Saturday, 14 May, Eastern Division One Playoff, DHS
Dexter Devils 30 Dearborn Silverbacks 14
Dexter Scorers —
Tries: Penalty Try, A. Steedman, Even, Stovell, Camp; Pen: Makin; Con: Makin
The Devils overcame the Dearborn Silverbacks and the weather at the Michigan Youth Rugby Association Eastern Playoffs, hosted by Dexter Rugby Football Club itself at Dexter High School on Saturday, to book a place in the Division One Final Four for the fifth consecutive year. The Devils will now head to West Ottawa’s rugby stadium — 3700 140th St, Holland, MI 49424 — for a semifinal against Kalamazoo Bulldogs, who defeated Grand Rapids Catholic Central 17-5 on Saturday in the Western Division One playoffs (2.30 pm kick-off).
The Devils, returning from their annual exposure to top-level high-school rugby at the Midwest Championship in Elkhart, Indiana, played in the final match of Saturday’s eight-team Eastern Divisions I and II playoffs – the post-season format has changed from previous years, so that this year a weekend-long final four is scheduled for West Ottawa, pitting two eastern teams against two western teams in semi-finals after regional playoffs. Spectators willing to brave the rain, hail, and wind at DHS had already seen Howell overcome Northville and Brighton High School demolish Washtenaw (Ann Arbor) in the Division II playoffs, and Troy take apart Birmingham in the other Division I match, but for the locals, this was the main event: the Dexter Devils, playing this year in collaboration with Genesee County Elect RFC, against a familiar, tough opponent, Dearborn. The Silverbacks had not put up their usual fight in the regular season match at Manly Bennett, which the Devils won 32-7, but head coaches Paul Burke, Doug Karaska, and Dustin Steedman, assisted by Steve Turosky, must have had no doubts that Dearborn would put up stronger resistance in a playoff, especially when both a heavy, wet pitch and a wet ball were bound to impede the Devils’ fifteen-man game.
However, no one could have anticipated an opening which saw referee Brandon Sparks (Head Coach of the University of Michigan Rugby Club) stamp his authority immediately and dramatically on the game – and thus ensure, for the rest of the sixty minutes, what, given the conditions, passed for free-flowing rugby and good discipline from both sides . After early Devils pressure, the Silverbacks found themselves parked deep within their own twenty-two-metre line. Facing a series of penalties, taken quickly by Devils scrum-half Neil Makin (DHS, Jr), Dearborn retreated slowly and then objected vociferously to the extra punishment. Without a word, Sparks ran from the wing, where the penalties were awarded, to the goal posts and raised his arm to signal a penalty try. The home side’s pleasure was somewhat diminished when Makin, apparently struggling with the wind, somehow failed to convert, having taken the ball a long way back, perhaps to avoid the swamp-like area close to the goal. Their pleasure was entirely gone when, a few minutes later during the first Dearborn attack, they, too, retreated slowly in the face of a series of penalties close to their try line and Sparks repeated his assertive gesture: a second penalty try within a few minutes of kick-off. Dearborn managed to convert theirs, for a 7-5 lead (conversions for penalty tries — wherever the try might have been touched down, had there not been a penalty — are taken from the centre of the pitch, right under the goal posts). Older spectators tried to recall the last time they had seen a match open with two penalty tries, but might have reflected later that Sparks had done well to take immediate control of a match where, with so much at stake, ill-disciplined play could have led to trouble.
Throughout the first half the Devils looked somewhat out of sorts – handling errors and some poor decisions made their struggles with the weather worse. Nonetheless, quick ball to dominating centre Aaron Steedman (Linden High Schook, Jr) enabled them to recover the lead as he touched down, although, again, Makin missed a kickable conversion. After twenty minutes, the Devils scored their third try of the half, as captain and hooker Tyler Even (DHS, Sr) took in a quick tap from five metres out on the left wing. Such was the wind that Makin had to call for an old-time solution as he attempted a difficult conversion: Spencer Travis (DHS, Fr) was called in to sacrifice his own body to keep the ball upright, lying full length on the drenched pitch, with his fingers on the tip of the ball as Makin kicked – this time quite well, but still not well enough to beat the wind.
A 15-7 lead at half-time was far from secure, even though the Dexter pack had generally had the better of Dearborn, with Even leading by example (and winning several key heels-against-the-head). On either side of him, Jake Camp (Byron HS, Jr) and the returning Skylar Stites (LHS, Jr) were towers of strength and very visible reminders of the value of the Genesee connection. In the second row, Clayton Drenner (DHS, Sr) was having one of his best matches in four years as a Devil, showing his good hands and reminding everyone that a mild big man can still play big, using his power and size to excellent effect. Beside him, Alex West (DHS, Sr) was as reliable as ever. The flankers, Nathaniel Orlowski (DHS, Sr) and Mason Monroe (DHS, So) marauded to good effect, while Robert Guenther (DHS, So) was adjusting well to the number eight position. Half-backs Makin and impressive fly-half Seamus McCurren (DHS, Jr) generally produced good ball, with McCurren’s counter-attacking kicks particularly effective later in the match, while Dearborn’s scrum-half, suffering from poor ball at his own set-pieces, received regular reminders that his opposite number was in the vicinity. In the three-quarters, the firm of twins Steedman and Steedman at inside and outside centre (Jaylin and Aaron; both LHS, Jrs) looked powerful in offense and defense – centre Ethan Stairs (DHS, Sr) was absent injured — while Truman Stovell (DHS, Jr) patrolled his wing very effectively, both with and without the ball, and Noah Mahnke (LHS, Jr) looked good on his. Fullback Sean Wakefield (DHS, Sr) came in to the line to excellent effect – another player who had one of his best matches in a Devils shirt.
And yet, the Devils had not moved the ball as they should have done, letting the conditions get the better of them, and their place-kicking had been poor. Dexter’s coaches were visibly displeased and must have called for better execution in the second half (during which Gavin Mackie (Grand Blanc HS, Fr) came in on the wing and Kyle Rooke (DHS, So) in the pack). Perhaps the most memorable moment of the entire half for Devils fans had been one that did not even lead to a score: lineout ball won cleanly (no easy task on the day) was held in the pack and a driving maul rolled the best part of twenty metres down the wing, to stirring exhortations from the Devils’ touchline, before, alas, Dexter went to ground near the five-metre line and Dearborn won its own put-in at the ensuing scrum to end the attack. However, that statement of forward superiority could only provide inspiration for the coming half.
Nonetheless, the opening of the second half did nothing to settle the worries of anxious locals: after three minutes, the Devils failed to defend properly a quick Dearborn tap, once again allowing themselves a series of poor tackles, as they seem to have done at least once in every match this season. The Silverbacks converted the try and were just one point away from the hosts. But eight minutes later the Devils stretched their lead with an excellent winger’s try, as Stovell steamed in after good ball movement. Again Makin failed with the (difficult) conversion, but nine minutes later Camp did what he had threatened to do several times before: a free kick for an infringement in the scrum was awarded just inside the Dearborn twenty-two, and Makin’s quick tap and run left the Dearborn defense in disarray, exacerbated when he offloaded to the big prop, who rumbled in for the Devils’ fifth try. Finally, Makin converted, and shortly afterwards put the match away with a comfortable penalty goal. Near the end there were, predictably, a few confrontations, but Sparks had refereed well and the final whistle was greeted with handshakes, while the Dexter supporters expressed vocal delight.
So the Devils squad will be rewarded for all those cold nights of practice in March (and, for that matter, May…), for all the blows sustained in the tackle and the ruck, often from their own man in the heat of battle, for all the hard yards and desperate offloads, with another state semi-final. In the last four years they have won two and lost two, to increasingly familiar opponents. But this year it will be newly promoted Kalamazoo, who must have been very solid in restricting CC (who looked good in Elkhart, despite three losses, and gave Brunswick a better game than the Devils did) to a single try in their playoff win. Another big caravan of vehicles will surely accompany the Devils to West Ottawa on Saturday for the 2.30 kick-off; it remains to be seen whether they will make a second trip on Sunday. The Devils Twitter feed will post scoring updates.
No report of this year’s playoffs can end without mention of the sterling work of the Devils’ families who made the day a success: on Friday, under Burke’s guidance, Jake Even, Bob Wittenberg (father of Devils’ old boy, Derek, DHS, 2015), and others lined the field and set up the goals. They probably woke up on Saturday, after a night of high winds and torrential rain, fearing for their work, but everything looked good when other Devils volunteers, including club Vice-president Sarah Even and this year’s meal coordinator Jennifer Drenner, arrived early on match day to set up the concession stand, within which they braved the weather all day. One mother even assisted with the ritual painting and repainting of the DHS rock, although that was, it is true, mostly the work of current players, aware of the traditions established by their predecessors, many of whom, accompanied in some cases by family members, added to the support the Devils enjoyed against Dearborn.
Dexter’s squad list, with further details of the Dexter Rugby program, may be accessed here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/2ypd3vcs3909w8p/DRFC%20Team%20Sheet%202016.pdf?dl=0. For further information on Dexter Rugby, go to the Facebook page for “Dexter Rugby” or http://www.rugbymichigan.org/page/show/2367446-dexter. Follow DRFC on Twitter @DexterRugby.