The past two summers, Brendan Foley and his teammates on the Watterson High School boys volleyball team received messages from coach Ryan Thompson encouraging them to go to Flannagan's Dublin to compete in beach volleyball events.
The urgings provided more than just accountability.
"We learned to love the game through him," Foley said.
Fostering a desire to play was among the first steps in getting the program back on solid ground after enduring back-to-back three-win seasons in 2015 and '16.
This spring, the Eagles' rebuild hit a new plateau, as they ended an 11-match losing streak against St. Charles by beating the defending state champion Cardinals 25-21, 25-21, 14-25, 20-25, 15-10 in the Division II East Region final May 24 at Westerville Central. St. Charles was ranked first in the final state poll.
Eighth-ranked Watterson followed with a 25-18, 22-25, 25-15, 25-23 win over third-ranked Kettering Alter in a state semifinal June 1 at Capital. The Eagles had lost to Alter 25-17, 25-17 on March 30.
Watterson's postseason run ended with a 25-18, 25-17, 25-21 loss to sixth-ranked Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit in the state final June 2 at Capital to finish 17-10.
It marked the Eagles' first state tournament appearance since 2014 when they were state runners-up to Alter. The only other time they reached the state final was in 2002, when they lost to Centerville.
Thompson, a 2006 St. Charles graduate who had coached at the grade-school level, put together a coaching staff of young men who are passionate about a sport that he believes central Ohio is a hotbed for at the recreational level.
The staff includes junior varsity coach Mark Posey and varsity assistants Andrew Tom and Keith Kresge.
Thompson, originally from Clintonville, grew up not far from Watterson and hopes to eventually guide the Eagles to similar success as the area's top Division I program, Hilliard Darby, which won state titles in 2013 and 2015 and has advanced to state 14 consecutive seasons.
A middle hitter for St. Charles, he helped the Cardinals reach a Division I regional final during his junior season.
"Our coaching staff is four lifelong volleyball fanatics and that's definitely a key to everything, four guys super passionate who are playing all year-round," Thompson said. "It's fun to be part of a winning team, especially when it's that good, that competitive and on that much of a run (like Darby). That's what we want to do. Why wouldn't you want to play Watterson volleyball? We win, and it's two years in a row (that) it's the last spring sport (at the school competing)."
Watterson went 8-14 in Thompson's first season in 2017, but more than doubled that win total last season when it finished 15-7.
The Eagles are losing nine seniors, including Foley, Jack Brinkman (outside hitter), Ethan Burchard (middle hitter) and Jared Sommer (opposite/outside hitter).
Brinkman was named first-team all-region and second-team all-state, Foley was second-team all-region and Burchard and Sommer both were honorable mention all-region.
Seniors Rob Agan (middle hitter) and Jake Page (outside hitter/right-side hitter) also were key players the last two seasons.
"We played with more intensity than we've ever played with before," Agan said. "We played as a family. We're no longer a team, we're a family now. I was here freshman year and it was bad. We graduated a bunch of seniors my freshman year and we've got a bunch of guys here that love the sport. We just became closer and closer as a team. We all worked very hard at this to come to where we are now."
Among the expected returnees is sophomore setter Jake Maziarz, who was first-team all-region and honorable mention all-state.
"It's been a super-fast rebuild, but having the same set of kids three years on the varsity team let us kind of get them up to speed and roll them out there to the wolves as fast as possible," Thompson said. "Ball control has probably been our No. 1 improvement. We've been able to keep the ball in system so that we can make smart offensive choices. A lot of times last year, we got caught off guard and had to just rely on pure hustle and a little bit of luck at times. This year, we really control the passes well."