Local team taking off in its inaugural season

Submitted photo by Gage Steburg The Fort Dodge Stags huddle together before a rugby match last month in Des Moines. In their first season on the pitch, the club is off to a respectable 4-4 start.

The sport requires physical and mental toughness, resilience, and a special level of trust between teammates.

The town is known for producing athletes who adhere to these principles.

It seemed like only a matter of time before the youth of Fort Dodge would find their way to rugby — a game that ranks second in popularity only to soccer world-wide. Thanks to an enthusiastic group of high schoolers, a local middle-school teacher and the city’s championship-level junior college program, the Fort Dodge Rugby Club — with a team known as the ‘Stags’ — is on the attack this spring.

“It’s been very exciting to watch these kids get involved and embrace the sport,” said Thomas McClimon, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at the Fort Dodge Middle School and the squad’s sponsor. “I’ve been impressed by their attitudes and willingness to learn.

“It’s obviously a different game with different rules than football or some of the other sports they’re used to, and don’t get me wrong, they’re still very green. But they’re making progress every day and putting in the work — and it’s showing in our results (on the pitch).”

McClimon was actually a football player at Iowa Central Community College and the University of Northern Iowa. He got “kind of worn out” toward the tail end of his collegiate gridiron career, though, and with eligibility left, decided to give rugby a try at UNI.

“I had a lot of fun for a year and a half there (as a Panther rugby player), then I joined a men’s team in Waverly (after graduation),” McClimon said. “I’ve been playing with them ever since.

“You make so many life-long friends through rugby, both on your side and even (with opponents). I have friends from all across the country that I made through this sport. So it was something I wanted the kids around here to experience for themselves — especially given it’s something they could play well after school is done. Fort Dodge is already a tough, gritty town anyway. The kids embrace that and play with a chip on their shoulder.”

McClimon had considered started a rugby club before, and was encouraged to do so by Brent Nelson, the head coach at Iowa Central. It wasn’t until junior Austin Lee and a few of his friends approached McClimon before the spring season, though, that the plan started to truly take shape.

“We all just wanted to find a new way to compete,” said Lee, an all-conference linebacker in football and state wrestling qualifier. “Rugby is kind of unheard of around here (in the prep ranks), so we thought it would be a cool experience to learn a whole new sport.

“The main thing that motivated me personally was how much I missed football (in the offseason) … rugby is similar enough that it helps fill the void.”

Nelson has helped turn the Tritons into an elite collegiate program in recent years. When he heard McClimon and some of the local students were on board, the Tritons were more than willing to lend a helping hand.

“Ever since we started our program, I thought it would be a good fit for Fort Dodge to have a high school (club) as well,” said Nelson, a Humboldt High School graduate. “I know some of the Iowa Youth Rugby Association administrators, and they wanted to expand the league. Fort Dodge seemed like a great place to do that. It didn’t have to be about Dodgers or Gaels — I just wanted to get more kids playing rugby.

“Tom has a good playing background, and coaches at the high school and middle school already (in other sports). He just seemed to be a natural fit to start up a program. I gave him a few contacts to get more information, and he and the remarkable young men have taken that and run with it.”

There are currently 15 players on the Fort Dodge roster. The team is not affiliated with Fort Dodge Senior High or the Fort Dodge Community School District; rugby is still not a sanctioned sport by the Iowa High School Athletic Association. McClimon did point out that there are nearly 500 students playing rugby for 30 different schools through the IYRA, though, and hopes “within the next five to 10 years” that may change.

Fort Dodge, which currently holds a 4-4 overall record, is in the “Varsity Class 2A Blue” division with Des Moines Roosevelt, Ankeny, West Des Moines Valley, West Des Moines Dowling and Des Moines Hoover. The Stags have defeated the Cedar Rapids Spartans, Urbandale, Dowling and Valley, with losses to Southeast Polk — the eight-time defending state champion — as well as Des Moines Roosevelt, Ankeny and Iowa City.

Sophomore Thomas Daniel leads the squad with five tries. Sophomores Sam Daniel and Tate Martinson have two tries each. Martinson also has Fort Dodge’s only conversion.

“The progress our kids have made has been impressive, especially given it’s happened in a very short period of time,” McClimon said. “Even for me … I learned quickly that playing and coaching rugby are two entirely different things. So I’m still new to all of this, too. But I’m very motivated by helping these kids see it through, that maybe this is something they can do all the way through the collegiate level and beyond someday.

“Brent and (ICCC assistant) Jake (Mizell) have been an incredible help, too.”

Nelson said the Stags “struggled with a lot of the basics” at first, but “the difference now is night and day.”

“I’ve had several Iowa Central players attend a few practices to mentor, and some of our boys have traveled as far as Des Moines to attend Friday night matches and show their support. It’s just in our nature to give back, and it really ties the city and the college together.

“I’ve seen their rugby IQ grow tremendously over the few weeks they’ve been a team. Fort Dodge kids are already tough-minded, and they have a relentless style of play. The rest of high school rugby better watch out. Come playoff time, Fort Dodge might be a very tough team to beat.”

Lee and his teammates also feel like the best is yet to come.

“I’ve learned so much from the sport already; it’s taught me to never let up no matter how tired I am, and I also believe it’s helped form me into a better leader,” Lee said. “I’m very proud to say that I’m a part of this team, and that we’ve been able to catch on and learn so quickly.”