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Play football, will travel to Finland

Touristclick Finland Travel News

Play football, will travel to Finland

by Keizertimes

Two members of the 2001 McNary state champion football team are making an impact on foreign soil.

Ryan Rufener is starting quarterback and Kelly Gilmore defensive coordinator for the Jyvaskyla Jaguaarit. The Jaguaarit belong to the "Maple League," which is the top professional league in Finland.

The Maple League ranks below American-style leagues in Austria, Italy and Germany in terms of skill level.

With one regular-season game left, the Jaguaarit will see postseason action as either the third or fourth seed.

The bridge that links McNary with Jyvaskyla, Finalnd is Tom Smythe, the former McNary coach. And it was Smythe who placed the call in 2007 that reunited him with his former quarterback.

"I've always tried to pick American players who would be ambassadors of the sport of football for my European teams. Ryan certainly qualifies in that respect," said Smythe. "I've coached many all-state quarterbacks and some who played at the major college level and two in the NFL. Of all those quality quarterbacks, Ryan has the best vision."

Smythe's call came not long after Rufener thought he had put away his cleats for good.

"I played at Oregon State for one season before hanging it up. I probably should have transferred somewhere smaller to keep playing, but I didn't and was tired of the division one atmosphere around football."

An injury cut short Rufener's first year in Finland. He sought redemption in 2008.

"I decided to stay around last year and help coach the team. After having surgery when I got home in September, I really wanted to prove to myself that I could play again, hence I'm back over here."

Rufener has left little doubt he belongs. He is averaging almost 400 total yards per game, 370 by air, 26 by ground. Ten games into the season he had thrown 53 touchdown passes to his opponents' 18. He is averaging an interception every 90 attempts or so.

European leagues generally allow three players with American passports. Remaining roster spots in the Maple League are reserved for Finnish nationals.

"The level of play is tough to compare," Rufener said. "Every team in Finland has an American quarterback. If you took the Americans off the teams, I'm guessing that a very, very good high school might compete with the nationals."

One advantage Americans have is their familiarity with playing with a ball while it's still in the air.

"In America, we grow up playing baseball, basketball and football," Rufener explained. "In Europe, they grow up playing soccer and ice hockey, neither of which involves throwing or catching."

Style of play is wide open, at least when the Jaguaarit take the field. While they are scoring almost 50 points a game, they're allowing almost 40. During one four game stretch, the Jaguaarit averaged 71 points and came away with a 2-2 record.

"This is definitely an offensive league in that we have scores of 90 to 59, but the defensive aspect is also important because a couple of games this year have been defensive battles.

"I try to get the players to understand the defense we run is built on speed and having 11 guys fly to the ball. It hasn't been an easy process because defense isn't emphasized as much over here, but the players are responding," said Gilmore, who was also recruited by Smythe.

Scoreboards in constant motion don't appear to be energizing the fan base.

"Football is more of the alternate sport in Finland," said Rufener. "The atmosphere is maybe comparable to some high school audiences. Fans usually come right at kickoff. Coach (Smythe) and I joke around before the games about how there was a turn-away crowd; they came and turned away."

Finnish football offers unique twists to a sport widely considered an American original.

"Last year we showed up to practice and did our pre-practice lap around the field, and I'm looking around for balls and ask one of the Finnish guys for a ball," Rufener said. "They start talking really fast in Finnish. I don't know what's going on, and finally one of them says, ‘We are ball less for today's practice.' So we didn't practice with balls that day."

There's also been times when practices were cancelled due to rain. Strange things also happen during games.

According to Rufener: "Referees don't have the same thick skin as the ones in the states. We had the penalty bug and couldn't get rid of it for a couple of weeks. We throw the ball a ton and never get any pass interference calls. During one game the opposing team throws the ball and we get called for pass interference.

"Coach Smythe goes to the lines judge and says very calmly if they are going to get that call I hope we get the same call. Didn't change his tone or anything and the guy throws a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. Needless to say, coach was a little upset with this and called time out and had the head referee come over to explain. After an explanation from coach, the head referee scolded the lines judge in Finnish and picked up the flag.

"It's a sight I've never seen and will probably never seen again, a coach talking his way out of a 15-yard penalty. For the record, it wasn't unsportsmanlike."

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