GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Only two seasons have come and gone since the concept of an elite, conference-based men’s college competition came to fruition. A lot can change in two years; even more can change in four.
In February 2009, Davenport University (Grand Rapids, Mich.) announced that they would be adding rugby to its athletic department. The trajectory of the Davenport program since that announcement is astounding. Since its inception in 2009, Davenport University has tallied a 38-5 record (17-1 in league play) and has won back-to-back D1-AA National Championships in 2011 and 2012, knocking off big names like Dartmouth, Harvard, and San Diego State along the way.
In February 2013, the DU Panthers are in the most competitive conference in the most competitive college league in the nation, D1A Rugby. They aren’t a national powerhouse yet, but they are well on their way.
How did they achieve this amount of success in three seasons? The success is due to a tantalizing mix of institutional buy-in, excellent program leadership, and a concrete plan to develop the program through marketing and recruitment.
When skeptics and cynics in the American rugby world hear about a team rocketing into the elite rungs of the college game in a matter of years, they automatically suspect a shady injection of academy players from the southern hemisphere. Of the 54 players on Davenport’s roster, 34 are from Michigan, 11 are from Illinois, four are from Indiana, one is from North Carolina, one is from Ohio, one is from Kentucky, and two are from South Africa. My point: Shut up, cynics.
Today, athletes serious about their rugby know the Davenport program is organized, successful, and the university will support the team’s ambitions. The relationship is already very strong between Davenport and the premier high school teams in the area. Davenport can simply offer more opportunities to young high school athletes than any other rugby team in the area. The recruiting footprint has been established.
Oh yeah, they can also coach up crossover athletes to an All-American caliber. Ryan Hargraves played rugby only his senior year of high school before going to Davenport. He was an excellent high school wrestler and football player, but the workhorse flanker became a Collegiate All-American in rugby after two years at Davenport.
Head Coach Kruger Van Biljon and his staff have done an amazing job in three years working on crossovers and honing the skills of young high school stars from the Midwest. How good is the coaching? After coming over to Davenport from Notre Dame (he coached the Irish backs), Van Biljon has logged 92.9% win percentage.
Davenport will play in its first-ever D1A Rugby game this weekend (Saturday March 2), as they travel to Marietta, Ga. to play Life, a team that is ranked #1 in the nation.