San Diego's Irish football teams are known for playing hard on the field and for partying even harder in the pubs after the games.
"Good Guinness, good times," said Rory O'Loughlin, secretary and half forward of Setanta, the men's Gaelic football club in San Diego. "So far Setanta has taken down-party-style-Denver, Boston, L.A., San Francisco, Philly and Phoenix."
But it's not all beer guzzling and songs for the team-they've got a 2004 national championship title to defend. The same goes for Na Fianna, San Diego's women's team; they've been the national champs for the last two years. Both teams take a sober approach when it comes time to play.
"We are serious on the pitch [the field]," said O'Loughlin. "We compete against all the other cities across the states. It's a matter of representing San Diego and taking pride in our club."
So, here's the big question: How did San Diego's teams get so good? And what is Irish football, anyway? After all, doesn't San Diego-the land of amateur surfers and weekend duffers-have the wrong climate for this kind of thing?
As it turns out, Southern California is prime for what has been called the fastest field ball sport in the world. Both Setanta and Na Fianna practice at La Jolla High School, where the sweat rolls off their backs thanks to the cool ocean air and evening breeze.
Irish football is sort of a cross between soccer, rugby, Australian Rules Football and volleyball. The ball is slightly smaller than a soccer ball and the traditional field is long and wide-450 feet long (50 yards longer than a football field) by 270 feet wide. The ball can be carried in the hands for a distance of four steps, then it must be kicked, bounced, hand-passed (like hitting a volleyball) or "solo-ed," which means dropping the ball onto the foot and kicking it back into the hand.
Scoring points requires putting the ball over the crossbar by foot or hand for one point or under the crossbar and into the net by foot or hand for three points. But scoring doesn't come easy. Irish football is a full-contact team sport-the players must work to achieve a certain level of fitness, agility and coordination.
"[This year] we started with about six weeks of plyometrics to build up our reactionary tendencies," said Stephen D'Arcy, who plays full forward and acts as Setanta's treasurer.
Every season brings new players who must learn the basics of the game and get in shape. After a few weeks of basics, speed training becomes the order of the day. Players are taught how to move the ball quickly and shoot with accuracy. As in all field sports, injuries happen.
"The more skills you have, the less chances you'll get hurt," said Kathy McGee, Na Fianna's team captain. McGee was voted in by her peers because of her experience and understanding of the technical aspects of the game. She constantly talks to the players on the field and gives "110 percent every time."
McGee is also quick to acknowledge the efficacy and support of Na Fianna's coach Mick Ward, owner of the Irish pub The Ould Sod. "No individual is as passionate about the game as Mick," said McGee. "He has played as an all-star goalie in Ireland for the American division, and as a coach, he's one of the best motivational speakers. He'll rally you to go play with tears in your eyes."
Ciara Kennedy, fullback, agrees. "Mick eats, lives and breathes football," she said. "He loves the game and loves to see it played well.
"He pushes us," Kennedy continued. "The skill level in America is increasing, and we need to keep pace with that."
Kennedy moved to San Diego from Ireland and started playing Irish football in 1999. While she was looking for a connection to home, she was also pleased to see that the team wasn't composed of just Irish players. San Diego's teams also include Asians, Australians, Canadians and Swedes. In fact, there are more Americans now than Irish players.
O'Loughlin says both the men's and women's teams have an open-door policy when it comes to admittance.
"We are not an exclusive club for Irish people," he said. "Our current MVP is American-born. I guess the dream somewhere in the future is to foster from underage up through the ranks to men's football, an all-American Gaelic Football team."
Setanta and Na Fianna head to Philadelphia to compete in the North American National Championships on Sept. 1. Setanta's last training session before nationals is from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 30, at La Jolla High School, 750 Nautilus St. Well-wishers are welcome. Check the teams' websites to see how they fare: www.setantasandiegogfc.com and www.nafianna.com.