Today (Wednesday, April 29) Dexter Rugby Football Club’s high-school team, the Dexter Devils, drive an hour up US 23 to play a key match against Genesee Elite in the Michigan high-school Rugby league’s Division I East, with play-off berths at stake. The Devils, state semi-finalists three years ago and finalists for the last two years, face a tough challenge against an unknown opponent, with a squad still recovering from multiple injuries. But little Dexter has repeatedly stood tall against much bigger school districts in one of the country’s boom sports. Dexter’s players and supporters will go north with hope and expectation.
The Rugby Union code of football — fifteen players, continuous play, physical, but glorious, even beautiful when the ball is moved quickly — is said to be the fastest-growing team sport in the USA, with 80,000 registered players. The inclusion of its little brother, Rugby Sevens, in the Olympic Games and the developmental work of an exemplary national federation have contributed to its growth and helped to put the game on network TV. The match last fall between the US national men’s team, due to compete at the World Cup to be staged in the game’s homeland, England, later this year, and New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks, winners of the last World Cup four years ago, attracted a sell-out crowd to Chicago’s Soldier Field and was broadcast live on NBC to a very solid national audience. The Americans didn’t beat the All Blacks, and no one expected them to, but, with several members of the side playing professionally in Europe, they were as competitive as some of the world’s long-established national teams have been against the Rugby nation. Starting in 2016 the Americans will compete in an annual Americas Six Nations competition (with top Western Hemisphere nation Argentina, as well as Canada, Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile). The tournament will be based on the major Northern Hemisphere international tournament, Europe’s annual Six Nations (England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, and Italy).
Rugby is also growing in Dexter, where Dexter Rugby Football Club has consistently produced top sides to compete in Michigan’s high-school level league, run by the Michigan Youth Rugby Association (this year 31 boys sides and 6 girls sides participate in four divisions). DRFC’s Dexter Devils, with players from the Dexter school district and surrounding areas, have gone from strength to strength in recent years. The club, founded eleven years ago, is led by head coaches Paul Burke, who played club Rugby at the highest level in his native England, and Doug Karaska, who starred at forward for Brighton High School on a State Championship-winning side and now plays for Tri Cities Barbarians, a nationally ranked side in USA Men’s Division II. The Devils were Division Two Champions four years ago, playoff semi-finalists in Division One three years ago, and runners-up to champions Grandville and Grand Rapids Catholic Central in 2013 and 2014, respectively. While they have yet to break the current stranglehold of the west Michigan teams (many of whom benefit from Varsity status and middle-school programs), the Devils have carried the flag for all of the eastern side of the state with great distinction.
Of course, Michigan is not yet a top Rugby state, and Dexter’s regular trips to the Midwest High School Championships in Elkhart, Indiana, have provided sobering insight into the quality of Rugby played at (often private) schools in Ohio and Indiana, but the upward curve is clear and the Devils are among the leaders. Several DRFC alumni are currently playing for major college teams. Among recent Dexter players, three-year scrum-half Guy Burke, star winger Matt Kasten, and Sequoyah Burke-Combs all play currently for the University of Michigan, where former Devil and UM player Christian Mentzer is assistant coach; four-year Dexter forward Ryan Calhoun is now hooker for MSU; Corey Robinett (Grass Lake High School) played on the wing and kicked for Dexter for three years and is now Grand Valley State’s fullback, on a side that is ranked no 8 in US College Division II; unstoppable prop Zac Wallace of Grass Lake HS is a scholarship player with Davenport University; forward Matt Hall (Milan HS) now plays for Penn State. Eddie Alexander (Grass Lake HS), three-year Dexter centre, is now playing for Tri Cities. Players from earlier years who have gone on to play in college or beyond include Adam Umstead (MSU and Midwest Selects) and Aaron Cooch (MSU and Grand Valley Gazelles).
One of the most impressive features of the Devils is that coaches Burke and Karaska have been able to take men who have never picked up a Rugby ball before and turn them into top players, molding very efficient sides out of local resources (so, when the side is small, Dexter plays fast, fifteen-man Rugby; when there are a couple of big forwards, Dexter’s pack handles the ball more; when the half-backs are experienced, those two pivot positions play a big role; and so on). Boys experienced in the American code of football bring an understanding of intense contact to their Rugby game; players of the Association code of football (“soccer”) bring an understanding of space, continuous play, and ball movement; wrestlers bring their quick hands and feet to the engine room of the pack; players of bat-and-ball sports bring hand-eye coordination and a great pair of hands; and so on. Rugby has always prided itself on being a sport for all kinds of athletes and the Dexter Devils are living proof.
This year DRFC is fielding just one side (the last three years have seen an A side and a B side), with injuries reducing the squad size, but the Devils can rely on a core of experienced players, plus some very promising newcomers. Among the returning players are: loose forward Erick Leon (DHS, Sr), hooker Tyler Even (DHS, Jr), prop Noah Keen (DHS, Sr), new no 8 Chris Bryson (DHS, senior; last year Bryson was a back), half-back/fullback Adam Haas (Sr, DHS), half-back/centre Tristin Staebler (DHS, Sr), centre and this year’s captain, Jake Rayer (DHS, Sr) fullback/three-quarter Derek Wittenberg (DHS, Sr). This battle-hardened group is joined by several other experienced players who appeared mostly for last year’s B Team, including prop/hooker Nick Hubbard (DHS, Sr), locks Aidan Hochrein and Derek Melinsky (both DHS, Sr), loose forward Clayton Drenner (DHS, Sr), back Luke Sagmeister (DHS, Sr), half-back Neil Makin (DHS, So), winger Angelos Bairactaris (DHS, Sr), and centre/fly-half/fullback Jared Juback (DHS, Sr). Among the new members of the club are: centre/winger and place-kicker Torin Bates (DHS, Jr), lock Nathaniel Orlowski (DHS, Jr), centre/winger Tyler Smokovitz (Detroit Catholic Central, Sr; sadly, his season was ended by an injury this week), lock Justin Tomshany (DHS, Sr), prop Spencer Vollmers (DHS, Sr), and winger Sean Wakefield (DHS, Jr).
The season started with an intense match away to the ever-tough Dearborn Silverbacks, which the Devils won 15-13, followed by a non-league 62-7 home victory over Anthony Wayne (Toledo); last week a somewhat depleted Devils side lost for the first time ever to Birmingham, with Dexter just failing to score what would have been the winning penalty goal at the final whistle. Dexter’s next home match is another key fixture, vs Troy (Hamburg’s Manly Bennett Park on Merrill Road on May 13, kick-off at 6 pm), which will probably decide the Devils’ fate for the playoffs, beginning the following week.
Spectators are always very welcome, as are new players (the squad practices Monday-Thursday at 5 pm, either at Webster Church field in Dexter or Manly Bennett field in Hamburg). Dexter’s squad list, with further details of the Dexter Rugby program, may be accessed here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/lsw6yjvxtvhit0h/DRFC%20Team%20Sheet%202015.pdf?dl=0. For further information on Dexter Rugby, go to the Facebook page for “Dexter Rugby” or to the club web site: www.dexterrugby.com. Follow DRFC on Twitter @DexterRugby. Photo credits: Gina Bryson.