Hurling club finds a niche with odd sport

For Brendan Henning, his Saturday afternoon began at the Home Depot, where he purchased $40 of PVC pipe and a ream of red duct tape.

Henning hopes to bring hurling, the popular Irish sport, to USC, and if it takes some errands and a little money he is OK with that.

Import · Club president Brendan Henning has tried to extend the reach of the traditional Irish game of hurling to the USC campus by starting his own hurling club. - Larry Lin | Daily Trojan

The piping is used to create goalposts, which he and his teammates affix above a soccer goal. Once the field is set, the players grab their equipment and start their match or practice.

Not many scrimage spectators — mainly those running on the track at Cromwell Field — know what they’re watching.

“Almost 100 percent of the time people see us out here, they say, ‘What the hell is this?’” said undecided freshman Pat Sebastian, one of the club’s 10 regular members.

It’s a worthwhile question.

Hurling is thought to have originated more than 2,000 years ago in Ireland, but it is less popular elsewhere. The sport is similar to field hockey and lacrosse, and at its higher levels can be remarkably violent.

Henning, who is one-fourth Irish, said he is happy to explain the sport to anyone who wants to come to the twice a week practices and occasional scrimmages. So far, he has about nine regular players. This is the club’s first year as a school-sanctioned sport, and recruitment has been slow. That’s partly because few people know what hurling is.

“In theory it sounds dumb,” Sebastian said. “I’m trying to explain: ‘We have this stick thing.’ But you can’t equate it to anything in America.”

The club members say the game is simple. Players usually advance the ball (called a sliotar and pronounced “slitter”) with hockey-style sticks called hurleys, though they can also kick the ball. If the sliotar is hit into the air, players can catch it and either hit it forward (like a baseball) or smack it with an open hand. Players score by shooting the ball in the net (three points) or by rocketing the sliotar through football-style uprights (one point).

On a recent Saturday evening, five USC players showed up to scrimmage with more advanced players from throughout California.

Coaching the players was Patrick Gallagher, a burly building contractor who emigrated from Ireland in 1994 and now acts as a hurling emissary in Los Angeles. The local Irish community is committed to growing the sport in the United States, Gallagher said, and much of the USC Hurling Club’s gear was donated by the community.

The club has 10 regular members and practices twice a week at the Intramural Field. - Larry Lin | Daily Trojan

“They are promoting our sport in the U.S.,” Gallagher said. “This is part of our future. They are keeping the game alive.”

Gallagher said he was once a top player “about 50 pounds ago.” His hands support his assertion. They are crooked and smattered with scars, the result of at least 30 stitches from hurling injuries. Some of the worst injuries, he said, happen when errant sticks hit players.

“It’s not a sport for the faint hearted, that’s for sure,” Gallagher said.

At this level though, the injuries are minor. Alec Winetrobe, a junior majoring in aerospace engineering, said his worst injuries have come from gripping the stick too hard. The team has not purchased helmets yet — a compulsory piece of equipment in Ireland — so the games are slow.

Still, the sport is not for everyone. Phillip Sanshuck, a 120-pound junior majoring in biochemistry and pyschology, chose to help the club by videotaping its games. Henning, a relentless promoter of his club, told Sanshuck more people might play if they see the sport on YouTube.

“He once tried to get me to join, but I know if I take one hit I’m down,” Sanshuck said. “I’d just break bones.”

So far, no one in the USC club has had stitches. And the players said they’re having a great time.

“You whack things with a stick,” Sebastian said. “That’s always fun.”

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