Team once on the brink of demise now has winning record
by Larry Austin
The Grand Island Rugby Club has returned from the brink of death to not just survive, but thrive.
The team that went winless for two years and saw its roster depleted has rebounded to win its last three matches.
Dan Hager, head coach of the Grand Island Rugby Club, said that the program nearly ceased to exist after the roster dropped to just five players in the club in March of 2011. The team was forced to complete as an associate member within the state and played four road scrimmages.
This year, though, the team is back in the league and had 35 players to start the 2012 campaign. Positive results have followed. After posting a combined 2010-11 record of 0-10, the team has won its last three matches to improve to 3-2.
"Win or lose it has been a great season and the program seems to be on the way up thanks to the dedication of parents and players alike," Hager said.
The team, composed of students from Grand Island High School, plays at the Kaegebein Rugby Complex (Kaegebein Elementary School).
Senior Jamison Phillips, a four-year member of the club, said the GI side has reversed the downward spiral with the addition of a lot of hard-working members.
"We've really turned it around," he said. "We almost didn't have a time last year. There was one point where coach came up to me and said if we don't have at least 12 guys show up for practice, we're not going to have a team this year."
The team has about 30 players now, or twice as many players as are fielded during a game.
Recruiting younger players to play a very physical game isn't easy, but leadership, Hager said, has been the key in the growth of the club.
"We got a lot of underclassmen to come out, which is great. I mean, we even have middle-schoolers on the team this year," Phillips added.
A commitment to working hard at the sport, which is legendary for its party mentality, has also resulted in wins.
"It's having everyone show up to practice, working hard in practice, just putting themselves out there and not just (messing) around," Phillips said.
"We've got a lot more guys who really want to play," said senior Brent Fred, now in his second year with the club. "Just the intensity's up in practice. We've got a lot more people coming to practice, and we have just great overall effort by the whole group. It's a lot of young guys, so we've got a great future for Grand Island Rugby."
Fred and Phillips also credited part of the turnaround to Hager.
"It starts with good coaching, and we've got that with Coach Hager," Fred said.
"He is a huge reason," Phillips added "He's the biggest reason why the team is still here, basically. He's put up with a lot of crap for the last three years getting us to where we are now."
Hager played collegiately at St. Bonaventure University and said rugby is now the fastest-growing sport in the country.
"Which is exciting, because when I started playing it was still more of a drinking-man's sport," he said.
"It's growing more and more. The players are respecting it more, and in return parents and fans are respecting it more," Hager said.
The Island club, though, is "parent-approved," he said.
"Our parents are wonderful. We wouldn't be where we are today without a great group of parents. They really have taken a lot off load of me," Hager said.
Hager also praised the Grand Island High School faculty for their support. Teacher Maggie Kennedy started the team five years ago and is the heart and soul behind the team, he said.
A win in the last match Tuesday against South Towns would end the year on a high note.
"It would be amazing, to see what we did this year," Phillips said.
Building for the future is part of the club's plans. Good leadership in the senior class has attracted some underclassmen to see if they had what it takes to play rugby, Hager said. He plans to build the program with a week-long youth touch rugby camp this summer for middle-schoolers. The camp will include workouts and chalk talks from coaches and referees to grow understanding and passion for the game.
"We'll have about 11 seniors leaving this year, but I think the guys who are left are really going to stay with it and help the program continue to grow," Phillips said.