They flew to Ireland to test their game. They will play for their first national title this weekend. And then they will compete in the first state championships.

The Lady Dingoes, the under-19 girls' team from the Downingtown Rugby Football Club, clearly have taken off.

Their sport has been going places, too.

"I tell them all the time that this is an unbelievably special year of rugby because I can't think of any other year where you can have the opportunity to represent your country, the area where you are, and then be able to take our program and go out and compete for a national championship," Dingoes coach Matt Dziunycz said.

"When I was in high school, we played three, four games. In college, we were sort of just messing around on the weekends. And to have that kind of intensity behind some of these games, I'm really excited. I'm excited for them."

The Downingtown girls play in the Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union and dominated the seven-team Central Division this season. Buoyed by one of the largest rosters in the girls' league - 44 deep, Dziunycz said, with not much drop-off from top to bottom - and their experience, the Lady Dingoes won their six division matches by a cumulative 247-7.

Saturday and Sunday, they will be one of eight teams, and the only one from the Philadelphia area, in USA Rugby's High School National Invitational Tournament at Stanford University.

The Dingoes also will play in the first Pennsylvania state tournament for under-19 girls, featuring seven teams from this region and one from the Pittsburgh area. The final will be May 20 in Pittsburgh.

"Until recently, having a state tournament would have been unheard of," said Ari Christakis, president of the EPRU and coach of Conestoga's under-19 girls.

After all, the EPRU, which covers parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland, had only eight under-19 girls' teams as recently as 2005, Christakis said. That number has grown to 21, including 11 in the Philadelphia area.

The surge dovetails with the growth of under-19 girls' rugby nationally. Since 2005, the number of high school girls playing rugby in the United States has grown by 50 percent, USA Rugby reports.

Dziunycz (GIN-itch), in his fourth year as Downingtown girls' coach, recalled that a few years ago, his team sometimes played an opponent 12 on 12 or 13 on 13 because one of them didn't have enough players to go 15 on 15. Other times, he said, a team loaned opponents some players.

These days, drawing players from three schools in the Downingtown Area School District - Downingtown East and West and STEM Academy - he practically can put together three starting units.

Rugby is "like a lot of sports mixed together," said Mary Cate Matta, a senior at East who previously played soccer, basketball, lacrosse, softball, and volleyball and will attend Kutztown, where she hopes to play club rugby.

"You need the hand-eye coordination of basketball and volleyball. There's a lot of kicking, from soccer."

There's also tackling, something she didn't encounter in those other sports.

"It is a rough sport, I guess, but when I think of rugby, I don't think of violence," added teammate Courtney DeFelice, an East junior. "I just think of it as a really physically intense sport."

The Dingoes learned a little bit about intensity recently in a renowned rugby hot spot.

Twenty-five girls from the team traveled to Ireland in early April, two years after the team visited Wales. They played three matches over a week against girls who had been playing the game a lot longer and, at times, played it more physically.

"You go out and the first few contact areas, those first few rucks, you're blown off the ball because those girls are coming in and knocking them back," Dziunycz said.

His players adapted to that style, and ended up tying two and winning one of their matches during the trip.

The national championships won't be a picnic, either. Dziunycz called his Lady Dingoes underdogs.

"Some of those teams have been in nationals for the last six or seven years," he said. "Just to be on the field with them is going to be an honor for us."

Contact Lou Rabito
at 215-854-2916