Grand Haven boys rugby program raising the bar, expectations

Josh VanDyke • Apr 1, 2017 at 12:00 PM

In only its fourth year as an active club, the Grand Haven boys rugby team has already made a name for itself as a title-contending program at the Division 2 level.

Even in its infancy, the program has made playoff appearances every year and has continually pushed its way closer and closer to bringing home a state championship. The team advanced all the way to the Division 2 state championship game in 2015, and found its way to the semifinal round last spring.

Now the program is at a level where it’s championship or bust.

“If we don't at least make it to the finals, it'll be a disappointment,” said Grand Haven head coach Dave McDonough. “We have enough depth and talent that we can hang with anyone, but we have to continue to work hard. There’s not a lot of experience on this team, but I think we’re going to be really clicking by the end of the regular season.”

McDonough wasn’t quite as emboldened back in December, when only 20 kids showed up for the first few team practices of the season.

"We started conditioning in December, and we were doing some soul searching on why we didn't bring any more people back from last year,” McDonough reflected. “As the season got closer and closer, more and more kids started showing up, and we eventually went from 20 kids to 30 kids, and now we’re at 46 kids.

“The new kids coming in and learning the sport are some of the best natural athletes we’ve ever had, and now, with our numbers, we have the best depth we've ever had. So, I had to reassess the goals once our roster doubled. The expectations have grown with the roster.”

With the vast majority of players on the team being first- or second-year players, having team depth for the first time in program history is a blessing and a curse for McDonough and assistant coaches Tom Foley and Jerry Bell.

“We actually have enough people for a full-squad scrimmage for the first time since I’ve been here,” McDonough said. “I've been complaining about not being able to do that for years, and now we have enough kids to do it, and I realize there’s new challenges when you only have two other coaches to help you out.”

The challenge this spring will be replacing a lot of experience and almost the entire starting lineup from last year’s semifinal run.

"It's a completely new team,” McDonough said. “Last year’s seniors were the first batch of players that had started with the program and really built the foundation for the club. Now, we have our first four-year player in Kelvin Johnson, and we have six players who will be in their second year with the club.”

Senior Caleb Braley picked up the sport last spring, and has already taken over at the scrum half position, while junior Collin Monsma is in his third year with the club and will be moving from his flank position to primarily the eight-man line.

"Monsma, Caleb and Bryan (Batten) are all wrestlers who decided to give the sport a shot,” McDonough continued. “Those guys are obviously not afraid of the contact, and they’ve just fallen in love with the sport and the community around it.”

The club has also added a few other athletes from various sports teams.

“We had Adrian Nelson join the team this spring,” McDonough said. “He was a baseball player originally and decided to give rugby a shot. At the first practice, we just handed him a rugby ball, and he flicked it 30 yards on his attempt, which was pretty impressive.

"He's going to play inside of Batten in our lineup, so he's got experience around him. We’re hoping that by surrounding some of the more inexperienced players with veterans, that they will gain a comfort level with their role on the team. Once they gain enough confidence in what they’re doing out there, they won’t have to think quite as much, and it’ll come naturally to them.”

That comfortable level appears to be on the fast track, as the Buccaneers defeated Sparta, 10-0, on Wednesday in its season opener at Lakeshore Middle School.

Sparta defeated Grand Haven, 24-5, in last spring’s season opener, so it appears the squad is already ahead of the curve. The team will be back in action on April 13 against Forest Hills.

For more information on the team, including team schedules and sponsorship information, visit http://ghboysrugby.weebly.com.

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