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Wayne State College Women’s Rugby added another accomplishment to their history books earlier this month when they won the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) 7s National Championship. This came after the Wayne State Wildcats had already won back-to-back NSCRO 15s National Championship titles from 2012-2013, and the inaugural NSCRO 7s National Championship last May.
The team has had an inordinate amount of success: winning their league and going to advancement playoffs every year since the team’s inception in 2002. At the backbone of the program’s success is Coach Darrin Barner, who has turned the traditional Nebraska football school onto rugby. In his 13 years of coaching, only two girls had any prior rugby experience.
Caitlin Hollinger, the 2014 and 2015 Most Valuable Player of both of Wayne’s NSCRO 7s National titles, said, “Without Darrin there would be no Wayne State rugby. He has built a dynasty here, and I'm afraid the moment he leaves is the day Wayne State rugby dies…He takes ordinary men and women and makes them into champions. He gets us hyped up before every game. His speeches are inspirational, and make you go all out.”
Barner grew up in Wayne, Nebraska, and went on to become a Wildcat himself, playing as a defensive back for the NCAA Division II football team from 1985-1988. Upon graduating he worked for the school as the Intramural Sports Coordinator. Frustrated with the lack of football in his life, he became a member of the Storm Lake Iowa Albatross rugby team from 1989-1994. He then moved to Fort Worth, Texas after he took a job with Northwest Airlines. As a vacation host he was eligible for reduced-cost flights and decided to pursue an out-of-the-box idea: using the $10-per flight discount to travel back and forth to create a rugby program for the Wildcats.
Despite having no prior coaching experience, Barner convinced the school to let him try and build a club program. He decided to give it one shot with an initial interest meeting, and if no one showed, he would give up. 90 people attended the first meeting, surprising for a town with little prior interest in rugby.
“In Nebraska there’s only one sport and that’s football. Out here they get six-man and eight-man football believe it or not because there’s schools that might only have eight boys for the entire high school,” said Barner. “So we say, ‘If you’re familiar with football here’s something that is really close to that. So please come out. T-Shirts, shorts- no experience necessary.”
Over the years Barner had great recruiting luck due to the team’s major efforts at the beginning of every semester. The players stand in front of the cafeteria for a few days with signs and try to put up paraphernalia on every dorm room bathroom stall and every table in the cafeteria. The program usually has a co-ed program roster of 70-75 players, a large number compared to towns nearby that only have 400-600 people.
In order to coach the team, Barner would travel back and forth from his home in Texas to his alma matter twice a week for practice. Although things were going smoothly for quite a while, Barner lost his job when Northwest Airlines downsized after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Unable to constantly make the journey to Wayne back and forth due to the eleven-hour drive that would be required, he thought his days with the team were over. However, as luck would have it, he was able to find a full-time job back in Wayne starting in 2005 and continue working with the team.
Now, years later, Barner continues to coach both the men’s and women’s teams and attributes the program’s success to a variety of unique factors. Interestingly all drills, scrimmages and contact practices are co-ed, whereas most programs completely separate the men and women. Furthermore, Barner uses his prior experience with football as a guiding tool for how to work with the rugby team. This includes reviewing game film and using X’s and O’s on a chalkboard to create and run plays.
Changes and improvements continue for the Wildcats, which added former NFL coach Dennis Danielson to their coaching staff this spring. His ties to Wayne State go back to his former coaching career as the college’s football coach from 1982-1988, which coincidences with Barner’s time as a player.
The years of dedication and success have allowed the program to build a five-field complex with 25-acres and a clubhouse. Furthermore, they host a 90-team rugby tournament every spring called the Battle on the Nebraska Prairie. Meanwhile the intense teamwork that Barner requires has into serious friendships for many teammates. Several players have even married their teammates. One such couple got married at the Wayne State field under the goal post.
Although the program’s spring 7s season has come to an end, they will pick up with 15s in the fall. For more information about the about the program visit www.wildcat.wsc.edu/clubs/rugby/.