Dave Huff has been around rugby most of his life.
Huff, who grew up in Virginia, played rugby in high school and at Penn State University. He was also a member of the only men’s Division I rugby team in Michigan — the Southfield-based Detroit Tradesmen Rugby Club, which was founded in 1978.
Huff is now in his seventh year as the coach of the St. Clair Shores Lakeview Club Rugby team. The Lakeview squad is one of 40 prep rugby clubs in Michigan, according to Rugby Michigan (www.rugbymichigan.com), which promotes youth and high school rugby.
There are 30 boys teams and 10 girls teams.
About 20 percent of those teams (eight) are located in the C & G News coverage area, with teams in Birmingham, Troy, Grosse Pointe, Shelby Township, Berkley and St. Clair Shores. Berkley High and Lakeview are the only two that feature boys and girls teams, according to the site.
“I got back in it when my daughter (Lauren Vaughn) was a freshman at Lakeview,” said Huff, who saw 180 participants take part in a clinic hosted by the Tradesmen March 23 at Lakeview. “I’ve always been involved in (rugby). This is my game. It’s great to see it growing at what seems like a rapid pace.”
That’s because, according to Huff, Michigan had no prep rugby programs about a decade ago.
Jim Clawson, coach of the Birmingham team, said the growth is attributed to how much fun kids have playing the game.
Clawson, who has been with the Birmingham program since 2005, said he’s introduced non-contact rugby to various physical education classes. Clawson, who also played for the Tradesmen, said the teachers of those classes are quick to make him aware of the fun students have, along with how tired they are at the end of each session.
At the prep level, rugby is broken down by divisions. Birmingham is the only Division 1 team in the area. Lakeview and Troy are D-2 squads, while Grosse Pointe, Shelby and Berkley are in D-3.
Playing once a week, each team had played three games at press time.
A champion is crowned in each division, with the state finals taking place the weekend prior to Memorial Day. This year’s finals will take place at West Ottawa High School in Holland. West Ottawa also fields a boys team.
“Rugby in Michigan has grown so much. It’s actually pretty amazing,” said Huff, adding that Rugby Michigan hopes to add 10 new programs by 2015. “We’re growing by three to four teams a year. It seems like (school) administrators are really receptive to what’s going on.”
Northville coach Ron Cornell, active with Rugby Michigan since its inception in 1997, said he thinks the game will continue to grow. Cornell, another Tradesmen alumnus, said rugby being added to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games will show people it’s a global sport.
“I think that will add to the enthusiasm of getting to know about the game,” said Cornell, who served as president of Rugby Michigan from 2001-08. He’s now chair of the group’s board of directors. “It’s a fun game. It just needs more exposure.”
“We’ve been around about 15 years, but we just started seeing real growth about a decade ago,” Clawson said. “It’s a player’s game versus a coach’s game. Yes, the coaches give players instruction, but it’s up to the players to make the right play. If play one doesn’t work, you have to make the right decision at the right time to go to play two.”
Clawson, who played at the University of Dayton, said the sport remains in the infancy stage. He said Rugby Michigan administrators are pressing to become sanctioned by the Michigan High School Athletic Association, specifically the oversight of the organization. Clawson added more training needs to be put in place — for coaches and players — on various issues.
“When I played in college, there wasn’t a whole lot of structure,” Clawson said. “We’re making strides, but we’re not ready for (MHSAA) oversight just yet. This is our first year implementing the concussion protocols signed into law by Governor Rick Snyder. We’ve always followed them, but this is the first year where we have actual language written.”
Clawson said rugby combines the physical aspect of hockey with the individual skill displayed in basketball.
Huff likens the sport to basketball, with participants playing both offense and defense, and he added that conditioning is paramount.
Huff said fielding a team hasn’t been an issue. He said Lakeview’s boys squad has about 23 players, with the girls team comprising about 20 players. To play a full game, 15 players are needed, according to the Rugby Sidestep Central website.
Huff said that he gets players who play a variety of other sports. He’s hoping to have a larger influx of football players, in the future.
“We have a lot of good athletes who come out to play,” he said. “We don’t get a ton of football players. I’d love to, though. I’d love to get that support from the football coach. We just have to break through.
“The kids come out for the love of the sport. They’re not halfway in it — you either love it or you hate it. You’re in or you’re out.”
Cornell said playing rugby gives athletes another outlet and a shot at playing a sport past high school.
“You have some football players who may not be going on to play football in college,” Cornell said. “Rugby is a great sport for them to play in the spring because they can learn the game and have a chance to play in the fall once they get to college. A lot of the schools in Michigan offer rugby.”
Huff said getting good, experienced coaches is a challenge because of availability. Most of the current coaches work as volunteers.
“It’s really not a sport many people have played,” Huff said. “We’re hoping to bring in some coaches with a wealth of experience with the game, because we want the kids to learn from the best possible teachers. Most of those types are still playing.”
Clawson said when they get new coaches, they’ll have to be brought up to speed on a lot of rules.
“We’re making strides, but we’ve still got some things to work on,” he added.
Cornell said a lot of progress has been made in a short period of time. He said high schools are working to add rugby to regular curriculums and agreed with Clawson that more still needs to be done
“We want it to become more regional. We’ve got teams in Grand Blanc and Okemos that we have to play, and there are some travel issues there. We want to try to get some more schools involved, so we can have divisions so that travel isn’t such a big issue,” Cornell said.
For more information on Rugby Michigan and its member teams, check www.rugbymichigan.com.