A rookie on the Michigan men’s rugby club team was in for a surprise during his first match.
He was a big guy and had only played lineman for his football team in high school. But during the match, he found himself with the ball, and then he found himself running. When he came off the field, he told first-year head coach Dave Perpich he had never ran with the ball in a game before.
“Everyone can run with the ball,” Perpich said. “Everyone has a shot at the top. There are no starters or set positions. … Everybody who comes out to practice plays.”
The underlying theme of the Michigan Rugby Club, as well as its key to success, is that the team is a close-knit circle. Whether in scrums on the field or at socials with their opponents after matches, every player, no matter age or experience, has respect for his teammates.
“Our captain Tex (Aaron Dodd) is very poignant in making sure the team plays as a unit and in making sure we are all on the same page” senior Max Mikulec said. “He is the one who makes sure that everything we do we gel together and that helps us on the field.”
The benefits of the team’s cohesiveness were obvious in their defeat over St. John’s University for the Midwest Championship and a berth to Nationals. Players were missing from the match because of various injuries, including senior captain Jacob Leedekerken because of food poisoning. But because of the club’s dedication to developing all their players and not just starters, they pulled off the victory in a tight match, 27-24.
“We had freshmen going that really stepped up,” Leedekerken said. “It showed that our team was not just 15 but a full team of 22.”
They became a full team of 22 through hard work and dedication. Every player commits to practices twice a week, conditioning once a week and training on their own to increase their strength for games against larger opponents such as St. John’s University. Some players even stayed on campus during the summer to practice together. “We’ve had a lot of commitment among the younger and older guys,” Leedekerken said. “We did a lot of extra practices outside of the regular practice times, such as conditioning, working on various plays and strategies for the games.”
Their hard work paid off. The team will be traveling to California for Nationals this April, a place it hasn’t been since spring of 2005 when it lost in the semifinals. The Wolverines are expecting stronger and faster teams than themselves in April. Until then, the club hopes to continue to develop as a full unit and hone their rugby IQ that got them this far.
“It takes the same kind of commitment we had at the beginning,” Dodd said. “We hope to use these four months to our advantage and be twice as good as we are now.”
Between then and now, the team will also be going on its spring tour, during which it travels across the world for matches. In the past, the Wolverines have been to places such as Argentina, Ireland and the Bahamas. Perpich thinks their trip will only help to bring the team closer together.
“The first time you cross the equator, you’re never going to forget the people you were with,” Perpich said. “That’s forever.”
The team, which is self-funded, also tries to incorporate charity projects into their spring tours. When the tsunami hit Thailand in 2004, Michigan changed its tour location from England to the damaged region. The team competed in matches and also helped victims. In 2006, the Wolverines traveled to Mexico to compete against a local select side and to teach orphans the rules of rugby.
“You get to know a lot about a person when you travel together,” Perpich said. “You also get to know a person in an 80 minute game of rugby.”
The members of the Michigan men’s rugby team has more than gotten to know one another since the beginning of the season. It is a close group of brothers that spend as much time together off the field as on it – and the bonds they have created will be beneficial long after Nationals in April have ended.