THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Jaime Barlow raced down the sideline with a pack of tacklers in pursuit. Barlow felt the players nearing him, shifted the oblong ball in his hands and hucked it sideways to a teammate and out of harm's way.
The pass was just in time, as the pursuers pulled the back down to the grass. Barlow lifted himself off the turf at Ohio State's Beekman Park and chased after the play.
It may sound like more football at Ohio State, but Barlow was playing high-school rugby with the Hilliard Bearcats, and rugby sevens for that matter, unavailable to high-schoolers in Ohio until just recently.
Six teams from central Ohio converged on Beekman Park yesterday to conclude the first high-school rugby sevens tournament in the state.
"All the college guys are saying how much they wanted (rugby sevens) when they were in high school," said Barlow, a recent convert to rugby who will soon be a senior at Upper Arlington. "It's definitely fast paced."
The local tournament is part of a broad rugby sevens campaign from Rugby Ohio, a nonprofit organization that wants to turn more young people in the state on to the sport.
"We're way behind the world in rugby," said Ron Bowers, who serves as development director for the group and also coaches Ohio State's sevens team.
That fact is becoming all the more relevant, Bowers said, because soon the United States will compete on the biggest stage. Rugby sevens joins the list of sports at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
In October 2009, the International Olympic Committee approved the addition of rugby sevens and golf to the Olympics.
"We have to get a jump on it now if we want to be competitive," Bowers said. "And who knows, some of these kids playing in this high-school sevens tournament might be playing in the Olympics someday."
The tournament at OSU, won by the Pickerington, which beat Hilliard 220, was the final leg of high-school rugby sevens play that made stops in Lancaster, Worthington and Licking Valley during June.
Along with helping organize the tournament, Bowers also selected an all-star squad from participants to travel to Iowa next month for an Olympic training camp. The athletes will get more direction on their games under United States national team sevens coach Al Caravelli.
But Bowers and Rugby Ohio are aiming to plant rugby roots even younger than in the high schoolers.
The coach has bounced around the state in the past year talking with physical education departments and teachers at elementary schools and hosting summer camps.
"The last few years (rugby sevens) has been exploding, more teams popping up, more interest," Bowers said during a break from a camp with middle school-aged rugby players. "I get emails from parents from all over the state asking about opportunities for their kids to play rugby."
Rugby has had a presence in Ohio high schools for more than a decade, but only in club format with traditional 15-player teams. A few private schools have varsity programs.
Westerville has maintained a full-sized team since 1995, drawing players from multiple area schools to form a community team, said its coach, John English.
The recent additions of a rugby sevens program under his guidance is a move in a populous direction.
"Sevens is definitely booming, and the closer we get to the (2016) Olympics the more we'll see," English said.
When it comes to players on English's 15-man Westerville team, winners of the 2011 Ohio state championship, the squad's 14th title, the sevens game can make them even better.
"I like our guys playing sevens," English said of the 12 who play on both teams. "The stuff we do on the field (for sevens) definitely translates over. The open-field techniques alone make it worth it."
One Pickerington player agreed. Luke Carothers, going into his senior year at Pickerington North where he also plays offensive line for the school's football team, said the fast game is a lot more tiring for bigger guys like him. But that just means they're in better shape when 15-man season comes around.
"It builds on your 15s," said Carothers, a four-year rugby player, now in his first summer playing sevens. "If you can play defense with seven guys, you can definitely play defense with 15."