Danny Gates hasn't forgotten how quickly he fell in love with rugby when he began playing the sport as a freshman at Watterson High School.
The desire to stay involved is what kept the 2009 graduate going after the Eagles club team that he coached was forced to disband last year because it had only 13 players.
Now with more than 20 players, the Eagles have returned this spring, winning their first three games. Even though they draw from other schools, including Olentangy Liberty, all but four of their players attend Watterson.
"We only had 16 players at the beginning of the season, but now we're at 22," Gates said. "My returning players worked so hard (to recruit players). In my senior year in 2009, we combined with Worthington and were able to have two (teams).
"It's my favorite sport. I started playing my freshman year and, once you play it, you love it."
The Eagles opened with a 19-17 win over Eastside on March 15 and defeated Pickerington B 15-5 on March 22 and Marysville 15-7 on April 12. They play Friday, April 26, at Licking Valley before playing Westerville B on Tuesday, April 30, at Westerville Central.
The Eagles are in the Central Ohio League with Eastside, Licking Valley, Marysville, Mount Vernon, Pickerington, Tri-Village and Westerville. They also are in the Division II-Region III Columbus Conference with Eastside, Licking Valley, Marysville, Mount Vernon and the B teams from Pickerington and Westerville.
The Eagles were ranked fifth in the Division II state rankings released April 7, behind top-ranked Brunswick. Eastside was ranked sixth.
The Ohio Rugby Classic was canceled this spring, but central Ohio's programs competed April 21 in what Pickerington coach Ryan Gramlich called a "Columbus Play Day." The event consisted of 10 games and was held at Berliner Park.
According to Gates, the top players for the Eagles have been seniors Tim Silleck (scrum-half) and Ryan Hock (flanker) and juniors DeAndre Golden (fly-half) and Joe Hamlett (prop).
Three area teams playing in Division I
After winning 14 state championships in a 15-year span from 1997-2011, the Westerville Worms A team was a Division I state semifinalist last season.
Tri-Village, which draws most of its players from the Upper Arlington, Grandview and Hilliard school districts but also had players from Watterson and Liberty last spring, was the Division II state runner-up a year ago, losing to Indian Springs from Cincinnati 5-3 in the state final.
Last season marked the first state final appearance for Tri-Village since 2007, when it lost to Westerville 24-14 in the Division I title game.
Tri-Village and Pickerington A are competing in the Division I Lower-Southern Conference this season and Westerville A is in the Division I Upper Conference.
"(Reaching the state final) I think opened eyes in a lot of ways for kids who want to come out and try a new sport," seventh-year Tri-Village coach Tommy Fetters said. "We've got a lot of young guys and we have five guys coming back from last year."
In the state rankings released April 7, Westerville A was second behind Lakewood St. Edward, Pickerington A was seventh and Tri-Village was ninth.
St. Edward beat Cincinnati Moeller 10-7 in the Division I state final last season.
Top players for Tri-Village include senior Jared Millar (hooker) from Hilliard Davidson, seniors Walker Caldwell (lock), Ryne Frankenberry (flanker), Will McKenzie (wing) and Matt Young (scrum-half) from UA and senior Tyler Dixon (prop) from Jonathan Alder.
Tri-Village was 2-1 before competing in the Columbus Play Day.
"Watterson's got a team this year, so we lost some guys," Fetters said. "They bumped us up to Division I, so it's tougher competition, but (the players are) catching their stride."
Westerville A returned little experience from last season but was 5-2 before playing Cincinnati St. Xavier on April 19 and in the Columbus Play Day. The Worms lost to St. Edward 24-21 on April 13.
Top players for Westerville include juniors Adonis Davis (8-man) from Beechcroft, Ethan Frank (fly-half) and Amarcus Kelley (fullback/center) from Westerville South, Deone Lindsey (wing/center) from Columbus South and Ryan Wilson (flanker) from New Albany.
The Worms, who have been coached by John English since 1995, will compete in the Midwest Tournament on May 4 in Elkhart, Ind. The national tournament will be held May 16-18 in Elkhart.
The first round of the state tournament will be held May 18, followed by second-round games May 25. The state finals in Division I and II will be held June 1 at Ohio State.
"We're getting better every week," English said. "We're basically starting this year with an inexperienced team, and a lot of players on the B-side team are in their first years playing. We do have athletes."
Pickerington's A team was 2-1 and its B team was 1-2 before the Columbus Play Day.
There are 40 players in the Pickerington program, with 35 from Pickerington North, two from Pickerington Central, two from Canal Winchester and one who is home-schooled.
According to Gramlich, the program's top players include juniors Justin Sanders (fly-half), Dylan Weigel (center) and Frankie Wyrick (utility) from North. Among the other key contributors, according to Gramlich, are senior Gabe Lieb (flanker), junior Alex Reigle (flanker) and sophomore Liam Carothers (8-man), each of whom attends North.
"It's been an up-and-down season," said Gramlich, who has been with the program since 2004 and is in his fourth season as coach. "We've got a lot of good players and a lot of good athletes. We've got 40 on our roster, which is the highest we've ever had before. But when you get more guys, expectations rise."
Central Ohio has two girls programs
There are 11 girls programs in the state, including two in central Ohio in Marysville and Westerville.
The only other team in the Southern Ohio League is the Dayton-area club team. The Northeast Ohio League is comprised of Amherst, Cleveland St. Joseph Academy, Hudson, Lakewood, Mayfield, Medina, Medina Highland and Parma.
Marysville was ranked seventh in the state poll released April 7, behind top-ranked Lakewood.
Coach Melissa Kathmann is in her eighth season with the Westerville program, which draws from all three Westerville high schools and has had athletes from New Albany in past years. Last year, Westerville went undefeated in the regular season.
"We haven't seen significant growth in central Ohio, but northern Ohio has continued to expand," Kathmann said. "We're hoping it catches on down here."
According to Kathmann, among the top players for her team are senior McKenna Cimperman (scrum-half) from Westerville North, senior Linda Li (hooker) from Westerville South and junior Jessi Branscomb (prop) from Westerville North.
Marysville is coached by Rose Carnes, who has been involved in the sport since 1985.