Annie Ruffino excels in the unusual sport of Gaelic football

David Stiles

Annie Ruffino (jumping, in the center) at last year's national championship game in Gaelic football.

Annie Ruffino's brain got as much of a workout as her legs when she started playing Gaelic football -- an Irish sport that mixes soccer, rugby and football elements -- nine years ago. After years as a standout college soccer player, first at BYU and then at Wingate, she could play by instinct. She knew what to do, where she was supposed to be and where the ball should go at any given moment.

But this sport felt like a different language. Her mind was whirring, trying to make sense of everything while learning new rules and rhythms. There are multiple ways to move the ball in the Irish game. A player can run with the ball, but after four steps she has to bounce it, kick or hand-pass it to a teammate, or "solo" it (drop it on her foot and kick it back up to her hands). Only then can she run another four steps.

"At least the first year, you're always counting the steps in your head," Ruffino recalls, laughing.

Plus, she and many of her teammates, who also come from soccer backgrounds, had to be reminded to pick up the ball. "We would just start running with it at our feet like we were playing soccer, which we could do, it's not against the rules," she says. "But you can move faster with the ball in your hands than at your feet, so they were constantly yelling at us to pick the ball up."

Ruffino, 36, who lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina -- just below the North Carolina border -- is now a standout and veteran of the women's Gaelic football team of the Charlotte James Connolly Gaelic Athletic Association. She's been a part of the club's arc of success that took it from a Junior B level national title in 2009 to championships at the Junior A and Intermediate levels and, finally, the Senior (highest level) championship of the U.S. Gaelic Athletic Association this year.

David Stiles

Annie Ruffino, 36, works full-time as a software security analyst. She and her husband, Greg, both play Gaelic football.

The sport and the Charlotte club are big parts of the athletic and social lives of Annie and her husband, Greg Ruffino, who plays for the men's team and also has done some coaching. Both former soccer players love the wide-open game that's mostly an oddity to Americans and a mash-up of elements from a variety of sports.

"Normally I just say it's a mix between soccer and rugby, that's kind of the closest thing," says Annie Ruffino. "But then I have to go on to explain the differences and some details, because it's really like neither of those."

Annie Ruffino (then Annie Hoecherl) played a variety of sports growing up in Salt Lake City, but in high school she focused on soccer. Twice she earned first-team, all-state honors before playing three seasons at BYU, where she was second-team all-conference as a defender. As a senior she transferred to Wingate University in North Carolina, where in 2003 she was the first player in school history to earn All-America honors (third team in Division II).

After graduation, she continued to play soccer on a couple of semipro teams and in recreation leagues, because she loves the game and wanted to stay active.

"I don't really like working out to work out," she says. "I don't like running. But if I'm chasing a ball I can run all day. If I'm with a team and there's some sort of purpose that keeps my mind off my actual running, then I'm all for it. That's one thing I knew: If I wanted to stay in shape I had to play some sort of sport."

In 2008, the same year she and Greg were married, they started playing Gaelic football. Greg was managing an Irish pub in Charlotte and became the first convert after several Irish employees told him about the game and the local club. Greg then invited his wife to try it, and she became hooked, too.

Through the years, the women's team has taken slow, steady steps to improve its talent and athleticism through recruiting former college soccer players. It has two players from Ireland, but the rest are Americans who've adopted the game.

Even after all these years, Annie Ruffino says she still learns little things about the game from her Irish teammates who grew up with it. Though moving up and down the field in Gaelic football is much like soccer, the game -- which dates back centuries in Ireland -- has many differences. For one, an official field is huge, almost 160 yards long and nearly 100 yards wide, with goals on each end. Kicking or punching the ball into the opposing goal is worth three points; one point is awarded for putting the ball between the uprights above the goal. Teams are made up of 13 to 15 players, who battle over what looks like an oversized volleyball. Women's matches at the national level are 60 minutes, with two 30-minute halves. The female version of the game is supposed to be noncontact, but Ruffino says there are plenty of collisions.

Even as the Charlotte team has improved, it's had trouble finding games. Charlotte plays in the Southeastern region that has few women's Gaelic clubs. So, while they'll sometimes travel far to play good teams -- such as a club in Chicago this year -- often they have to scrimmage against their club's men's B team or a mixture of women from around the region.

To stay in shape (aside from practices and games), Ruffino still plays coed recreation soccer games, gets together with teammates for runs or workouts, and does high-intensity circuit work at home in Rock Hill, about a 40-minute drive from Charlotte.

With a full-time job as a software security analyst, a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son and a formidable commute to practice, Ruffino is committed to the game. Once she takes the field, she's serious and tries to lead by example. She's one of the oldest and most experienced players on the team.

"If I'm at practice, I'm at practice," she says. "I'm not going to drive 40 minutes with my kids in tow in 90-degree weather and humid as all hell in the middle of summer and not make it worth it. People see that and they do the same. Why would you go through all that if you're not going to get something out of it?"

In 2016, Charlotte reached the national Senior final for the first time but lost to the Fog City Harps of San Francisco. "It was a bit discouraging," says Ruffino. "We had been building. A lot of us thought we were more ready than we were."

This September, they returned to the final and won, knocking off a team that had won back-to-back titles. The score was five goals (worth three points each) and seven points for Charlotte vs. four goals and nine points for Fog City, for a 22-21 total score.

The Charlotte women became the first team since the 1960s to win a Senior championship outside the traditional Gaelic football power bases (Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia). "It was incredible," says Ruffino. "Literally it was a 10-year goal reached."

Ruffino believes she may have been a more dynamic player when she was younger. She says she played much "harder" in her early days on the team when the talent level on the team wasn't as high as it is now. She tried to do everything. Now, as part of a better team, she can make an impact simply by playing smart. She takes care of the ball and assists her younger teammates.

"I've gotten to the point where I calm down, I control the ball, pass it off, nothing too flashy," she says. "I just do my job."

In fact, in the final versus Fog City, Ruffino had seven assists as a defensive midfielder. Ruffino admits that the time commitment to Gaelic is huge. It's hard to balance all the moving parts in her life. Sometimes, at the start of a new year, she has wondered if she wants to do it again.

But, she says she's a competitive person. She loves the game, her teammates and what being part of the club does for her.

"It's our community," she says. "That community is like a family, especially since I don't have [extended] family here. They're a support system. ... From early on, the club was about more than a team."

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