Naoise Waldron's Irish brogue echoes through the Schreiber Gym as he walks a dozen University of Montana students through a hand-pass technique common in hurling. The students come from all overMontana, Louisiana, France, Austriaand make up the bulk of the first-ever hurling team in the state. Most had never played before. For Waldron, though, hurling is almost a religion.
"Where I come from, Kilkenny, it's basically all we do," Waldron says. "If you ever mention you're from Kilkenny and you didn't play hurling, people would think you're weird. It'd be like being from Texas and not playing football."
Hurling is tough to describe, a battle the club has been fighting since Waldron founded it last September. Players use their hands and J-shaped sticks, or hurls, to advance a baseball-sized ball toward a goal. Dublin native and club member Brian Barry says the easiest way to learn about the centuries-old sport is to "look it up."
The club's origins stem largely from Waldron's unwillingness to give up hurling during his year-long Fulbright study at UM. He already knew of the Cascade Hurling League, which lists nine clubs in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. But he was surprised Montana didn't field a single squad, particularly given Butte's strong Irish heritage.
"It's Ireland's national game," Waldron says. "It's a shame that not more people know about it."
One word to UM Irish Studies director Traolach O'Riordain got the ball rolling. After only six practices, the hurling club traveled to Portland for a league tournament, finishing three and one.
Like Waldron, Barry says he's "always had a hurl in my hand." The same doesn't hold true for most of the club's now 25 to 30 members. Laine Lyles used to compete in football, softball and crew. She had trouble building the nerve to even leave her car at the first practice. Now she's hooked.
"It's super intense, it's fast," Lyles says. "You've got to be smart to be good at it."
The team is now raising funds to compete in the national championships in New York this May, aided in part by proceeds from the weekly bingo night Waldron heads at Sean Kelly's. The team also confirmed last week that it will host a regional game in Washington-Grizzly Stadium April 19.
"It's going to be on our home turf," Lyles says, "and we're really going to bring it."