When Fran Baker was in the Navy, he took up rugby.
“I played for the ship team on the U.S.S. George Washington,” the Peru native and 1988 La Salle-Peru graduate said. “Then I went to Illinois State and played for four years. I continued on with the Chicago Blaze out of Lemont and played there for another eight years.”
After playing for 16 years, Baker wanted to pass his love of the sport to Illinois Valley youth.
Baker finally got his chance this year.
“I’ve been wanting to start a youth program in the area for quite a while,” Baker said. “It finally came to where I got a chance to do so. We started getting kids together in October after youth football was over. Slowly, but surely, we got enough kids to get it started.
“I coached youth football last year and I had a couple of kids interested. I talked about my rugby experience. I started promoting it through Facebook and other social media. I got a couple here and a couple there. It was word of mouth. I went to the City of Peru to ask for permission to use Baker Lake as a practice field. Word kind of got out that way as well.”
Baker managed to round up 11 Illinois Valley athletes willing to try rugby, but 15 players are required for a team.
So the Illinois Valley players formed a co-op with Naperville, which is coached by fellow L-P alumnus Eric Lukosus. With eight Naperville players, there were enough to form the Illinois Valley Coal Miners.
The Coal Miners were made up of players in fifth and sixth grade.
“Everything had to be taught from scratch,” Baker said. “In fact, I had to teach myself how to be able to teach everything from scratch. After playing for 16 years, I had to remember these kids don’t understand the vocabulary and things I’m talking about. It was a learning process for all of us.”
But it didn’t take the players long to catch on.
“Actually they did (catch on quickly),” Baker said. “We did baby steps. We started with passing skills and basic rules. As we progressed, I taught them more. We did a couple camps in the fall basically working on passing skills and basic rules. In January and February, we did more camps at L-P where we did a little bit more advanced stuff.
“As the season advanced, we brought them along to a very high level.”
Such a high level, in fact, that the Coal Miners won the Division II state championship on Sunday.
After going 7-1 during the regular season, the No. 1-seeded Coal Miners avenged their only loss in the first game of the three-team state tournament with a 69-0 rout of Fox Valley.
After River Forest defeated Fox Valley in the next game, the Coal Miners claimed the title with a 20-5 victory over River Forest.
The players on the team from the Illinois Valley are Dimmick’s Robert Downey, Evan Downey, Evan Wallace and Jakob Turzcik, La Salle’s Andy Medina, Dominic and Bentley DiLuciano of Utica, Jacob and Payton Arthur from Oglesby and Noah Zermeno and Ethan Pyszka from Peru.
Players from Naperville include, Yousuf Peshawarwala, Oliver Calzaretta, Quinn Hannon, Ryan Keough, Derreck Miranda, Josh Thomas, Nicolas Wynn and Conner McKenna
Baker hopes the success of the inaugural season helps the Coal Miners land more players in the future.
“Winning is the best recruiting tool, so hopefully we can get some more attention and keep this thing rolling,” Baker said. “It’s definitely nice to bring home the state championship.”
The Coal Miners will have a camp from 5-7 p.m. July 22-26 at Baker Lake for players in grades 2-8.
Anyone interested in joining the team can contact Baker at (815) 993-0574, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kevin Chlum is the NewsTribune Sports Editor. He can be reached at 220-6939, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsEditor.