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Wednesday, 01 July 2015 14:41

Demon Elks one of best rugby teams in state

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John Olson of the Demon Elks picks up the ball with Quincy Perry, Rich Heideman and Ryan Gengler in support. Tristan Lind and Keaton VerHoeven, at left, are positioned for the next phase during a 33-7 win over Whitefish Bay. John Olson of the Demon Elks picks up the ball with Quincy Perry, Rich Heideman and Ryan Gengler in support. Tristan Lind and Keaton VerHoeven, at left, are positioned for the next phase during a 33-7 win over Whitefish Bay. Photos courtesy of Audrey Earle

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- They’ve not appeared on many people’s athletic radars across the Stateline area, but that anonymity won’t last much longer should they continue their recent string of success.

The Demon Elks rugby program finished first or second in the state from 2012 through 2014, and six of its athletes qualified for the 50-member Wisconsin Selects squad that competed in a national tournament in Denver over Father’s Day weekend.

“Our first couple of years we barely had enough guys to play and we didn’t win much,” said Jeff Gahart, one of the coaches who helped organize the Elkhorn-based team about 10 years ago. “But (our numbers) grew and we got a lot better. And the last four years we’ve enjoyed a lot of success.

“The sport has had kind of a hooligan reputation, but it’s not really that way,” Gahart added. “The kids love the game, and their parents have been all in. Our success is because we have a bunch of tough kids who play with a purpose.”

Tristin Lind of Burlington, who will be a senior this next fall, is just such a player. He was one of the six who made the trip to Colorado, a group that also featured Keenan Leahy, Jordan Barr and Carm Consolino of Elkhorn and Hunter Melby of Burlington.

Lind was the only Wisconsin participant named to the event’s all-tournament team.

“It was an amazing experience personally because we had to try out to make the Wisconsin team,” Lind said. “It was great for me and everybody else because we learned a lot of little things about the rules and how to play the game better. Just being there was good because we got to play against and watch a lot of great players, so it was a good environment.”

And it’s a classic example of how much the program has grown in a sport that is club-based in Wisconsin and thus not affiliated with the WIAA.

The group started with players from Elkhorn and grew to include guys from Burlington -- thus the name Demon Elks -- and most recently Delavan-Darien.

“It started locally with some of us older guys who played rugby and had sons,” Gahart said. “Then a guy from Burlington asked about his son, and he and a couple of his buddies joined. This year we had 11 Burlington players. Then a guy I’ve played with in Oconomowoc, his son was in high school in Delavan and started playing last year. And this season we had seven guys from Delavan.”

This form of the game is played with 15 competitors on the field at a time for each team. Most years the Walworth County team has field a roster of 22 or 23 players. But this past season the Demon Elks had enough kids that it offered U19 and U17 teams.

The Demon Elks play in the Badgerland Conference, which ranges from Sheboygan to Madison and includes teams in Milwaukee and all of southeastern Wisconsin.

Competition, which is all under the auspices of USA Rugby, is split in two divisions; teams with 30 or more players make up Division 1 and those with fewer are in Division 2. The playoffs consist of eight teams, four from the northern half of Wisconsin and four from the southern half.

The Demon Elks have competed in Division 2, where they won the state title in 2013 and finished second in 2012 and 2014, suffering their only losses during that three-year span in the championship matches.

Lind is looking to bring another title back to Walworth County in his final year, and he wants to parlay that into a collegiate rugby career.

“It was very nice to get the recognition … I played some eight-man and front row, but mostly I was a flanker,” he said of his all-tourney selection at the prestigious competition. “There were some scouts there, so hopefully that helped me to get looked at. I would like to earn a scholarship so I can play in college.”

But the three-sport participant must take things in stride. He was a second-team All-Southern Lakes Conference offensive tackle in football but hopes to concentrate his talents at defensive end or outside linebacker for the Demons this fall, which would be similar to his flanker role in rugby.

He also helped Burlington reach the team wrestling state tournament at 170 and 182 pounds the last two years, respectively. And he competed in the 200 and triple jump in track.

He said playing football and rugby have helped him in both sports.

“It’s nice having rugby in the spring because a lot of the battles (in rugby) help me become a much better tackler (in football) … you have to when you’re not wearing pads. It helps you make more safe tackles.”

The Demon Elks hit the field as soon as the snow melts and compete two or three times a week from mid-April through mid-May. They practice wherever they can find an open field but play home games at Elkhorn Area Middle School.

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