In a sport that cries out for it, there are no pads or helmets. Rugby is pushing and grunting and straining and tackling and falling. If you are upright now, just wait a second. It'll change. You'll find the grass. And it shouldn't be just the guys who have all the fun.

"You're crazy," is what Bella Leventini has heard when she tells someone she plays the sport. "They get the 'deer in the headlights' look."

"Oh, you're a girl and you play rugby?" is a reaction Alicia Ortiz has experienced.

"You're too girlie to play rugby," Ana Guzman has been told.

And so it goes, on and on, the bewilderment, the disbelieving, almost as if the three young women have to give blood to prove they play the sport for SRJC. Clearly, Leventini, Ortiz and Guzman confuse people. Rugby, in common perception, has "testosterone" written all over it. As if men are the only ones to possess the hormone.

"It's the closest you get to hurting someone," said Ortiz, an Elsie Allen graduate. "I love the physical contact."

SRJC is seeking to become the first junior college in the United States to field a women's rugby team. SRJC has been granted provisional status to join the West Coast Rugby Conference (WCRC), which comprises six Division II four-year universities. SRJC will spend this year and next on probation, proving to the WCRC the Bear Cubs will always provide a full 15-player complement, that SRJC will not have to forfeit a game due to lack of players.

With 10 players currently on the roster, SRJC has played "friendly" matches against Humboldt State and Nevada-Reno. In both cases SRJC has had to borrow players from the opposing team to play the game. At Humboldt, Haley French, an Elsie Allen graduate and Humboldt's head coach, played for SRJC. While such cooperation is welcomed and appreciated, SRJC knows such assistance must be short-term if SRJC rugby is to make it.

And to make it rugby must escape the stereotype that playing the sport is playing with a loaded gun, that it is inherently dangerous and violent, with a trip to the hospital always possible to anyone on any play.

"Know the game, play smart and you won't have to worry about injury," said Samantha Siedentopf.

Of course rugby is a contact sport. There will be bruises, sprains, strains, rolled ankles, pinned fingers, aching necks. The body will feel like a body feels after any sport played hard, played physical and played to win. The way the SRJC rugby women put it, the passage of Title IX in 1972 offers them the choice to be physically exhausted. Some women like sports with occasional contact. Some women want more.

"It's the exhilaration, that's what I love about the sport," said Leventini, who went to Santa Rosa High. "And it's empowering, to know we can do anything a man can do."

Yes, there is very likely a cultural bias that lurks just below the surface in women's sports. Pain is an accepted commodity for male athletes. For women? Pain may be like drinking scotch. It's an acquired taste.

"I remember the first time I played rugby," Leventini said. "I walked out there thinking to myself, 'Why am I here? What am I doing? I'm about to get smashed. What am I thinking?'"

And then she played the game, learned the game and found its hidden treasure.

"It's a sisterhood," Leventini said. "Once you get off the pitch, you're all best friends."

It's the same thing, by the way, men say about rugby. A brotherhood, the men say.

There's a closeness the sport offers to its participants, maybe metaphorically exhibited first in the scrum, 15 players pressing against 15 other players.

The feeling of a team pushing to its limits, it's there all right. And why can't we, the women say, engage in high-impact, physical sports, and just like men treat discomfort with the same dismissive dispatch?

"We all get scratched from time to time," Ortiz said. "So what if I get a bloody nose? It doesn't last that long. In rugby you can't go into it half-baked. You got to be all in!"

That's the essence of any sport. All in. Everything left on the field. Rugby guarantees the ones who aren't all in will be exposed.

"We are all the same," said Guzman, who went to Piner.

We all are judged by the same standard. The sisterhood demands it.

And don't think for a second such assertiveness makes the SRJC women rugby players any less feminine.

In the stands, her look intense, SRJC's Jessica Avalos prepares herself to play rugby.

She is painting her fingernails red, one of the Bear Cubs' colors.

(You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.)