national sport of Ireland but is often overlooked in the United States. Still, the game is taking hold in local communities. In Eugene, a group of passionate players from different backgrounds hope to grow the game and continue these cultural traditions while creating a few of their own.
In 2013, Joshua Coon, the public relations officer for the club, was a member of the University of Oregon symphony. One day, another musician came in with a broken arm. Coon asked what had happened; he said it was a hurling injury.
“I was like, ‘Oh, is that the one you play on ice and scratch it with a little broom?’ I came out the next day and I was hooked,” Coon said, mistakenly describing the winter sport curling. He soon joined the Eugene Trappers, the former Eugene hurling team.
Tim Lemke, the club chair, was similarly oblivious when he stumbled across the sport in a bibliography of Michael Collins, an Irish revolutionary.
“It was talking about him throwing in the ball at the finals, and I was like, ‘What the hell is this shit?’ because I had never heard of it,” Lemke said. “I then ran into somebody that day who saw my book and asked me to come out and play.”
But Condon, club treasurer, was introduced to the game much differently.
“I’ve been playing since I was told to play at 7 years old,” Condon said.
Condon is a native of Cork, Ireland, where hurling dominates. Now in his mid-thirties, Condon has been hurling for over two decades. Condon played on a competitive college team in Ireland and on a competitive team in Minnesota. In 2017, he and Lemke won the national championship as members of the Columbia Red Branch in Portland.
The three work as the club officers for a team still in its inception. They held the first official board meeting Saturday, when they decided on “Willamette Valley Nomads” for a new team name. Currently, they don’t have enough players to register for the Northwest Region of the United States Gaelic Athletic Association, so their main focus is on recruiting new players, whether or not they have previous hurling experience. The team is currently practicing once every two weeks while trying to spread the word about the sport.
Without enough people for a game, the Nomads are focusing on fundamentals. At practice, Condon and the other experienced players lead newcomers through a series of drills. There’s batting, where a player strikes a ball over their head to a teammate; lifting — a player must use the hurley to pick the ball off the ground before touching it; and striking, where a player swings the hurley in a baseball motion to score or pass the ball.
“There must be 300 different skills in this game,” Condon jokes.
For many, interest in the sport stems from an interest in Irish heritage. Seamus King’s book on hurling dates the sport back to 1200 BCE, older than the recorded history of Ireland. The game was even outlawed in Ireland in the 12th century when the Normans invaded. But the game remained a staple of the culture, and today the hurling stadium in Dublin holds over 80,000 spectators, where fans gather and cheer for their favorite clubs in an environment similar to European soccer.
Lemke’s family emigrated from Cork County at the turn of the 20th century, fueling his attraction to the sport.
“For me it’s tradition and history,” Lemke said. “It’s bringing that bit of what’s lost from the family and history side. A lot of stuff is tied in.”
Despite the history, hurling isn’t played professionally, even in Ireland. Condon said this adds to the community aspect of the game.
“Back home, with hurling, it’s the baker next door or the butcher down the road that’s playing for the highest-level team in the country,” Condon said. “You play with your community; that’s who you represent. There’s no transferring going on unless you’re living in a specific area.”
The camaraderie on the team shines even in a low-stakes setting. The players laugh and trade banter frequently, and after practice Coon shares a growler of his homemade beer.
“You go to the pub with the team you just played, share beers and everybody has a great time,” Lemke said.
As public relations officer, Coon is focused on community outreach and building a social media presence. The Nomads are also counting on team members to spread the word about hurling to their friends, family and coworkers. Coon is optimistic about finding interested players in the area.
“People who like to hurl, they really like to hurl,” Coon said. “They’ll drive for quite a ways if we have a good established team.”
Nolan Hoggard, the older brother of Seth and Evan, joined the team after his indoor soccer league was shut down. While the COVID-19 pandemic renders other indoor sports inaccessible, hurling can be played almost anywhere and social distancing is easily achieved. He also enjoys having his family join in.
“They really enjoy it,” Hoggard said of his brothers. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they come out and practice with us.”
The Nomads are gaining traction having recruited several players in the last few weeks. Coon said when new players come in, it usually doesn’t take more than a few minutes of playing around with the hurley for them to want more of the action. The game’s similarities to so many other sports draws athletes looking for a new challenge, or people who want to switch it up from their normal sport.
“It breaks that hypercompetitiveness that a lot of the American sports have, that you’re kind of trained in school to have,” Coon said. “In hurling, you play your game, you play well, and you’re all friendly and having a great time.”
As walkers enjoy their Saturdays at the park, many glance at the fields to see a dozen people striking little balls with swinging clubs, slipping on the wet grass. The sport is totally foreign to some but presents an exciting new world filled with rich history and a bright future.
“Anyone can play,” Condon said. “We’re not looking for anyone with a certain level of fitness, you just come and play if you’re interested. If you're interested because of the heritage, that might be why you join, but it’s because of the sport is why you’ll stay.”