Black rugby team keeps pushing against all odds

ByAndrea Watson

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Imagine an all Black rugby team overcoming the odds in the inner city. It sounds like a movie, and maybe it will turn into one in the near future, but for now, it’s simply real life for 21 KIPP Ascend boys.

The 7th and 8th graders struggle with finding a practice location weekly since their school, 1616 S. Avers Ave., on the Southside has no field. They have raised money for uniforms and gear because the school didn’t have enough in its budget. Despite all of that, the recently formed team, which came together last year, has made a name for itself in the Rugby arena.

The full-contact sport requires plenty of stamina from its players who wear close to nothing in terms of protective gear. A full team consists of 15 and they run with an oval shaped ball. Players take on offense and defense positions. Sounds a little like football? Well that’s because the sport evolved from it.

Andy Schmitz fills two roles. He’s both assistant principal and coach. The Teach for America alumnus began teaching at the school in 2006. He had played rugby throughout high school and college and decided that he wanted to expose the students to the European sport.

Schmitz said that almost all of the students at KIPP get free or reduced lunch. The sport was foreign to all of them because it’s not as popular as football and basketball, but the introduction to rugby has been beneficial for all, said the coach.

“I think what makes rugby unique is it really is a true team sport in the sense that you have 15 players on each side and you really have to work together, you have to cooperate, you have to communicate and so I do think that is what this sport has done for a lot of our boys, it has really helped them learn the tools to work together as a team,” he said.

The students weren’t the only ones who were unfamiliar with it though. Parents like Derrick Shavers were just as confused.

“Being a sports fan I had heard of it, but knew nothing of the rules, didn’t know how it was played,” said the father of Demond Shavers, one of the team captains.

Shavers coaches youth football and said he wanted to be hands-on with Demond so he did his research. “I went online, looked on YouTube and studied videos to get the background,” he said.

Demond, who is in 8th grade, has an older brother who played on the team last year before he graduated.

The 13-year-old said Schmitz passed out flyers about starting the team, which piqued the interest of he and his friends.

“Once he told me about it, I went home and looked it up and saw it was almost like football,” he said.

Since KIPP doesn’t have a football field, the boys can’t play on school grounds unless the gym is available. They share it with the basketball team so that complicates things. On most days, they drop their bags in the coach’s car and jog to a park about seven blocks away. No one bothers them there.

With the school being the only Chicago public elementary school with a rugby team, they can only play against the suburban schools. They’ve traveled to places like Naperville, Arlington Heights and Palatine to compete.

Shavers admitted that both of his sons have experienced the issues that sometimes come with an all Black team playing against a predominantly white team, but he uses that opportunity to teach them to rise above it.

“I prepare them for it,” he said by telling them they might experience it. “If they see it, they need to react a certain way, not negatively,” he said. When the young athletes had that first encounter they didn’t let it discourage them, said Shavers, who didn’t want to elaborate because he wants to focus more on the positive.

Some of the positive being the fundraising efforts. Just a couple of weeks ago, parents from the other team donated to help the boys.

When young Shavers graduates, he’ll be attending a high school that doesn’t offer rugby, but his father said that doesn’t mean he’s putting the sport behind him. Scouts have already approached him saying they want his son to compete on a state team that competes nationally.

The player is one of the smallest on the team, said Shavers, but he said his son was name MVP and has a lot of determination.

“I kind of worry about him because he’s so small, but he has lot of heart and he knows what he’s doing,” said Shavers.

The team competed in the playoffs Sunday, winning their first game against Arlington, 15-12. The final game, 20-5 against Palatine, was the one team they lost to earlier in the season. They currently hold a 4-1 record.