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Michigan High School Division One Championship: Heartbreak Again for Dexter
Dexter Devils 17 Grand Rapids Catholic Central 24
Last year Dexter Rugby Football Club came within 20 metres of a stirring comeback victory against Grandville HS in the State Division One Championship match. This year the Dexter Devils (the Dexter High School Rugby Club) held the lead for most of the Championship match against Grand Rapids Catholic Central, only to fade in the last fifteen minutes of a demanding, physical encounter, played in draining heat at West Ottawa High School’s Rugby stadium in Holland, MI, on Saturday, May 31. Two tries from fly-half Gordon Makin (DHS, Sr), a try from prop Pat Mayrand (DHS, So), and a conversion from scrum-half and captain Guy Burke (DHS, Sr) were not quite enough, as Dexter could not stop CC’s powerful loose forward Kenny Willekes from scoring the winning try on a 30-metre run with less than two minutes left. His try brought CC their ninth State title, reiterating their dominance of high-school Rugby in Michigan. Willekes won the MVP award, with Makin winning the Sportsmanship Trophy as the best player on the losing team.
The team bus and a caravan of cars carrying nearly 100 Dexter supporters (not to mention several former players) had set out for Holland on Saturday morning optimistic that the Devils could win their first-ever Division One Championship and break the stranglehold of Western-conference teams on the State title. Head Coaches Paul Burke and Doug Karaska, aided by assistants Eric Calhoun, Steve Turovsky and Steve Merz, primed the Devils to produce their best Rugby of the season in playoff victories against Rockford and West Ottawa two weeks ago. They knew that, for the seven seniors in the starting line-up (prop Jonah Hancock, DHS; hooker Jorge Martinez, DHS; locks Mike Merz and Viktor Morris, both DHS; loose forward Jake Hall, Brighton HS; half-backs Makin and Burke) there was the extra incentive that this would be their last high-school game. Two other seniors, however, were missing from the starting line-up: usual no 8 Spencer Flannery and three-quarter Corey Robinett (both Grass Lake HS). Flannery was suspended after his red card against West Ottawa, while Robinett, Dexter’s normal place-kicker, had a groin strain, sustained in the Rockford quarter-final, and both would be missed. Flanker Erick Leon (DHS, Jr) was joined by Tyler Even (DHS, So), who came in for Flannery, with Hall moving from flanker to no 8, while Jake Rayer (DHS, Jr) came in to the line at outside center; Tristin Staebler (DHS, Jr) played at inside center, Derek Wittenberg and Chris Bryson (both DHS, Jrs), played on the wings, with Adam Haas (DHS, Jr) at full back. In the second half, Aidan Hochrein (DHS, Sr) came in at prop, replacing Jonah Hancock. There were no other Dexter substitutions.
The Dexter fans in the stands gave the Devils a rousing reception as they took the field and were delighted to see their team’s early pressure rewarded when, on nine minutes, Makin took a quick tap penalty, awarded for not rolling away, and ran the ball in under the posts from fifteen metres; Burke added the conversion. However, CC’s first trip inside the Dexter 22-metre line brought the equalizing score after eighteen minutes, when a free kick for an infraction in the scrum was tapped and driven in by the pack, who were already asserting their dominance in the loose, where CC’s rucking was exceptional throughout the match. Dexter regained the lead in the 23rd minute, when winger Wittenberg, one of Dexter’s stars on Saturday, grabbed a loose ball and ran 30 metres, enabling Mayrand, the find of the season – a huge sophomore with strength and speed -- to power in from the ensuing ruck.
Twelve-seven at half-time accurately reflected the balance of play, but it was already clear that bench-strength and fitness, especially among the forwards, would be one of the keys to the match, and, with the match far from decided, there was no over-confidence among Dexter’s supporters. Three minutes into the second half Dexter’s attempted penalty goal failed, but in the ensuing play Dexter recovered the ball after CC were penalized on a loose ball and then penalized another ten metres for failing to retreat. For the second time in the match, Makin took a quick tap and ran the ball in from twenty-five metres, leaving a trail of defenders in his wake before his final fake sent the CC left wing in search of air. 17-7 was still not enough, but inspiring play from Morris, whose excellent hands and powerful runs ensured that his last match for Dexter was outstanding, Leon, who shone in the lineouts (where Martinez provided excellent ball all day) and the loose, and wings Wittenberg and Bryson, gave Dexter hope that the lead could be extended. Makin and Staebler both attempted several times to run on to their own dink kicks, but were never able to break the CC defense for the badly-needed fourth try. Indeed, CC’s strength and fitness were becoming ever more evident, with efficient rucking and speed to the ball making their pack especially effective.
Eleven minutes into the second half the CC fly-half picked up a loose ball and drove in to touch down in the right-hand corner of the in-goal area. When the Dexter full-back was sin-binned after fifteen minutes for failing to wrap up on a desperate tackle, again on the CC right wing, Dexter’s situation became bleaker (Dexter’s coaches had no quarrel with the yellow card, but did note that the CC fullback was twice penalized and warned for tripping, but never sin-binned). The equalizing try duly came after seventeen minutes, as CC’s rearguard action saw them dominate a tiring Devils team. Finally, with the Dexter faithful hoping that their team could at least reach extra time and re-group, Willekes won the ball and powered thirty metres downfield to touch down under the posts. The try was converted, meaning that, with just a minute left, Dexter needed a converted try of their own to equalize. It was not to be, and a deflated Devils team left West Ottawa as runners-up for the second year in a row.
A complete video of this match and all the other divisional championship matches played on May 31 may be accessed on Rugby Michigan's Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbPK4DgIayaC51gUyQEit_Q.
By the time parents and coaches gathered back in Dexter to dissect the loss, plans were already being made for next season, with hopes high that “little Dexter” can once again play big. With six starters in the pack gone, along with both half-backs (the pairing of Burke and Makin has played together for three years), there is plenty of work for coaches Burke and Karaska, but the Club is committed to fielding two strong sides again next year -- Dexter’s B team played a solid season in Division III this year.
Since the Devils play as a club, not as a varsity team, they are able to welcome players not only from the Dexter school district, but also from other school districts in south-east Michigan where Rugby may not be available. DRFC coaches encourage anyone interested in playing the sport next year to get in touch.
Dexter’s squad list, with further details of the Dexter Rugby program, may be accessed here:https://www.dropbox.com/s/aemydjhns0dt7pl/DRFC%20Team%20Sheet%202014.pdf. 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.