The Southeast Polk (Pleasant Hill, Iowa) rugby program has a record that would make even the most storied sports teams drop their jaws in awe.
Heading into 2019, the Rams were 99-2-3 and looking for their eighth straight state title.
They notched wins No. 100 and No. 101 on Friday night in season-opening matches against Fort Dodge (Iowa) and Roosevelt (Des Moines, Iowa).
Since the Rams’ inaugural season with the Iowa Youth Rugby Association in 2012, they’ve won the league each year. Not bad for a team that, according to eighth-year coach Brent Wheeler, had just two people show up at the club’s first meeting.
That’s when former player and current assistant coach Zach Warren came into play.
“(Zach) was bound and determined to make rugby at Southeast Polk work,” Wheeler said. “And he went out and did all the fundraising for the entire team himself, recruited all the players and was just relentless as far as getting me good players to teach.”
By the first practice, the team had doubled to four players. That number swelled to eight players by the first game — a win. At the end of that first season, Warren and his now 16 teammates were state champs.
Wheeler says that initial success was essential to the trajectory the program would take.
“It was a great advantage for me to have that success the first year because it then became something the kids wanted to do,” Wheeler said.
A slew of variables that have contributed to the Rams’ prosperity. One key is Southeast Polk’s exceptional wrestling program.
“We feed off that — wrestlers take to rugby like a duck to water,” Wheeler said. “The mentality of a wrestler and a rugby player go hand in hand.”
As good as the Rams have been, their success is not a sign of a watered down league. The number of teams in the IYRL has gradually increased over the last eight years. And the number of registered players has boomed in that time.
“Yes, we’re really dominant, but of the seven state titles we’ve won, we’ve never won a title game by more than two tries (the rugby equivalent of a touchdown),” Wheeler said. “It’s very competitive and there’s been a lot of luck involved. There’s a lot of really good coaches and really good teams in this league.”
Wheeler described the state’s youth rugby growth as steady, but slow. The ultimate goal for the league, which is currently considered a club, is to become a sanctioned sport in Iowa.
“The hardest part we have right now is finding coaches — guys that are willing to donate very large amounts of time to the sport — that’s the biggest thing holding us back,” Wheeler said.
This season, 29 teams are playing, which is the most there’s ever been in the IYRA. The goal is to get to 52 teams, that’s when rugby would be eligible to be sanctioned.
“A lot of what we’re doing right now is to stabilize the teams we have, become more professional as a league and to be seen as less of a club and more of a sport,” Wheeler said. “Obviously, sanctioning is our overall goal, we’re working very hard towards that, we need to get to that magic number of 52 teams.”