With players like Ohio State-signee Pat Elflein and Ohio Dominican-recruit Luke Carothers, the Pickerington High School North football team had one of central Ohio's largest groups of linemen the last four years.

With players like Ohio State-signee Pat Elflein and Ohio Dominican-recruit Luke Carothers, the Pickerington High School North football team had one of central Ohio's largest groups of linemen the last four years.

Now imagine a player like Carothers, who is 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds, charging down the field with the ball in his hands – while not wearing pads that potentially could slow him down.

While scoring a winning touchdown is a dream that rarely comes true for players like Carothers in football, that dream can be realized in rugby.

A try in rugby can be scored by any player on the field and is like scoring a touchdown in football, with the major difference being that a try requires the ball to be touching the ground.

"It's really fast-paced, and big guys get to carry the ball," said Carothers, who plays for Pickerington's Marauder Rugby club team. "It's kind of the ultimate team sport. You can't really have a good game unless everyone has a good game."

The Marauders, who draw athletes from Canal Winchester and Groveport as well as both Pickerington North and Central, are among six boys clubs and two girls clubs in central Ohio.

The Westerville boys A-Side team competes in Division I with Pickerington. Westerville's B-Side team competes in Division II, Region III with Eastside, Licking Valley, Marysville and Tri-Village.

Westerville and Marysville also have girls club teams.

One of the biggest annual showcases in Ohio for the sport, the Ohio Rugby Classic, will be held Saturday, April 28, and Sunday, April 29, at Lou Berliner Park in Columbus. Each of central Ohio's clubs, except for the Westerville boys, will compete.

In its 19th year, the event is expected to have at least 50 teams in attendance, according to Jeff Phillips, one of its founding directors.

Phillips, who also is an assistant football coach at Pickerington North, fell in love with rugby after first picking it up in the early 1990s.

"One of the lines used when talking about rugby is that it's a hooligan's game played by gentlemen," Phillips said. "It's the whole aspect of you're going to play hard and it's a contact sport, but after the game you get up and shake hands and you respect the fact that you went through this battle together."

By comparison

According to usarugby.org, Ohio is one of 28 states that will have both boys and girls state championships this spring. Another eight states will have a boys state tournament, and New Hampshire and Maine will combine for a tournament.

Participation in rugby grew by more than 50 percent from 2008-11 among individuals 6 and older, according to a report by sportsbusinessdaily.com.

In Ohio in boys rugby, there are nine teams competing in Division I and 28 spread among four Division II regions. There are 12 girls programs.
The Divisions I and II boys state finals will be held June 2 at Mifflin, while the girls state final is slated for May 27 at a site to be announced.

No team in Ohio has had a more storied past than the Westerville Worms.

Its A-Side team has won state championships in 14 of the past 15 seasons and twice was the national runner-up. The only time since 1997 that the Worms didn't win state was in 2010, when they had a scheduling conflict involving the Midwest tournament.

The club was started in 1995 by John English, a former Ohio State rugby player, and current assistant Pat Bowling. The Worms have 10 other assistant coaches as well.

Students from all three Westerville high schools as well as from Beechcroft, Big Walnut, DeSales and New Albany are in the program.

Westerville's A-Side team won 12 of its first 13 games and was ranked ninth in the nation in mid-April by rugbymagazine.com.

Although Westerville has a junior program for players in grades six through eight, English estimates about half of his players every year are new to the sport.

One of those who is playing for the first time this spring is Westerville Central senior Cody Kondas, who will play football for Lehigh.

"We've got probably the best coaching staff in the nation," Kondas said. "I'm still learning things, but it's like playing football without pads. It's pretty much an extra four months of tackling practice."

Most of central Ohio's other rugby teams, including the Pickerington boys, Marysville boys and girls teams and Westerville girls, all have been around for a decade or longer.

Watterson did not have enough players to field a team this spring after having a club since the early 1990s.

Tri-Village has picked up three former Watterson players and also has athletes from Hilliard Davidson, Olentangy Liberty and Upper Arlington.

Licking Valley put together a sevens team in 2011 and has a rugby 15 team this spring for the first time.

Some of the most significant growth in the state has come in northeast Ohio, where there are nine girls teams and 21 boys clubs.

"(Rugby growth has) actually gone through a lot of stages and cycles," said Ryan Gramlich, who has been Pickerington's coach the last three years and has been involved in the sport for about a decade. "It's been huge in Cleveland. In Columbus, we actually just subtracted (Watterson), but then we added (Pickerington's) B-Side team and Licking Valley. We're growing, but the stability isn't there yet."

Growing the sport

According to Watterson senior Chris Seguin, who plays for Tri-Village, misconceptions about injuries might be one of the things holding back the sport.

Some players wear scrum caps, a form of headgear used to protect the ears.

Otherwise, athletes use mouthpieces but don't wear pads.

"People look at it as a meathead sport, but it's so involved," Seguin said. "It's fun to watch. A lot of football players don't like it because of injuries, but if you play it right, it's not that dangerous. I haven't heard of too many freak injuries, and once you start playing it, you fall in love with it."

"You get bumped up and bruised a lot, but there aren't serious injuries," said Big Walnut senior Ben Williams, who plays for the Worms A-Side team. "The torn muscles and broken legs you might see come from inexperience and freak accidents. In football, you've got hard objects hitting you."

English, who said he remembers fewer than 10 anterior cruciate ligament injuries in the 17 years he's been coaching the Worms, also dispels the idea that the cost of rugby has hindered its progress.

Because of the lack of necessary equipment, most of the funds needed to play for Westerville, according to English, have to do with the travel costs.

The Worms' A-Side team already has traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., Murfeesboro, Tenn., and Cleveland this spring, and trips to Indiana and Utah are on the coming schedule.

"I'd say that it costs probably $600 or $700 per player, but we do all kinds of fundraisers," English said.

Many throughout the rugby community believe the debut of rugby sevens as an Olympic sport in summer 2016 should help its long-term future.

The traditional game, also known as Rugby Union, features 15 players per side and has two 40-minute halves.

The game of sevens features seven players per side with two halves of seven minutes and a one-minute halftime.

The United States won gold the last time rugby was played in the Olympics in 1924.

The Ohio Rugby Classic will include teams from Canada, where the sport has been growing steadily, particularly among girls, according to Phillips.

Along with a team from Dayton, the girls teams from Marysville and Westerville are the only ones in the state not from northeast Ohio.

Marysville's girls team has 16 players this spring.

"The best thing is that anybody can learn to play rugby and it welcomes everyone," said Marysville coach Rose Carnes, who has been involved with the sport since 1985. "The rugby sevens that is going to be in the Olympics is so much faster and I think it's going to be outstanding."