Ypsi Rugby Club offers infectious fun and accessible community

The club, which was founded in 2018, is seeking to recruit more players and considering launching a community clubhouse that caters to a broad range of sports.
The members of the Ypsilanti Rugby Club share a love of their sport, but their paths to getting involved with it have been very different. Retired player and current referee Drew Crosby says most people don't start playing rugby until later in life – unlike many other sports, which children are exposed to in grade school.

"One of my coaches in college always said that the first time an American would see a rugby game is when they're in it," Crosby says. "Americans don't really pay attention to the world of rugby."

Denzel Moten, head coach and president of the club, played football in high school but decided to give rugby a try in college. 

"There's this common misconception that Black people don't play rugby, but there are a lot of different multi-cultural teams," he says. That includes rugby teams at historically Black colleges and universities.

On the other hand, Crosby says he was a marching band kid, not an athlete, in high school. But when he saw a college rugby team practicing and noticed how many different body types were represented, he thought it looked "accessible" and decided to pursue it in college.
Members of the Ypsilanti Rugby Club men's team.
Meanwhile, Mo Kelly, president of the Ypsi Rugby Club's women's team, says she saw a flyer for the club on the University of Michigan campus.

"The flyers said, 'Want to learn how to tackle?' and I was like, 'Heck yeah!'" Kelly says. 

Ypsi Rugby Club men's team captain Tim McCotter says he and other rugby players tend to enjoy contact sports and "have a little bit of courage and maybe a little bit of insanity."

"Generally, when you come out and play a game with any team, you know after the first hit," McCotter says. "Either you love it, or it's not for you."

Ypsi Rugby Club roots

The Ypsi Rugby Club grew out of Eastern Michigan University's student rugby team. Moten was a founding member of the university team that launched around 2012, but then he graduated and moved on from rugby as he entered the workforce. The university's team lost membership and eventually disbanded. 

Former team members discussed continuing to play as a city recreational league instead, though. When Crosby started recruiting for a recreational rugby league in Ypsilanti in 2018, though, he asked Moten to get involved.

Crosby says the club's membership has waxed and waned during that time, taking a hard hit from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

"We got up to about 25 members in 2019, which is great," Crosby says. "Once you start getting into the 20-player range, you can play against each other, and you have enough people to run big drills."

The Midwest Rugby Union, the sport's official local governing body, scheduled no games in 2020, and team practices were much reduced. Since then, the Ypsi Rugby Club has been building its membership up from a low of seven members to about 20 men. A women's team started practicing in February and has about a dozen members now.
Members of the Ypsilanti Rugby Club women's team.
Crosby says recruiting can go slowly in part because the commitment required is closer to that associated with a minor league baseball team than a rec basketball team. At about 10 hours of practices and games per week during rugby season, he says, "it's like a part-time job."

Kelly says recruiting women players has been challenging. For one thing, girls tend not to have much experience with contact sports while growing up.

"Adult women are not expected to continue on with sports after college," she says. "Then some are dealing with motherhood. They're like, 'If I'm about to start a family, I can't do a full-contact sport.'"

Kelly says the women's team currently has a "solid" number of players, but still needs more.

"I've been focused on trying to be social in the Ypsilanti area and talking to strangers about this crazy sport called rugby," she says.

Ypsi Athletic Club and other plans

The club currently practices either at Frog Island or Parkridge Park in Ypsilanti, but Moten says they'd like to have a dedicated field space sometime within the next five years. He says he'd also like to get more funding and become a "known presence in the community." That might include a physical clubhouse that is open to the community at large, possibly offering workshops or a community workout space.

Team members recently discussed branching out and creating the Ypsi Athletic Club, a way to involve more community members and keep club members in shape during the off-season. 
An Ypsilanti Rugby Club Men's and Women's teams practice.
"The main sport we will always have is rugby, but we could branch out and do basketball or indoor soccer," Moten says. "It's about staying in shape, being social, and meeting new people."

Both Kelly and Moten say that anyone is welcome to come to a club event and try the sport. They'll quickly determine if they fall into the "love it" or "hate it" category, Kelly says. But Moten warns that the game can be addictive.

"Once you're there, you're hooked. Once you score, you're done for," Moten says.

Those interested in connecting with the Ypsi Rugby Club can follow the men's team on Instagram or Facebook, or the women's team on Instagram.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.