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Ben Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

Northern Arizona’s Sydney Lema (10) dives to return an incoming Idaho attack Thursday in the Rolle Activity Center.

First youth rugby team starts up in Flagstaff

The first youth rugby club has started in Flagstaff. Officially they are called Sharks Youth Rugby Club, and affectionately "The Sharkbites."

Sharks Youth Rugby creators Mark Cox and Ross Nicholls both played and coached for the Landsharks at Northern Arizona University in the 2000s. While the club is based at NAU, it is open to all men in the community.

"The Northern Arizona Rugby Football Club was originally formed in Flagstaff in 1978," said Nicholls of the Landsharks. "Over the years we have grown to add a women's club (Lady Landsharks) and a high school club (Cobrafists)."

The trifecta recently combined to become the nonprofit NAZ Rugby Inc., to help combine resources and "develop the great game of rugby in northern Arizona," Nicholls said.

After tearing his ACL, Nicholls stopped playing for the Landsharks, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still involved with rugby. Nicholls, who is a financial adviser with Edward Jones during the week, dedicates his weekends to teaching kids the sport he loves.

Nicholls and Cox started thinking about creating a youth league when they and other Landsharks members had children.

"It wasn't until (the kids) were in the 5-12 range we thought ‘hey, let's just get started,’" Cox said.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Mark Cox coaches a group of children Wednesday afternoon at the Boys and Girls Club of Flagstaff. Cox is one of two coaches who are developing the Sharks youth rugby club in Flagstaff.

Fifteen kids showed up to the first Sharks Youth practice Oct. 21 at Ponderosa Park. The following week, the amount of kids doubled in size, Nicholls said. Of the current 30 players, about a third of them are girls.

"We want to develop interest and excitement for rugby in Flagstaff for both boys and girls," Nicholls said. "We are open to all boys and girls aged between 6 and 12. Rugby requires players of all shapes and sizes and athletic abilities."

Since Sharks Youth is a non-contact and non-tackle rugby club, it is allowed to be co-ed. The non-contact aspect also eases the concerns of parents who are worried about the dangers of tackle sports, Nicholls said.

The AZ Union has addressed further concerns about rugby safety by splitting youth members up into different age groups. There is a 6- to 8-year-old group that plays with flags, and 9- to 10-year-old and 11- to 12-year-old groups.

Nicholls, who has two boys ages 5 and 7, and Cox, who has a 5-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl, list a myriad of reasons why rugby is worthwhile for children.

"Rugby promotes fitness, leadership, communication skills and teamwork," Cox said. Nicholls added positivity, respect, hard work, toughness and fun to the list of accolades.

About half of the Sharks Youth members came from a football background. Now that the football season is winding down, many parents decided to get their kids involved in rugby, Nicholls said.

Courtesy, Sharks Youth Rugby Club 

Sean Yoder, 8, takes off with the rugby ball while Blake Nicholls, 7, and Mariano Esquivel, 9, follow close.

Rugby is often compared to football due to the similarities of the look of the ball, using goal posts, kicking and blocking opponents. But Nicholls said rugby is unique from football in many ways.

"Players who play both sports appreciate that rugby has far less stoppages, is far more free-flowing, and players are not fixed to their one role or position during a game," he said. "Every player can take the initiative to create something in the moment. No one player is more important in their position than any other. (All) have the opportunity to score and are vital to the team."

Nicholls, who also coaches youth soccer, said in rugby "it's up to the players to make decisions and not the coaches telling them what to do."

The other big difference is that in rugby, players can’t throw the ball forwards, only backwards to other teammates. Nicholls said it has been a challenge for him and Cox to break this habit from kids who came from a football background.

Although rugby is rapidly growing in the U.S., with the Rugby Sevens representing the States for the first time at the 2016 Rio Olympics, it is still much more common outside of the country.

In fact, many international families living in Flagstaff have enrolled their children in Sharks Youth Rugby, including three from South Africa and one from France.

Courtesy, Sharks Youth Rugby Club 

Volunteer Ralph Nicholls coaches Shane Nicholls, Mason Cox and Delilah McQuaid, all 5 years old.

One of the South African families is Nicholls' own. "In South Africa, rugby is like a religion," he said.

Nicholls started playing rugby at 12 years old and continued through high school and college. When he came to the U.S. in 2003 to attend grad school at NAU’S Franke College of Business, he joined the Landsharks.

"Youth rugby is becoming well established in Arizona," he said.

"In Phoenix, rugby is huge," added Cox, who started playing the sport in Mesa.

In 2007, Cox left Mesa to attend NAU, based partly on the fact that he wanted to play with the Landsharks. In 2014, he started assistant coaching. "With time and knowledge it was easy for me to coach. I'm an educator at heart," he said.

Cox’s day job is the CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Flagstaff, which sponsors Sharks Youth Rugby. Recently, the Boys & Girls Club received a $20,000 grant for its new Healthy Lifestyles program.

"I saw there was an opportunity to bring a new sport to our club," Cox said.

Some of the grant money was spent on rugby balls and other supplies for the Sharks Youth. Several Boys & Girls Club members play for Sharks Youth. Cox noted one 10-year-old boy who has been going to the Boys & Girls Club for a few years.

"He has a lot of energy, so having rugby as an outlet to blow off steam and have fun has definitely benefited him," Cox said.

Although around 90 percent of the Boys & Girls Club members are there on scholarship, the ones that aren't and want to play rugby are paid for out-of-pocket by the coaches.

"We know the impact that it can have on a kid's life," Cox said.

Sharks Youth are currently having regular scrimmages and are looking ahead to playing in club matches within the region in spring. "We don't intend to be a travel team, per se, but we will have a number of games planned out of town," Nicholls said.

On Saturday, several of the older members will play in the Arizona Rugby Festival at the Scottsdale Sports Complex. 

Cohen admits lies about Russian real estate deal

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, confessed in a surprise guilty plea Thursday that he lied to Congress about a Moscow real estate deal he pursued on Trump's behalf during the heat of the 2016 Republican campaign. He said he lied to be consistent with Trump's "political messaging."

Cohen's plea arrangement made clear that prosecutors believe that while Trump insisted repeatedly throughout the campaign that he had no business dealings in Russia, his lawyer was continuing to pursue the Trump Tower Moscow project weeks after his boss had clinched the Republican nomination for president and well after the point he and his associates have publicly acknowledged.

Cohen said he discussed the proposal with Trump on multiple occasions and with members of the president's family, according to court papers filed by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the presidential election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign. Cohen acknowledged considering traveling to Moscow to discuss the project.

There is no clear link in the court filings between Cohen's lies and Mueller's central question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. And nothing said in court, or in associated court filings, addressed whether Trump or his aides had directed Cohen to mislead Congress.

Still, the case underscores how Trump's business entity, the Trump Organization, was negotiating business in Moscow at the same time investigators believe that Russians were meddling on his behalf in the 2016 election, and that associates of the president were mining Russian connections during the race.

The Cohen revelation comes as Mueller's investigation is showing fresh signs of aggressive activity. Earlier this week, Mueller's team accused Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, of lying after his own guilty plea. The special counsel continues to investigate whether campaign associates had advance knowledge of hacked emails becoming public. Another potential target, Jerome Corsi, has rejected a plea offer and faces a possible indictment. Last week, Trump for the first time provided Mueller with responses to written questions.

Cohen is the first person charged by Mueller with lying to Congress, an indication the special counsel is prepared to treat that offense as seriously as lying to federal agents and a warning shot to dozens of others who have appeared before lawmakers.

Cohen told two congressional committees last year that the talks about the tower project ended in January 2016, a lie he said was an act of loyalty to Trump. In fact, the negotiations continued until June 2016, Cohen acknowledged.

His court appearance Thursday marked the latest step in his evolution from trusted Trump consigliere to prime antagonist. Prosecutors say Cohen is cooperating with Mueller and has met with his team at least seven times. It is the second time the lawyer's legal woes have entangled Trump, coming months after Cohen said the president directed him during his campaign to make hush money payments to two women who said they had sex with Trump.

Trump on Thursday called Cohen a "weak person" who was lying to get a lighter sentence and repeatedly stressed that the real estate deal at issue was never a secret and never executed. His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said that Cohen was a "proven liar" and that Trump's business organization had voluntarily given Mueller the same documents cited in the guilty plea "because there was nothing to hide."

"There would be nothing wrong if I did do it," Trump said of pursuing the project. "I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn't have won, in which case I would have gone back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?"

He said the primary reason he didn't pursue it was "I was focused on running for president."

About an hour later, Trump canceled a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 nations.

During the campaign, Trump was repeatedly dismissive of claims that he had connections to the Kremlin, an issue that flared as especially sensitive in the summer of 2016 after the Democratic National Committee and a cybersecurity company asserted that Moscow was behind a punishing cyberattack on the party's network.

"I have a great company. I built an unbelievable company, but if you look there you'll see there's nothing in Russia," Trump said in July 2016.

"But zero, I mean I will tell you right now, zero, I have nothing to do with Russia," he said.

Mueller team has asked Trump about the Russian real estate deal, but it was not immediately clear whether it was one of the questions Trump answered last week.

If he did answer questions on the topic, Trump could have problems if the responses deviate from prosecutors' factual narrative.

The Cohen case was filed in New York a week after Trump and his lawyers provided Mueller with responses to written questions. It is the first new charge filed by the special counsel since the appointment of Matthew Whitaker, who has spoken critically about the investigation, as acting attorney general with oversight of the probe.

High court rules against Hopi Tribe in snowmaking challenge

FLAGSTAFF — The Hopi Tribe has lost a legal battle against snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks where tribal members made frequent pilgrimages to gather plants and water for ceremonial use long before a ski resort existed.

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled Thursday the tribe's emotional, spiritual and cultural connection to the Peaks doesn't establish a special category of harm under a claim that artificial snow made with reclaimed wastewater causes a public nuisance.

The split decision overturns one earlier this year by the state Court of Appeals, which revived the lawsuit the Hopi Tribe filed against the city of Flagstaff in 2011. The Arizona Snowbowl later was wrapped into the case.

The appellate court said the tribe had distinguished its interest in the area from the interests of the general public, such as skiers, hikers and other recreationists. But the high court said it wouldn't stray from case law that ties special injury to property or monetary interests.

Justice John Pelander, writing for the majority, said the tribe's alleged injury is different in degree, not in kind.

"At its core, the special injury requirement serves as a gatekeeping function that prevents courts from deciding issues under the guise of public nuisance claims when such issues are best left to public officials, a pivotal principle in federal cases grappling with religious freedom challenges to public land uses," Pelander wrote.

The city of Flagstaff declined comment on the ruling. An attorney for Snowbowl, John J. Egbert, said the ski resort is pleased and looks forward to continuing to serve its customers and the community.

The resort outside Flagstaff began spraying artificial snow on its slopes in 2012 because natural snow wasn't always plentiful for skiing and snowboarding. It operates on 777 acres under a permit from the U.S. Forest Service.

The Hopis aren't denied access to the area.

The Hopi Tribe argued in the latest challenge that objects Hopis gather could become contaminated with chemicals in the wastewater and could no longer be used in ceremonies. Wastewater also could blow on shrines, springs and other sacred areas outside the boundaries of the ski resort, negatively impacting them in an immeasurable way, Hopi Chairman Tim Nuvangyaoma said.

Hopi tradition holds that Hart Prairie at the base of the ski resort is the spiritual birthing place of the Kachina, which brings the world water, snow and life.

The high court's decision means the Hopi won't have a chance to try to prove its claims at the trial court.

"I'm disappointed and I'm frustrated," said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, who retired as the Hopi's longtime cultural preservation director last year and was heavily involved in the case. "But I think indigenous people like Hopi people are always going to be at a legal disadvantage when they put something like that in a white man's court."

At least 13 tribes consider the mountain on public land sacred. The courts previously have ruled that the tribes' religious rights wouldn't be violated by snowmaking and that using treated wastewater to make snow wouldn't make anyone sick.

Still, tribal members protest every year on Snowbowl's opening day.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Scott Bales said the court has long recognized that special injury can extend beyond property and monetary rights. He said it's ironic that if the Hopi sold pine boughs or pinon nuts gathered from the mountain, the majority would allow a special injury claim.

"The general public does not have millennia of religious practice in the area that will be covered in a fine film of reclaim sewage," Bales wrote. "Nor does the general public have rights of access and use, rooted in Hopi tradition and cultural practices, recognized by federal statutes."

top story
Veteran home loans increasing in Arizona

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ report for its 2018 fiscal year reveals that the number of service members utilizing their home loan benefits, as well as the total loan funding offered, have increased significantly throughout Arizona in the last five years.

Increased purchase loans have been a trend throughout the country, but Arizona has seen tremendous growth this year as the seventh-ranked state for total number of VA-backed home loans at 14,237 – valued at more than $6 billion.

Veterans United Home Loans, the nation’s largest VA lender, compared this year’s loans in metropolitan cities throughout the state to those from 2013: Flagstaff loans increased by 55 percent, while Phoenix increased by 59 percent. In Flagstaff alone, the total loan funding increased by 88 percent. The average loan amount in Arizona was $251,007.

Chris Birk, director of education at Veterans United, said increased home loans are beneficial because they create an “economic ripple effect” of home ownership, including increased community value through property taxes, construction and remodeling. He said this increase likely derives from both financial necessity and increased awareness.

“Veterans are getting a clearer picture of what they’ve earned and how powerful it can be,” he said.

Since its creation in 1944, VA home loans have allowed more than 22 million service members, veterans and their surviving spouses to purchase a home with more forgiving guidelines than those of a traditional lender, including benefits like no required down payments or mortgage insurance. These loans can also be used for refinancing.

“One of the misconceptions about this program is that it’s a one-time deal,” Birk said. “[But] you can use this program over and over again. It’s even possible to have more than one VA loan at the same time.”

Meryl and Carolyn Stock, residents of Prescott Valley, have used the VA home loan benefit twice, for their previous home in Minnesota as well as their current home in Prescott Valley. Meryl served in Vietnam in 1969 and said he likes the VA home loan because of the benefits it offers to service members, especially the low interest rates and no down payments.

“I was satisfied with my first home, so I did it again. … There was never a problem,” he said. “Loans have to be pretty standardized, I think, but you can get some benefits [through the VA] because of your service.”

Stock also has experience with more conventional home loans and says the two loan types are nearly indistinguishable.

“A loan’s a loan!” he joked.

Although the VA loan is a powerful tool for lenders, it may not always be the best option for veterans. Nevertheless, it can give some families the ability and confidence to purchase a house where not possible otherwise.

“It’s ultimately about veterans making the best decision possible. In some cases this won’t be the best fit for veterans and military members,” Birk revealed. “Work with someone you trust to run the numbers [and decide] which loan option makes the most sense for you and your family.”

Additional VA home loan statistics – including national and state loan data since 2013 – are listed on the Veterans United website in its interactive stats map, which uses data from the VA.