Wednesday’s 15-14 victory at Manly Bennett Field, Hamburg, brought Dexter Rugby Football Club the MYRA Division One East title for the third year in four. The victory also brought a rematch of last year’s championship game in Saturday’s state quarter-final at Troy’s Athens High School, where the Dexter Devils face reigning champions Grand Rapids Catholic Central (10 a.m. kick-off at 4333 John R Rd, Troy, MI 48085).
The Devils will be hoping that at least some of the big crowd who cheered the Devils on at home on Wednesday will make the 60-mile trip to Troy to support the team in what will certainly be a tough quarter-final. The Devils twitter feed (@DexterRugby) will provide scoring updates throughout the first match. The winner of that match will play a semi-final at 1 pm on Saturday at the same location.
Wednesday’s victory was based on solid team defense, in which every member of the Devils’ (rather light) pack fought very hard against the heavier Troy scrum. Dexter’s first try came from the opportunism and athleticism of fly-half Tristin Staebler (DHS, Sr) and centre Derek Wittenberg (DHS, Sr), while the second try was a result of the sort of fifteen-man offense coaches and fans have hoped to see all season: excellent work by tight-head prop Nick Hubbard (DHS, Sr), supported by other forwards, was followed by efficient recycling from the scrum-half Neil Makin (DHS, So), more quick work from flanker Erick Leon (DHS, Sr), and then excellent ball movement from the entire back line, resulting in a play that swept the ball from one side of the field to the other, where full-back Adam Haas (DHS, Sr) combined power and agility to touch down in the corner. The boot of centre and captain Jake Rayer (DHS, Sr) provided the Devils with five vital first-half points, and Dexter won by the smallest of margins, thereby securing the Divisional title on a tie-breaker. Read a full match report here.
The first round of the playoffs sets the four qualifiers from the East against the four qualifiers from the West (see playoff bracket below). Dexter’s opponent, Grand Rapids Catholic Central, has the most successful Rugby program in the state, with nine state championships since the formation of the Michigan Youth Rugby Association in 1997. In last year’s championship match at West Ottawa’s Rugby stadium, Dexter led CC until the last ten minutes, but the superior fitness of CC’s powerful scrum told in the final minutes, giving them the title with a 24-17 score. This year, CC seems to be in rebuilding mode, but the Devils would be very foolish to underestimate such an experienced opponent. Moreover, the Western Division has traditionally been stronger than the East (for the last three years, the Eastern Division has had only one representative each year in the semi-finals: Dexter).
This year in the playoffs the Devils are joined by Dearborn, Troy, and Birmingham; while unbeaten Grandville, who beat Dexter in the championship match two years ago, Rockford, who defeated Dexter in the semi-finals three years ago, and West Ottawa, champions three years ago, join CC from the west.
The Devils probably have their most experienced side ever this year, with a majority of multi-year players starting (in previous years key positions have sometimes been occupied by men new to the game, in contrast to the top west-Michigan teams, whose varsity and middle-school programs provide their first XVs with abundant experience). However, several of last year’s “impact players” were lost to graduation or injury this year, which helps to explain why it is excellent team defense and opportunistic counter-attacks that have brought the Devils their three tight, come-from-behind wins in divisional play this season – against Dearborn, Genesee, and Troy. However, the surprise loss to Birmingham reminded everyone of the vulnerability of a low-scoring team, a matter of particular concern in the playoffs, since the west-Michigan teams tend to have explosive offenses. Moreover, rules from the IRB (the international governing body for the sport) require that youth players must not play more than 100 minutes of Rugby in any single day, so Saturday’s matches will be reduced to 22½ -minute halves, meaning that a team that goes behind will have significantly less time to address a deficit.
Head coaches Paul Burke and Doug Karaska and assistants John Merz and Steve Turosky, well aware that this is Prom week in Dexter, have called for calm and focus ahead of tomorrow’s match. One thing they and the Devils’ enthusiastic fans can be absolutely certain of is that, win or lose, this is a team which will fight to the last and give its very best.
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: Ann Rickard Hubbard and Gina Bryson.