High-school Rugby: Devils Top Michigan Team at Midwest Championship, but Fail to Close the Gap on Elite Teams

dexter devils
The Victorious Devils Leave the Field after Defeating Grandville. Photo Credit: Daphne Wakefield

Saturday and Sunday 7, 8 May – Midwest Boys High-school Championship, Elkhart, Indiana, Club Bracket

Dexter Scores and Scorers –

Carroll HS (IN) 36 Devils 7
Try: Orlowski; con: Makin.

Granville HS (MI) 7 Devils 27
Tries: Stovell, McCurren (2), Even; Pen: Makin; Cons: Makin, Stovell

Brunswick HS (OH) 37 Devils 7
Try: McCurren; Con: Makin

The annual trip to the Midwest High-school Championships in Elkhart, Indiana, confirmed that Dexter Rugby Football Club, playing this year in collaboration with Genesee County Elite RFC, has  a very solid team in the Michigan Youth Rugby Association,  where last week the Devils took the Division One East title and on Saturday will play in the regional tournament at Dexter High School (Devils vs Dearborn, kick-off 3.30 pm) for a place in the State Final Four.  At Elkhart, of the four Michigan teams playing in the two top Championship brackets (West Ottawa, Grand Rapids Catholic Central, Grandville, and Dexter), the Devils placed best, finishing in sixth place in the Club Championship and taking revenge on cross-state rivals Grandville for the latter’s 26-20 victory over the Devils in the State Championship match in 2014.

But in their first match the Devils lost 36-7 to Carroll HS of Indiana, who went on to take 3rd place, losing only to eventual champions, Royal Irish of Indianapolis, and in Sunday’s match for the “plate” position of fourth (ie, top team of those that lost their first match), the Devils were blown away 37-7 by Brunswick of Ohio.  So, once again, Elkhart showed the Devils what can be achieved by programs with large squads and extensive playing experience competing in states with significant numbers of elite teams: the Devils could not cope with Carroll’s well-executed kicking counter-attacks, not least because the Dexter back three, having not faced intelligent open-play kicking all season, were unable to defend deep clearances and clever grubbers; and the Devils could not deal with Brunswick’s size and, at key positions, speed.

However, the comprehensive victory over Grandville will remain long in the memories of Dexter supporters and sent them home to Michigan satisfied that the team had learned, bonded well, and improved over two tough days in Indiana.  The Devils head coaches, Paul Burke, Doug Karaska, and Dustin Steedman (of Genesee County Elite RFC), and assistant coach Steve Turosky now have a week to prepare their charges for a tough regional decider on the day of Dexter prom – the annual playoff distraction for Dexter rugby families.  At Elkhart, those coaches were supported by adjunct coach Eddie Alexander (Devils centre, 2013/2014; Grass Lake HS, 2014; subsequently Tri-Cities and EMU centre), who provided further proof of the abiding appeal of the tournament, as did the numerous comments from former players and their families on social media over the weekend.

To put the task posed by the Elkhart tournament in perspective, it is worth looking at the Devils’ A team record in recent years.  In the regular season, from 2013 to 2016, the Devils have played twenty-two matches, won twenty and lost two; in the MYRA playoffs from 2012 to 2015 the Devils played ten matches, winning  six and losing four, reaching as far as the state semi-finals twice and the championship match twice.  Meanwhile, in four trips to Elkhart since 2012 the Devils (A team) have won four matches and lost eight. The standard of opposition at the Elkhart tournament, where the Devils A team has always played in one of the top two championship brackets, is simply far higher than in Michigan, although the sport continues to thrive and grow here.  Several private schools with big budgets and big commitments to rugby, varsity programs, squads full of multi-year players with national and even, in some cases, international experience (mostly from Indiana and Ohio) all make the elite brackets a huge challenge for any Michigan team.

The Devils Squad
The Devils Squad

 

On Saturday morning there was optimism in the Devils’ ranks that, for the first time ever, they could win their first match at Elkhart and propel themselves into the top four of the eight-team bracket.  It was not to be.  Although Carroll began with a failed attempt at goal after a penalty against the Devils for not rolling away (the one part of the game where both Carroll and Brunswick seemed weak was their place-kicking), they were 5-0 up after seven minutes when the Devils lost the ball in the ruck and Carroll kicked the ball down the left wing and touched down; a second try came from a thirty-metre run following a poor twenty-two-metre drop from the Devils; Carroll then scored a penalty goal under the posts (Devils not rolling away), and followed that up by returning a big clearance from fly-half Seamus McCurren (DHS, Jr) right through the Devils midfield  for another try.  After flanker Aaron Steedman (Linden HS, Jr) was yellow-carded for dangerous play, Carroll kicked another penalty, to reach half-time 21-0.   Kyle Rooke (DHS, So) came into the pack for Clayton Drenner (DHS, Sr) at the start of the second half, but, with Aaron Steedman in the sin bin, it was tough for the fourteen men, who conceded another try when quick ball down the Carroll line was almost knocked on, only for the centre to put boot to ball, sending it into the Devils in-goal area, where the right wing duly touched down – a try that spoke eloquently of the value of experience as well as skill.  More problems came for the Devils when McCurren had to head for the blood bin, with Sean Wakefield (DHS, Sr) moving from full-back to fly-half and Chris Kaufmann (DHS, Jr) coming in to play – valiantly – on the wing.  A big switch in the Carroll line then wrong-footed the Devils defense to make the score 31-0, whereupon things got worse for the Devils as Aaron Steedman was adjudged to have made another dangerous tackle and was red-carded.  The fourteen-men Devils conceded their final points when the ball was lost in the ruck and worked in effectively, but they showed the spirit that had marked their efforts throughout the match when a ball lost at a five-metre lineout was recovered and forced in by flanker Nathaniel Orlowski (DHS, Sr), with scrum-half Neil Makin (DHS, Jr) converting to make the final score 36-7.

For the numerous Devils’ supporters, disappointment was mixed with some alarm when the other match on their side of the bracket finished: Grandville, from MYRA Division I West, had gone down to the number two club side in the nation, Royal Irish, but only by thirty-one points.  The cross-state match that afternoon, against another experienced opponent with a varsity program, was bound to be tough.

Perhaps Grandville’s XV had found the Royal Irish match too draining, perhaps they had underestimated their in-state opponent, but the Dexter touchline was vocally joyful soon after the start.  Makin kicked a penalty after seven minutes to give the Devils a crucial early lead and then the unthinkable happened: McCurren (who kicked with increasing power and confidence throughout the tournament and is beginning to look a top fly-half) failed to find touch with a long penalty and the ball rolled into the Grandville in-goal area; left-wing Truman Stovell (DHS, Sr) pursued the ball with characteristic power and speed, but surely could not have anticipated that the Grandville defense would simply stare at the live ball; taking advantage of this massive mental lapse, he fell on the ball to score a try.  Makin missed the conversion from the wing, but an 8-0 lead within ten minutes was more than the Devils could have dreamed of.  The Devils continued to press hard, with the big Grandville pack forced back by excellent work from the front row of Jake Camp (Byron HS, Jr), captain Tyler Even (DHS, Sr), and the fiercely rucking Rooke, supported by Alex West (DHS, Sr; he had his best match as a Devil, dominating the line-out) and work horse Clayton Drenner (DHS, Sr) in the second row, with Mason Monroe (DHS, So) and Orlowski at flanker and Robert Guenther (DHS, So) in the unfamiliar position of eight-man, since Aaron Steedman’s red card had disqualified him from the match and necessitated changes among the loose forwards.  The consistent Dexter pressure was rewarded near half-time when quick ball from the scrum sent McCurren in for a try out wide on the right wing; Makin, with a booming conversion from outside the five-metre lineout line added to the delight of the Dexter faithful and sent the Devils in 15-0 up at half-time.  There had to be a reply from Grandville, and shortly after the restart their huge prop ran the ball in from eighteen metres out for a try under the posts, which was duly converted.  But any hopes the numerous Grandville supporters had of a recovery were snuffed out when, after Makin’s attempted penalty goal swung wide in the wind, a poor twenty-two metre drop was picked up by the Devils and driven straight back to the Grandville try line: brilliant work first by Camp and then by the tireless captain Even overwhelmed the Grandville defense for the third Devils try as the captain touched down.  Joy was complete when McCurren, who had a superb tournament, intercepted right at no side to make it 25-7, with Stovell putting the conversion between the posts.  The Devils had played well in every area of the game: the pack had outpowered the bigger Grandville forwards, the half-backs had been quick and agile, and the three-quarters – inside centre Ethan Stairs (DHS, Sr), outside centre Jaylin Steedman (LHS, Jr), wings Stovell and the quickly maturing Griffin Fletcher (DHS, Jr) – had defended very solidly and attacked with speed, well supported by full back Wakefield.

Neil Makin, Dexter scrum-half, makes the score against Grandville 15-0 at half-time, with a big conversion from out wide. Video credit: Eddie Alexander.

Could the Devils finally win a second match at Elkhart (after all, Sunday’s opponents, Brunswick, only beat GRCC by ten points on Saturday afternoon)?  The answer, alas, proved to be a familiar “no”.    With the return of Aaron Steedman  and with Noah Mahnke (LHS, Jr) starting on the wing and good men on the bench, the Devils line-up looked strong, despite, as throughout the tournament, the absence of three regular starters: tight-five big men Skylar Stites (LHS, Jr) and Josh Friedman (DHS, Sr) and last week’s man-of-the-match, winger Caleb Endicott (DHS, Sr).  But after just four minutes Brunswick showed their experience and speed, when the Devils’ fly-half was intercepted at midfield, and the defense failed to lay more than a finger on the opposition centre who ran fifty metres to score.  Two minutes later it was the turn of the Brunswick left wing to show his speed, evading even the desperate tackle of Aaron Steedman to make the score 10-0.  Steedman, clearly unwell, then came off, with Monroe replacing him (Fletcher would replace Mahnke at half-time).  Makin had a chance to bring the score back within a converted try, but missed a penalty under the posts, and another try down the left wing extended the Brunswick lead to 15-0.  Yet another outstanding run down the left wing led to a fourth try, as the ball reached a big Brunswick flanker who ran it in; Brunswick finally converted and the Devils went in 22-0 down at half time.  The Devils’ coaches had work to do, and some frustration to overcome as they saw the sort of Brunswick tackles that led to a Dexter red card in the first match go unpunished; the Devils half-backs also felt that their opposite numbers were consistently offside, but no officiating style would have conquered Brunswick’s speed nor helped Dexter tackle better.

The second half began with more intense Brunswick pressure, but the Devils, facing likely defeat, showed tremendous resolve, resisting a multi-phase Brunswick attack on the five-metre line, the defense led by the ferocious Camp and assisted by the whole team, including the diminutive scrum-half who delighted coach Burke by tackling one of the biggest members of the opposition pack, a man Burke identified as a “nationally-ranked prop”.  But the defensive stand cost the Devils the services of Camp, who was taken out for a concussion assessment, with Kaufmann coming in on the wing and the powerful Stovell moving to centre, sending Jaylin Steedman to the unfamiliar position of prop.  Shortly thereafter the Devils lost their own put-in on their five-metre line, and the Brunswick scrum-half danced in untouched to make the score 27-0.  His half-back partner, a big man at fly half, then made it 32-0, and the Brunswick fullback confirmed his team’s complete dominance with a seventy-metre run for his team’s last try.  However, the Devils showed their spirit and denied Brunswick a clean sheet when quick ball within the Brunswick twenty-two reached McCurren, who ran brilliantly on to his own grubber to score under the posts, with Makin converting to take the score to 37-7.

A tired and battered Devils squad then headed to their cars for the drive home, no doubt all of them feeling pride at their great victory against Grandville and their determined efforts against superior opposition in the other two matches, but also reflecting on the distance that still remains between Dexter rugby and the elite programs of the Midwest.

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.

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