A bigger and more cohesive Fort Missoula Regional Park is home to a bigger and potentially more competitive annual festival.

Back for its 41st year, the MAGGOTFEST rugby tournament will be the first large sports event to christen the space when it gets underway Thursday, May 18.

“It’s going to be great, full-sized pitches (fields) for everybody,” Jason Schmidt, a Missoula Maggots rugby player and MAGGOTFEST chair, said.

The 156-acre park, funded by a bond passed by Missoula County voters in 2014, held its grand opening celebration for Phase 1 on April 29. The western portion of the park is home to multi-use sport fields, trails, shelters, restrooms and more.

In the past, MAGGOTFEST games were spread out across Fort Missoula and sometimes even at Big Sky High School. This year will bring teams closer together, Schmidt said, because of the proximity of the fields.

“We’ll be running eight fields full-size,” he said, adding that having nice bathrooms and a truly centrally located “Maggot central” beer garden area will make it a whole different experience.

Missoula Parks and Recreation’s sports wellness recreation supervisor Ryan Yearous said the Bella Vista Pavilion, Maggot central’s home for the 2017 festival, has accessible restrooms and is set up for food trucks and vendors. Plans call for a staffed concessions stand in the second phase of the park’s opening, which is expected in 2018.

A lot of hype toward the park drove increased interest in the tournament, which will be held a few weeks later than usual to allow the new fields’ grass to fully take root.

Yearous said grass roots on the fields need to be 6 inches before Parks and Rec will allow tournament action on them. The last field planted last fall was the rugby premiere pitch, so it’ll be a late decision on whether that can be used during the festival. The Fort and Green Garden bowls will be open.

“It’s such a beautiful facility,” Yearous said, adding that he hopes it makes people want to respect the park.

Up 12 teams from years past, 48 teams, including an expanded old-boys division (for “elderly” gentlemen over the age of 35) and 12 women’s teams, will play in multiple social but still competitive games throughout the weekend.

Schmidt said he expects the later tournament to draw more competitive teams (which in rugby are known as “sides”). By that time, most of the top teams across the country already will be knocked out of a USA Rugby national men’s league tournament, which could free them up to come to Missoula.

Rugby is what first draws teams to the pitch but the atmosphere at MAGGOTFEST is what keeps people coming.

“It’s a good way to spread social rugby,” Schmidt said, continuing, it’s “the right mix of competitiveness and fun, a lot of good competition but also a lot of teams come to party after they play.”

And party they plan to do. On Thursday afternoon and into the evening, each of the Missoula rugby teams (the Maggots, the Missoula Flies, the University of Montana Jesters and the Missoula Betterside) will take the pitch to kick off the weekend. The games are followed by a feed and “drink-up” sponsored by Big Sky Brewing Co.

The festival atmosphere continues Friday throughout downtown Missoula, with a welcome event for teams at the Bodega and Monk’s bar complex. Expect to see many people out and about that evening in matching costumes, as the most-spirited team is awarded Sunday afternoon with the title of “Most Honored Side.”

The party doesn’t stop after the games Saturday.

“There’s a lot of hard rugby played,” Schmidt said. “People like to enjoy themselves, after and during.”

The infamous MAGGOTFEST Saturday night party will again take place at the Missoula County Fairground llama barn. A $20 cover charge will get anyone who’s over 21 in the gate with a cup for unlimited keg beer and festivities, including the opportunity to dance with scantily clad ruggers from across the country to the tunes of Missoula band Shakewell.

Spectators new and experienced are welcome to any and all events.

“Come enjoy it,” Schmidt said. “If you want to stay away from the party aspect and just learn the game of rugby, people on the sidelines are more than willing to explain the game to you.”

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