football, will travel to Finland
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
"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
"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
"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
"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."