With the snow finally gone (perhaps), the high school Rugby season is approaching. On Saturday, 19 March, the Dexter Devils, the Rugby Football club from the Dexter School District, travel down to Toledo for friendly matches. They face a strong Troy A side at 2 pm and the host club at 4 pm (Sterling Park, 99 Center St, Toledo, OH 43612). The Devils’ first competitive match in Michigan Youth Rugby Association Division One East is at home, Manly Bennett Park, Merrill Road, Hamburg, against Genesee County Elite on Wednesday, March 30 (6 pm kick-off).
In recent years Devils Head Coaches Paul Burke and Doug Karaska have built in “little Dexter” (usually with significant help provided by recruits from surrounding school districts with no rugby clubs) what is surely one of the most successful programs in any of the codes of football played in the area. Indeed, the Dexter Devils have been the best high-school Rugby team on the eastern side of the state for the last four years, reaching State Division One semi-finals twice and twice finishing as runners-up in the annual State Championship match, despite coming from the smallest school district in the Division. The Devils also have a very respectable record against the behemoths of Division One West, where Rugby has been longer established and is a varsity sport at a number of schools. Last year’s team once again over-achieved, reaching Division One semi-finals before going out to a strong Rockford side. Before that, the Devils came even closer to glory, reaching the championship matches of 2014 and 2013, losing narrowly to Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Grandville, respectively.
Nathaniel Orlowski, strong in the tackle at flanker in last season’s match against Genesee; Orlowski is rumored to be penciled in as no 8 this year. Picture credit — Gina Bryson.
A fifth successive final-four place would be particularly cherished in 2016, since the current squad, although clearly talented, is smaller than in previous years. The Devils have lost seventeen men from last year’s squad to graduation, with only forward Clayton Drenner (Sr, DHS), four-year Devil and this year’s likely captain, hooker Tyler Even (Sr, DHS), three-year Devil and last year’s scrum-half Neil Makin (Jr, DHS), loose forward Nathaniel Orlowski (Sr, DHS), and back Sean Wakefield (Sr, DHS, likely to play fly-half this year) returning to provide an experienced core.
Burke and Karaska are still looking for a few good men and remind anyone who cares to listen that the Union (fifteen-man) code of Rugby can accommodate every kind of athlete. Recently, Dexter’s success has been built on the coaches’ ability quickly to turn men with no prior experience of the game into good Rugby players, building on skills developed on other sports (the American code of football; the Association code – “soccer”; wrestling; bat-and-ball sports, etc) and on the coaches’ flexible thinking: each season Burke and Karaska have developed a playing style based on the character of that year’s squad, but always emphasizing an adventurous, attacking game. No wonder Devils alumni now shine in college sides across the state (UM, MSU, Western, EMU, Grand Valley) and beyond, helping to make Rugby probably the fastest-growing team sport in the USA.
With two weeks to go before the first regular-season match, there is still time for recruits to join the squad and the coaches guarantee playing time to anyone who regularly attends practice (Monday-Thursday, 5 pm, Webster Church Road playing fields).
For further information on Dexter Rugby, go to the Facebook page for “Dexter Rugby”; follow DRFC on Twitter @DexterRugby (live scoring updates posted to the Twitter feed during matches).