High-school Rugby: In State Playoffs Dexter Devils Beat Defending Champions, But Lose in Semi-final

Dexter Rugby Football Club’s numerous supporters were hoping that their Dexter Devils could make a third consecutive trip to the state Division I championship match at West Ottawa’s rugby stadium on Saturday, 30 May, but it was not to be.  Emerging victorious from a tough quarter-final against defending champions Grand Rapids Catholic Central, the Devils did not have enough to challenge a powerful Rockford team, who knocked them out in the semi-finals.  The playoffs, hosted by Troy United at Athens High School, Troy, on Saturday (16 May), brought together the best Rugby teams in MYRA Divisions I, II, and III, with quarter-finals pitting the top four in the Eastern Division against the top from the West at each level.  The Devils, again winners of Eastern Division I, qualified for the semi-finals for the fourth successive year and, once again, were the only Division I East team to reach that far, after a 10-7 victory over GRCC, with captain and DHS Senior Jake Rayer scoring all the points for Dexter.  Rayer’s absence with an injury from the afternoon’s semi-final (two matches in a few hours making the MYRA playoffs one of the more demanding experiences for the high-school athlete…) added to the challenges facing the Devils against a Rockford team that might well be the best high-school level team in the state, and this time the Devils’ season trademarks of resilient defense and opportunistic try-scoring could not save them from a heavy defeat, in which the boot of DHS Sr Torrin Bates provided their only points.  Read full match reports here.


Captain Jake Rayer Scores the Winning Points Against Catholic Central
Captain Jake Rayer Scores the Winning Points Against Catholic Central


Dexter’s seniors left the field on Saturday afternoon with a heavy heart – seventeen men will never wear a Devils shirt again – but head coach Paul Burke was surely right when he told them later: “You played so hard, with such passion and grit; you should be very proud. I am.”  In fact, the sobering defeat to Rockford suggested that the Devils, with a much smaller squad this year than last and without some of the “impact” players of recent years, must have performed at or above all reasonable expectations in determined, resilient come-from-behind victories over Dearborn, Genesee, Troy, and GRCC – all very solid sides – not to mention their one league defeat, to Birmingham, a game lost on the last kick of the match.  This year there had been no mid-season reality-check at the Midwest Rugby Championships in Elkhart, In., where Dexter teams have usually found themselves overmatched by some of the top Rugby programs in the region (and, indeed, the country), but have also understood what was required to step up to a higher level.  The Devils did not participate in the Elkhart weekend this year for a number of reasons, including small squad size, and so found themselves measured against a clearly superior side only on Saturday, when there was no disgrace in going down to a bigger, faster, fitter team, playing the same style of fifteen-man Rugby that Dexter has always professed, but to greater effect.

The Devils, despite their unusually large number of multi-year players this year, faced particular challenges all season: last year’s star prop, Pat Mayrand (DHS, Jr), received a season-ending injury in a freak accident during a winter indoor game, leaving the Devils scrum distinctly light; there were far fewer underclassmen recruits than in recent years; only one man came this year from another school – Dexter-resident Tyler Smokovitz of Detroit Catholic Central, whose season was ended by injury after just two matches, whereas Grass Lake, Jackson, Whitmore Lake, and Milan High schools have all provided talented starters to the Devils in recent years.  And all the same, the Devils were able, yet again, to punch far above their weight, thanks to the talent and determination of their players and the commitment and intelligence of their joint head coaches Doug Karaska and Paul Burke, assisted by John Merz and Steve Turosky.

Flanker Nathaniel Orlowski Powers Through Against CC
Flanker Nathaniel Orlowski Powers Through

The other playoff-qualifiers from Eastern Division I were all from much bigger school districts: Dearborn (district population 95,000); Troy (64,000), Birmingham (55,000), and they, just like Dexter (18,000), are club teams, able to call on players from outside their boundaries, while building their squad primarily around their own high-school population.  Meanwhile, Rugby is a varsity sport at two of the top Western schools – West Ottawa (district population 44,000) and Grandville (district population 38,000), and the latter has not only an excellent High-school program, but also a very successful middle-school program, with a current published roster of 19 boys.  Rockford (district population 38,000), like West Ottawa and Grandville, was able to field both an A and a full B high-school team this year, something that Dexter was able to do for the first time last year but was unable to repeat in 2015.  And Grand Rapids Catholic Central, where Rugby is a club sport (with nine state championships to its name since the foundation of MYRA in 1997), prides itself on drawing on the entire population of Michigan’s second city, enabling it to boast of seeding other school programs in the area.  “Little Dexter” has produced teams that have beaten every one of those opponents in recent years: in the last four years only Grandville (1-0) and Rockford (2-1) can boast a winning record against the Devils.

Centre Derek Wittenberg Shows his Tackling Skill Against Rockford
Centre Derek Wittenberg Shows his Tackling Skill Against Rockford

The men who answered the call for Dexter this year performed with great distinction, and, above all, with huge heart, proving once again, that “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight…”.  Indeed,  many of them played clearly out of their natural positions because of the small size of the squad: Nick Hubbard (Sr) must have been one of the shortest props in the entire Division, but if you wanted a man to play Rugby for your life, he would be an excellent choice among the Devils’ many candidates, both with and without the ball, and he starred repeatedly in the key, late-season matches; Tyler Even (Jr) was one of the most accomplished high-school hookers in Michigan, both in the tight and the loose – an excellent tackler, with a safe pair of hands and he should form the foundation of next year’s team; when senior prop Noah Keen was fully fit he was simply dominant; all you need to know about Spencer Vollmers (Sr, new to the sport this year) is that he played both prop and inside centre for the Devils – his strength, versatility, and speed making him a tremendous addition to the squad; in the second row, senior Aidan Hochrein’s powerful legs and determined tackling gave the pack strength, while the fierce, athletic Justin Tomshany, like Vollmers, made the Dexter touchline repeatedly sigh, “If only he’d come out for Rugby before his senior year”; Erick Leon (Sr) has been one of the best flankers in the Division for two years and was at the heart of so many key Dexter plays, while Nathaniel Orlowski, a junior, was a tremendous addition this season – a mild man off the pitch who is, to use Coach Burke’s favorite adjective for this team, an absolutely relentless flanker on it; Chris Bryson (Sr) moved this year from centre to no 8 and made the position his own, leading on both offense and defense.  The half-backs, scrum-half Neil Makin (So) and, especially, fly-half Tristin Staebler (Sr) were key to much of the Devils’ ball movement and played every match with massive determination and great intelligence (Staebler was at the heart of many  of Dexter’s key counterattacking moves).  In the three-quarters, captain Jake Rayer (Sr) was Dexter’s top-scorer, leading by example, with an excellent boot and some very fine tries to his name;  Torrin Bates (Sr), new this year, provided great athleticism, not least in fearless tackling, while the power and good hands of Luke Sagmeister (Sr) were also very reassuring on offense and defense alike; three-year player Derek Wittenberg at wing and centre, and full-back Adam Haas (both Srs) might well be the best tacklers in the league pound-for-pound, and both were again this season absolutely superb in the open field; junior Sean Wakefield, like Orlowski, Even, and Makin, gave Dexter followers hope for next season – strong and quick, he should develop into an outstanding three-quarter; when Jared Juback (Sr) was at centre, full-back, or half-back there was always a resolute presence among the Dexter backs and his versatility was a huge asset when injuries called for reorganization.  When junior Clayton Drenner came on in the pack  he showed an enthusiasm for the ball and an agility that belied his (impressive and very useful) size, while fellow forward Andrew Harding was a constant source of support.  Seniors Angelos Bairactaris and Derek Melinsky were obliged by injury to spend most of their season leading the team’s cheering section from the touchline, which they did with great spirit, but they had both shown how far they had developed as players early in the season.  All-in-all, the Dexter Devils should look back on the 2015 season with enormous pride.

The team’s season is over, and Grandville and Rockford will play for the state championship on the 30th, but some Devils will hope to be selected for the Rugby Michigan East All-star teams that will play at June tournaments in Elkhart and in Rockford, Ill.  Tryouts and practices take place in Troy and at Dexter’s home ground, Manly Bennett Field in Hamburg (for more details, go to the Facebook group “2015 Rugby Michigan East All Star Team”).  The Devils will celebrate their season on Tuesday, 9 June, at 6 pm in Hudson Mills Metro Park.

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.

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