With all the sports that Ballard athletes can be involved in during the spring season — soccer, golf, tennis, track, trapshooting — it might be hard to believe that a few Ballard boys are involved in yet one more kind of competition.


Rugby.


The popular game that we often think of as being played “down under” is actually a big deal right here in central Iowa.


Ballard junior Ben Lee started playing mid-way through last year’s season, which runs March through May. “I was a sophomore and I instantly fell in love with the game,” Lee said.


Lee and two other Ballard students, Josh DeTar and Josh Borg, are part of the Boone High School varsity rugby team, which plays in the Iowa Youth Rugby Association (IAYRA). Coach of the team, Anthony Frein, said neither Boone nor Ballard can support varsity and junior varsity teams on their own, so combining into one team under the Boone High name works well. He said three other Ballard boys — Nathan Leonard, Blake Hughes and Jacob Fagan — are on the JV team.


“Over the years, we’ve had players from a couple different towns join. We’ve had a few from Ames, one from Madrid and one from Gilbert,” said Frein, 24, who is employed as a corporate buyer for Midwest Wheel Companies in Des Moines. “We also have pulled in kids who live in the area who are home-schooled, giving them a chance to be a part of a high school team.”


Frein shared the story of how he became involved in coaching rugby. “Back in 2012, when I was still at Iowa State and playing there, I volunteered to do rugby clinics in PE classes across the state. While at Boone High, the kids loved it and one young man decided he wanted a team. So I left my previous position at Dowling Catholic to take over the head coaching job at Boone High.” Now, Frein said, that young man who wanted to start the team — Robert Clemons — is an assistant coach on his staff. Clemons is also one of the stars of rugby for the Iowa State Cyclones, he added.


When the IAYRA started in 2010, Frein was one of the original Dowling Catholic players, and after high school he played rugby for Iowa State, where he was a team captain.


He believes rugby is a great game for so many types of kids, “from the all-state linebacker to the kid who’s never played a sport before.”


“Rugby is a game for everyone … We have a very welcoming culture that lets kids be themselves. It’s very easy to get hooked on something when you can compete for a state title, but also grow as a person and athlete along the way,” Frein said.


One of the biggest misconceptions about the game of rugby is that it’s dangerous to play. “Any sport is dangerous if not properly taught,” he said.


Statistically, rugby is one of the safest sports, Frein points out. “One of the biggest things we pride ourselves on at Boone is that our staff is current on the latest safety procedures and is educated on concussions, etc. A lot of times, when injuries happen, it’s because the player wasn’t coached properly or tried to tackle in an unsafe way.”


The word tackle makes people think of football, and Frein said American football was actually developed from rugby, which is why the score in football is called a touchdown. “Because in rugby, when you score, you have to touch the ball down in the endzone. There are obviously similarities between the two (rugby and football), but rugby is more of a cross between soccer and basketball in my eyes, because it’s a lot less about huge collisions like football is, and more about working as a team, such as in basketball and soccer,” he said.


Lee enjoys the team aspect. “I enjoy the fast pace and intensity of the game, how everyone gets to handle the ball, the contact and how you can have individual moments throughout a game, but it’s ultimately because of what your team did to help you get to that point that you were able to do what you did,” Lee said. “Whether that be a 60-yard break away or a huge stop, two yards from your opponent’s scoring, it is because of the six other men on the field helping you.”


In addition to the players from his own school, Lee, a team captain this year, said he’s been privileged to play with some incredible athletes from other communities. All of them, he said, put away school rivalries to play rugby as a group of brothers, with full respect for one another.


“This year, we have so many athletes who bring a variety of strengths to the field and it’s helpful for us to have our coaches fill positions with kids capable of playing each spot,” Lee said. He also likes that less-experienced team members are getting to play, so they can learn and carry the team forward in future years.


Rugby has become a huge part of Lee’s life, he said, and he couldn’t ask for a better experience or better coaches. “I could easily talk about each one of the coaches and how they’ve sacrificed for the team at the most inconvenient times possible …” He said it also helps that the solid coaching staff has past high school and college players, current college players and people who knew little to nothing about the sport previously, but wanted to help the team both on the field and in everyday life. “I know I can count on all of my coaches to pick up the phone any time I need help,” Lee said.


Frein, who is joined on the coaching staff by Clemons, Dallis Hanson, Darrick Murphy and Shelbie Elsberry, said it’s the “kids” that make coaching enjoyable. “Just being able to take a kid when they are a typical teenage boy and build a relationship with them and watch them grow up. I tell my teams before the season that I care more about what they do after graduation than before, and I mean that.” Frein said he loves getting emails like the one he got recently from a former team captain, Brigham Campbell, who’s on a two-year mission in Zimbabwe and he’s teaching kids there to play rugby.


For those interested in becoming part of the Boone High rugby team, Frein encourages them to reach out to himself or a player. Frein can be contacted at: Anthonyffrein@gmail.com.


Sidebar:


More about Boone High Rugby and the Iowa Youth Rugby Association…


• The IAYRA is unique in that it is a compilation of various single school teams from all across the state


• Athletes on the Boone High team put in lots of work. They practice Monday through Thursday for two hours/day, and have games every Friday.


• Games are played at high schools around the Des Moines metro area. Games have two seven-minute halves. It’s not uncommon for seven to 10 teams to play at one venue on a Friday evening.


• There are two different styles of rugby — traditional, with 15 players from both teams and Olympic, with seven players from both teams. The IAYRA plays Olympic style.


• Girls’ high school rugby is played in the fall. Girls who are interested may reach out to Anthony Frein at Anthonyffrein@gmail.com.


• Those out of high school who are interested in playing rugby will find several local men’s rugby clubs, like Des Moines, that they can play on.