I Am Ohio Rugby

Get to know the movers, shakers and just interesting people that gives rugby in Ohio the eclectic personality and charm everyone knows and loves. Though some players might move out of our borders, they are still Ohio Rugby.

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Jamal Bell Headed to Davenport: I Am Ohio Rugby

Bell, like many players came to the Jr. Celtics as a football and track convert. After discussing taking on a new sport with his friend Brandon Keriko, who introduced him to rugby initially, Bell made the leap and joined the Jr. Celtics. The similarities between the rugby and his previous sports helped make the conversion an easier process.

"How it is similar to football which attracted me to [rugby]," Bell said. "Football taught me toughness for the sport, and track helped me with my speed."

Bell's years with Toledo were productive ones. Working alongside his teammates, Bell was a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the ball. In 2015, the Jr. Celtics went 4-0 in league play and had an overall record of 6-3-1. Bell contributed 35 points to his team's success during that season. He was the second-highest contributor on the team and in the league that year. Bell also landed in the second spot in the league for try scorers. In honor of his achievements, Bell was as a Second Team  All State player.

After his high school career ended, Bell focused his sights on college. This was a decision Bell didn't take lightly. After discussing the options with his coaches, friends and family, he decided to pursue Davenport University.

"I had to find a school with my major and the sport I love," Bell said. "My friend Casino Stacker told me about Davenport. I had to pursue them with the help of Coach Carr. Davenport is my top choice because of Coach Wood and the great program they have. The thing that appeals the most to me is  Coach Wood himself. If you have a great coach, he can turn you into a great player and man."

Though next year's schedule for Davenport has not been set yet, Bell will face some stiff competition on the field next fall. In the past, the Panthers have faced teams like Bowling Green State University, Life and Lindenwood in the D1A league.

Now that there are options for professional rugby, Bell would like to pursue a contract in the future; but his immediate goal is to put his all into playing and studying in college.

Garrett Fisher, Hannah Roodhouse and Denison Women's Rugby: I Am Ohio Rugby

The Denison Women's Rugby Club started in the late 80s. With roots going back almost 30 years, the club began to gain a higher level of success in recent years. According to the team's Web site, was ranked no. four in Division II and rocketed up to no. one the next year. That success continued through the team's most recent season to make the Denison women a force in the National Small College Rugby Organization.

"Our team has qualified for the National Tournament every year since 2013," said Captain Hannah Roodhouse. "Previously, we have placed eighth in the Division II National Tournament. Our team was been All-Ohio Champions for four years."

The move up to the NSCRO came at the behest of the university. The move would pit the Dension women against a new crop of Division I clubs. The Denison women took the fight to the new competition, and to say that the campaign was successful would be an understatement.

"The season went well," he said "We won the NSCRO Ohio League, outscoring our opponents 359-0. However, the brightest spot is that 16 of our top 20 were freshmen and sophomores this year and we advanced to the Elite Eight."

"Our record was 7-0," Roodhouse said. "We, then, defeated Tiffin and Findlay to qualify us for the National Tournament. We beat Grove City College and lost to Colgate University. The highlight of the season, for me, was probably our game against Findlay. This game was the last step in qualifying for Nationals. It was a home game, and our pitch was crowded with fans. The first half, our team seemed nervous and we were making mistakes that we had not made in weeks. Then we had a breakthrough and we made two amazing tries."

Denison had a strong season, without a doubt, but the team met its match twice during the season. Fisher's ladies lost a close four-point decision against Indiana University, who finished in the Final Four the previous year, and then there was the team's loss to Colgate in the Elite Eight. Losing is never fun but two imperfections on the first season in a higher division is nothing to sneeze at. At the end of the season, Denison finished ranked no. six in the Women's NSCRO.

The young women at Denison achieved the success for the 2015 season with a mixture of simplicity and aggression. According to Roodhouse, every practice begins with drills that reinforce the essential skills every rugby player needs, and that preparation ingrains a mentality in the players that results in a high-impact style of play.

"We play, and pride ourselves on doing, the basics perfectly and play very aggressively," Fisher said. "We call them the Denison Principles, which are: Run Hard, Ruck Hard, Tackle Hard. We incorporate the principles into a wide-open pattern with pods running off the backline in attack."

When considering the talent among the ranks of the Denison women, last year's success should come as no surprise. According to Fisher, many of his women are Collegiate Ohio All-Stars. On top of that good crop of women, players like Kate Kloster and Autumn Stiles have raised the level of the club. Kolster was a 2012 Collegiate All-American and a former U-23 All-Midwest player, while Stiles attended the 2013 All-American camp and toured Wales with the All-Midwest side. Other graduates have gone on to play for teams like the Cincinnati Kelts, Scioto Valley Women's Rugby Football Club and North Shore Women's Rugby Club.

Denison's roster is loaded with talent that employs a style that produces positive results on the field. Talent and tactics can only take a team so far, though. The team keeps its members close and build in chemistry with every session together.

"After every practice we all head to the dining halls to eat dinner together before dispersing to our nightly commitments," Roodhouse said. "This time off the pitch allows us to get to know each other and be there for each other."

"The team is an extremely close group," Fisher said. "The past four years the team has rallied around and the motto 15as1. It was first instituted with the 2012 team, which was led by an extremely close group of ten seniors. It has become the rallying cry of Denison Women's Rugby."

This tight-knit atmosphere has had a trickle-down effect over the years. Older players bring in new blood and set the standard for the younger players to follow. The result of the old mentoring the young has created an environment of inclusiveness that fosters a diverse, family feel. According to Roodhouse, Fisher and Coach Nic Lovett provide additional leadership and guidance to all the players when needed.

Looking ahead, the Denison women intend to remain competitive. When winter is over, the ladies will migrate south to compete in the Savannah Shamrocks' annual tournament, followed by another competition put on by Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. On top of these tournaments, the team will be training up its young players and hosting a number of teams in a series of friendly home matches. In the future, the team plans to expand into the sevens scene. At the moment, the focus is on continuing to conquer the 15s scene.

"Some long term goals for the team include making it to the final four of NSCRO," Roodhouse said. "I hope that this season the team will focus on improving overall rugby skills, fitness, and knowledge of the game. I believe all of these things will elevate the level of Denison Women's Rugby for years to come."

"Our long-term goals are to continue to improve this club," Fisher said. "We already feel we are the best women's program in the state, with how long we have been successful. If we continue to improve and better ourselves as players and people, then only great things can happen."

James Haughn, Alexis Morrison and UF Women's Rugby: I Am Ohio Rugby

The state of Ohio is home to a number of strong rugby programs. From youth to senior, between the various teams for men and women, teams throughout the Buckeye State have achieved success at just about every level of the sport.The University of Findlay Women's Rugby team has quietly been a force on the small college circuit, and that success has come within a few years of the team's initial inception.
UFWRFC Head Coach James Haughn 

The team at University of Findlay was founded in the Fall of 2011 as the passion project of two ambitious young women, Megan Kingrey and Erika Dewitt. From there, the club formed and solidified. From the outset, getting the club up and running, and then ensuring it kept progressing, was a labor of love and a grassroots, group effort. The small group persevered through the early lean years and the club, along with its reputation, started to grow.

"We all helped it bloom into the team it is now today," said  Senior Alexis Morrison, who is the team's current Captain. "Back between 2011 and 2012, it was really hard for us to even get enough girls to become interested and stay interested in rugby. Sometimes we would only have 13 girls on the field during a 15s game. Surprisingly, we still had success; and after winning repeatedly we started making a name for ourselves on campus and throughout the state, including neighboring states."

Though the team has had success since those early years, obtaining and retaining numbers continue to be major points of focus for the club.

"The biggest struggle for us, easily, is getting consistent player numbers to training sessions," said James Haughn, head coach at Findlay. "[This] makes it hard for us to train consistently as a whole team. Our members are all students and they balance academic, family, jobs and social commitments along with rugby; and it's hard sometimes to get a whole team to a training session."

In the beginning, the club had to prove itself - to prospective players, to opponents and to the university administration. The team is featured prominently on the university's Web site as one of the featured Club Sports being offered. According to Morrison, it took three years of work to get to the point where the administration would even put the club on the list shown to prospective students. The lack of recognition from the higher-ups also made life difficult for the players when it came to operating logistics, like getting the leftover practice times and spaces.

Fortunately for the club, with results came recognition and a better, more equitable relationship with the administration developed; and the team has worked equally hard to maintain that positive accord with the university.

"We really don't have problems with school administration," Haughn said. "We work hard to maintain a good relationship with the University of Findlay and we stay in contact with the personnel at the school who oversee Club Sports."

Since the inaugural season, the club has grown from an unrecognized team that could scarcely field a full side to a dominant force in the Northwest Bracket of the Central Region in the National Small College Rugby Organization.

"I have personally seen this team grown from the ground up into champions," Morrison said. "Before last year, the team always made it to the state playoff game but always lost in the state game to move onto regionals."

"[The team] has made the NSCRO Small College State Playoffs both years I've coached," Haughn said. He came on as coach in 2011. "In the Fall of 2014 we won Ohio NSCRO and went on to the national playoffs. At the end of Fall 2014, we were ranked tenth in the nation for NSCRO small college women's rugby."

After the 2015 fall season wrapped, the team won all the league games in Ohio and finished undefeated. Unfortunately for them, in-state competitors, Denison, got the win at playoffs and ended the Findlay women's season. Denison now has the no. ten spot in the national rankings. According to Morrison, the commitment to the team from new and returning players, along with the addition of Coach Haughn, is the main reason for the team's recent run of big success.

While this kind of success is rare in a club, the Findlay women aren't anything fancy on the field. According to Haughn, his players execute a very "corn-fed, nuts-and-bolts, no-frills" style of play. The ladies connect phases and patiently possess the ball, striking out at the goal line when opportunities present themselves. While the team's strategy isn't revolutionary, the way Haughn has his players approach the sport is something that enables every lady that steps on the field to have a stab at success.

"I make it a point - and I repeat this to the members often - to try to teach my girls to be, each and every one of them, independent problem solvers and decision-makers," he said. "I can't be with them on the pitch during matches so during training sessions and chalk talks, I re-enforce the importance of good decision-making on the pitch during play. Our members have become very good at decision making on their feet during play, even to the point of, on their own, changing match strategy, mid-match when a previously agreed-on match strategy isn't working."

Success aside, the women at Findlay keep a strong bond between them and treat each other like a tight-knit unit. The inclusiveness of rugby with regard to body type tends to bring women in to the club initially but the culture of the club makes them stay.

"No one judges anyone because of the variety of positions that need to be filled," Morrison said. "We need the small, skinny fast girls; and we need the big, strong girls. We also need all the 'in-betweeners' because that’s the game of rugby. Women do tend to gravitate to rugby here at Findlay because of the cohesion and family atmosphere. Ask anyone of our girls and they’ll all tell you there is nothing like a rugby family."

"Our members are very committed to each other and to the sport," Haughn said.

By just about any measure, the Findlay women can be considered successful but the coaching staff and players aren't willing to rest on those achievements. Once the snow thaws, the team will dive into a developmental season intended to get players on the pitch and improve performance for next year.

"During this season, we do not have as much of an emphasis on winning rugby games as we do in the Fall. Every player who commits to our team will see ample playing time," Haughn said. "My Assistant Coach, Alex Porter, and I also do individualized player evaluations during the Spring season."

Looking into the future, the plan is to have Findlay atop the division once again and headed to the National Tournament. Looking beyond next year's tournament, Haughn has even loftier goals for himself and the team.

"We are always at work on expanding our member base through recruiting," he said. "My number one longterm - eternal - goal from my work as coach of UFWRFC is to teach each and every member I coach how to be an independent rugby problem-solver and decision-maker."

Those who are interested in joining the women's club can contact Coach Haughn for details.

John English and OWU Rugby: I Am Ohio Rugby

When people think think of rugby in the area of the state's capital, a few names generally come to mind. One program that might not jump to the forefront is Ohio Wesleyan. Though they are a lesser-known competitor for the moment, they stand to make a bigger name for themselves as their men's and women's side begin to achieve higher levels of success.
Ohio Wesleyan University Rugby logo

The men and women that comprise the college program are young and a bit inexperienced, but what they lack in overall knowledge and time on the pitch they make up for hard work a quality leadership. The man at the head of the OWU program is John English, who might be better known for his success with another rugby team in the area - the Westerville Worms. English came on board as the coach for the men's team in 2014 but it wasn't long before he was making moves and changes in personnel.

"I started coaching the men's program at OWU midway through the spring of 2014," he said. "Then took over as Director of Rugby for both the men's and women's programs in the fall 2015. At that point, I brought on Cody Albright to head up the men's program, Josh Longenbaker to head the women's program. I also added Patrick Bowling as our pack coach."

In the short time that English and his staff have been in charge, things been going very much their way. Both teams have added players to their ranks, with the men having nearly 30 players on their roster now. The growth in numbers has translated to success on the field as well. During the fall season, the men's 15s went 3-3 and improved every week,whereas the women went a perfect 5-0. Unfortunately, the ladies had to forfeit a pair of matches during fall break and those two lossess kept them out of postseason competition. The spring sevens scene for the men went a bit better, as they took fifth place at Grove City Sevens, second at Penn State Berks Sevens and were crowned champions of their own Middleton Hopps Bishop Cup Sevens Tournament. The spring sevens circuit was kind to the women as well. Again they went unbeaten, ending with a perfect 9-0 record. They won their league and received an automatic bid to NSCRO Sevens National tournament. Their success stopped once they got to nationals, though. The women also took top honors at the Middleton Hopps Bishop tournament.
John English and the OWU Rugby
coaching staff

The on-field success has garnered the club a great deal of respect off the field as well. Recently, the powers that be at the school took notice of the hard work put on by the players and coaches and showed their support.

"There has been great support for the rugby program from everyone at OWU, from the President all the way down. The university does a great job of recognizing the success of the players and program as a whole," English said. "Both programs were awarded 'We Are OWU' awards for recognition of being a positive club of the university. University President Rock Jones even came to our home sevens tournament to support the teams."

This success is far from a fluke. English has been coaching for over 20 years and has helped develop some of the best rugby talent to come out of the area and taking the Worms to the national tournament three times over. This experience and proven success record combined with his other coaches can only mean good things for the future of the program. According to English, the atmosphere of the university and the type of students it attracts lends a lot to the team having success.

" OWU is a great university. The students there have great character, work ethic and strive to be the best on and of the field," he said. "The thing that stands out to me is how diverse the university is. On the men's team alone I have players from Japan, Thailand, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan and Jamaica, along with players from all over the USA."

In the near future, English sees his program becoming the best in its division. For now, their mission of conquest has stalled out. Most of English'e players will return home during the warmer months and reconvene for the fall. Those who stay will play for men's and women's teams in the Columbus area.

Hennie Pieters: I Am Ohio Rugby

The youth rugby scene in the southern wilds of the state of Ohio is developing, so it helps to have experienced coaches at the helm of these clubs. Indian Springs is a high school team based in Cincinnati that has been a steady force in their region and, recently, Hennie Pieters has been helping develop their playing style and increase their numbers.

The Indian Springs Jets RFC was founded in 2004 as an alternative to football and an additional athletic offering for the Spring season. The club draws players from a number of schools around the Cincinnati area - Mason; Lakota East and West; Cincinnati Christian; Princeton; Hamilton and Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy. Though all these schools have contributed players to the Jets' ranks, numbers haven't always been strong.

"Recruitment was mostly by word of mouth," Pieters said. "I remember back in 2009, for example, we had two kids show up at our first practice. At times we struggled to get 15 to the field for our matches. Over the last four or five years we've changed our recruitment approach and have been able to start every season with more and more experienced players. Our player numbers peaked in 2012 when we won the DII State Championship, but it has been trending down slightly over the last two seasons."

Pieters plans to ramp up the Jets' recruiting practices between now and when the season starts. Even though it may have been word of mouth that brought players into Indian Hills, it's the style of coaching and play that keeps them coming back. Pieters, who played from a very young age, focuses on fitness more than formations with consideration to how he formulates his team's on-field strategies.

"As coach I take fitness seriously, have the players play a lot of rugby and I try to create an environment where they can experience the joy of playing rugby," he said. "I played rugby from a young age at school and a lot of backyard rugby with my brother and cousins. I don’t recall that we were heavily coached on technique in all the aspects of the game. We focused a lot on fitness and we played a lot of rugby."

This sweat-soaked approached to training players has reaped dividends for Indian Springs as well. In 2012 they won the Boys Division II Ohio State Champions, and the following year they were crowned Conference Champions in Division IAA of the Southwest Ohio region. Those are only the team achievements that the team as a unit has made. After they leave the Jets, Pieters has seen his former Indian Hills players move on to prestigious programs around the area and beyond.

"A number of our players have played and are now playing for the local men’s clubs like the Cincinnati Wolfhounds, Cincinnati Kelts and Queen City," Pieters said. "Our guys have also gone on to play at most of the universities in our area, such as the University of Kentucky, Miami University, Xavier University, University if Cincinnati, Ohio State University, Ohio University, Ohio Northern and Ole Miss."

For Pieters, seeing his players develop in and go beyond the high school club is the big reason why he enjoys and continues to coach at Indian Hills. Pieters has been involved with the club since 2006 when he began assisting the head coach at the time, Ben TerreBlanch. Six years later he began to transition into the head coach position. To date, TerreBlanch is still involved with the club as President and coaches as well.

The Indian Hills RFC has been operating for a little more than ten years now, but during its time in the city the club has turned into more than just an alternate place for people to play a sport during the spring.

"I think our local rugby team has offered kids a great opportunity to play an alternative contact sport where they have, and are, utilizing and developing all the athletic talent they have," Pieters said. "Kids who were bench warmers in some of the other sports have found a place in our team and have become valuable members of our squad."

Though the existence of the club has provided so many positive things to the players that have gone through the system, Pieters has received quite a bit of push-back from others in the community and come across a number of stumbling blocks along the way.

"We’ve experienced football coaches actively discouraging their players to play rugby by phoning the parents of kids who are interested in rugby and threatening that they will not start, spreading misinformation about the 'dangers' of rugby, claiming it’s not an OHSAA sanctioned sport so kids are not allowed to play rugby for an outside club and football for their school and asking rugby players not to recruit from the football team," Pieters said. "Parents are hesitant to let their kids play because it is perceived as dangerous, or their experience of rugby and rugby players are from their college days where the rugby guys were the raucous, drunken crowd."

Overall, the issue is lack of awareness about rugby on the part of potential players and their parents. Most don’t know about the existence of high school rugby, which makes bringing in more players difficult. Despite the lack of awareness and misinformation in the community, Pieters is hopeful about the future of his club and rugby in the Cincinnati area. Down the line, he hopes that not only will Indian Hills still be a viable club but that all the schools that feed them now will have viable rugby teams of their own.

Hennie Pieters has over 20 years of experience in the world of rugby. He has been involved with the Indian Springs Jets for over six of those years. He is fighting for every player he can get in Cincinnati in an uphill battle. and he is Ohio Rugby.

Steve Landes and the Columbus Castaways I Am We Are Ohio Rugby

Normally, in most group settings when the group members are in charge of their own fate people say that the “inmates are running the asylum,” with negative connotations. In Columbus, there’s a team that operates in a very similar fashion, though they have had overwhelmingly positive results so far. They are the Columbus Castaways, and they are organized by Steve Landes – a football lineman turned Scioto Valley front row. Landes and the Castaways run their team very much as a group and, in their corner of the rugby world where the castaways run the island, they are uniquely Ohio Rugby.

Almost 20 years ago Steve Landes stumbled upon rugby as he was walking through the campus of Marshall University. A high school teammate from his football days and a guy who lived on his floor were tossing a ball around. He saw the strange oval object flying through the air and he was hooked – and once he was hooked he dove headlong into the game.

“Soon after I was wearing the green number two jersey,” Landes said. “I kept it on for five years. The first match, my scrumhalf hated me. I was a lineman in high school football and was desperate to carry the ball. I made it to the breakdown first many times and just grabbed the ball and ran - ruined all chances at a decent attack. By half time most of my own team had threatened to kill me. After that, I learned to just tackle, ruck and be thankful for the odd ball carrying opportunity.”

During those five years, Landes and Marshall’s team played in two Midwest Championship matches. Unfortunately, they narrowly lost both of those matches. After his stint in college rugby concluded Landes wasn’t ready to hand up his cleats and retire his short shorts, and after a short initial stint in men’s rugby fate intervened and  provided him with a more longterm plan.

“When my eligibility was up my roommate and former Marshall lock, Joe Poti, and I started the now defunct Huntington RFC as there was no post collegiate rugby in the area,” he said. When his time on the field was put on hold, he took up the reins calling the shots for his college team. “I started as an Assistant Coach for Marshall RFC in 2002. Later that year, I moved to the women's program as Head Coach. In 2003 I coached both the Marshall women’s and men's programs. In 2004 I focused on the men's program.”

A few years into his collegiate coaching career, Landes crossed paths with some prolific Columbus rugby figures in Philip Payne and Kurt Nienberg. Landes met up with Payne and Nienberg at an Ohio Rugby Union Annual General Meeting. The two mentioned Scioto Valley was in need of a hooker and that they could provide him with a place to stay while helping him find a job. From there it was a matter of time and tying up loose ends.

“I spent 2005 to spring 2013 with Scioto,” he said. “I had four seasons off due to injury and a ‘retirement’ that didn't take.”

When Landes made the move to Columbus he didn’t leave coaching behind for all the glitz and glamour of life on the pitch. While he was on the scene, he took over as Head Coach of Scioto Valley’s women’s side, stepping in for their coach at the time Steve Weaver. While under his guidance, the woman were essentially staples on the Midwest Final Four scene. They even came within seven points of a National Championship in 2007. He also coached the Ohio Senior Women's All Stars in 2009 and 2010. They were able to take the LAU tournament in 2009.

These days, Landes is still coaching. Now, he is with a new Columbus club that is making waves and moving up the divisional ladder. His new team is called the Columbus Castaways, and they are achieving serious success with a bite more laid back approach.

“We are currently a competitive side with strong social tendencies. Attendance is required only if you intend to play in the A game,” Landes said. “Being only in our second year, we've only had the opportunity to play for one championship, in Midwest Division IV, and we won that last spring. We were promoted to Division III this season and are undefeated so far.”

It would be easy to write off this early success as a fluke due to the level of competition they have been coming up against, but results rarely lie and numbers never lie. According to Landes, the club has over 40 registered players and a prominent B side - the Blastaways - that is always ready to take the field during home games. That alone is a rare occurrence regardless of the division in which a team competes.

There is a method behind the Castaways’ success, and like any other team it comes down to leadership. The Castaways have a strong coaching staff backing their team that rivals any other team for size and experience. Rather than having a single coach flanked by one or two assistants, the Columbus ruggers have 40 head coaches.

“In our first season the joke was that we were all coaches,” he said. “Everyone from that season even has a ‘COACH’ t-shirt. I drew up most of the sessions, but anyone wanting to write something down and bring it to us for work could do so. Anyone with the want to is still free to bring a plan and add to a session though. Most of our players have many years of experience, from high school to college to club. In addition, we have three certified coaches and four certified referees affiliated with the Castaways.”

Though every club member is invited to have a hand in formulating training sessions, Landes is the “official” coach of the team. An injury he sustained in February cemented his place on the sidelines. Since the Castaways all have a hand in running training sessions, Landes and the other heads of the team can focus their attention to the big issues facing the team – scheduling practices, ensuring that the field they use is of good quality, ensuring their training equipment is holding together and things of that nature.

“We all want rugby to be something we look forward to, but physically it is very challenging,” Landes said. “So, I’m always looking for ways to make practice a good workout and fun at the same time.”

The Castaways have improved at a rate most clubs would be envious of. As they continue through the remainder of their season – and beyond – their focus remains clear and constant, and it might not be on what one might immediately think.

“Our goal for this thing isn’t about hardware – although we won’t turn down any trophy – or moving up in the ranks,” Landes said. “The next division will happen if and when it needs to. We look to field two sides and have a place for all of the rugby sons, steadfast, wayward and new, to play when the spirit moves them.”

The Columbus Castaways are a rugby club for players run by players. They focus on providing a home for ruggers of all experience and dedication levels. Steve Landes sits at the helm of the Castaways and helps guide them on their unconventional path. He has called Columbus his home and its rugby players family. Down the line, he hopes that in the future more will be able to do the same.

“Five years down the line I’d like to be going to my son Jack’s middle school rugby games,” Landes said about his seven-year-old boy. “In five-ish more years I’d like to be ‘running’ with him in a Blastaways game.”

The Columbus Castaways are a successful group of guys who could, seemingly, care less about success. They are led by one another in equal parts. They are unconventional, they are many and they are Ohio Rugby.

Sarah Wilson - I Am Ohio Rugby

Many athletes dream of playing the sport they love at the highest amateur level possible, and some work hard enough – and are lucky enough – to achieve that goal. Some athletes aim their goals even higher and strive to one day have the honor of representing their country in international competition. Sarah Wilson made the switch over to rugby late in her high school and managed to achieve more than what most athletes, let alone rugby players, dream of doing during their career. She is a graduate of Ohio State University, a Buckeye abroad living in Chicago, a former USA Eagle and she is Ohio Rugby.

Wilson’s introduction to rugby came through word of mouth. During her sophomore year in high school, her friend would constantly rave about how fun rugby was. The next year, Wilson joined the team and embarked on a journey that would take her across the country and around the world. Once she got onto the pitch, her precious sporting experience with basketball and soccer helped her get used to her newly adopted sport.

“Anything where it combines other aspects of other sports, like rugby does, it will always help the transition,” Wilson said.

Once she learned how to play rugby, Wilson saw a great amount of success. During her last two years of high school and going into her college career, she was on the radar for high-level teams. According to Wilson, she played for the nation’s first women’s U-19 team while she was still in high school. While with that squad, she traveled to competitions in places from Canada to Florida. Once she graduated and went to college, she found success with the Ohio State University women’s team.

“I think one of my biggest highlights there would be that we made it to the Final Four of the National Championship in 2006,” she said. On top of that success, Wilson found herself being called up to play for more high-level teams. “When I was in college I was in college I was invited to try out for the Midwest regional team and made that.”

Everything was coming up roses for Wilson at that point in her rugby career, but just as everything was going her way on the field she decided to walk away from the game. Wilson said she had to focus on other elements of her life.

“I wanted to focus on career a little bit,” Wilson said. “I didn’t have money to play, or I just wanted to do other stuff.”

During that time, Wilson went to New Zealand for a while before eventually returning to the States to work and play for the Glendale women’s team in Colorado – a move that eventually led to bigger rugby-related opportunities.

I moved to Denver for rugby, and to look for a job, but really - that had to happen wherever I moved,” she said. “My goal when I moved out here was to just play and enjoy rugby. It eventually led to a bigger goal of making the World Cup team, but that was only after having the opportunity to just enjoy all of the rugby that Denver offered.”

After Wilson traveled to France with the USA women’s team she returned to her job in Colorado, but not to active duty with Glendale. After a career that took her to France and the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup, Wilson decided to put rugby on the back burner for a bit. While she is sitting out the current rugby season, she has not decided for certain how much rugby her future will hold. What Wilson does know is that she wants there to be more rugby in the lives of young women across the country.

“I would really like to see the girls’ high school game expand, building the high school game and getting more high school teams, and more competition,” she said. “Let that grow as an outlet for girls to get involved in sports. I’m not quite sure how I’ll be involved, but I will be involved.”

Rugby gave Wilson the chance to play rugby at the highest level but playing rugby wasn't about competing for her – at least at the start.

I started playing – and this also goes for the times that I stopped and later returned to the game – just for the enjoyment,” Wilson said. “I got into the game because someone told me about how much fun they were having - and their excitement about the game was contagious. I think what kept me playing rugby for so long were the opportunities to play competitively and play at a higher level, but all of the times that I started and came back to playing rugby were just for the love of the game and the enjoyment of the sport.”

The enjoyment of the sport is what brought Wilson in and what kept her around but the competitive opportunities were attractive as well. According to Wilson, it’s the parity between those two options is what can bring more young girls into rugby and positively affect them as they age.

“It’s a fun game and there are opportunities to play just for fun and there are opportunities to play more seriously and a girl in middle school or high school doesn’t have to decide if she wants to play rugby forever,” she said. “But if she wants something that’s a new experience rugby is a great sport. There are opportunities to grow and do great things in rugby and there are opportunities to just have fun.”

Ideally, as more and more females get involved in rugby, there will be more positive female role models for young women to admire and emulate.

Whether it was to have fun or to represent the United States, Sarah Wilson played rugby and had success with it. She went from Ohio to New Zealand and then off to Colorado. She is an ex-Eagle abroad in Colorado. She is a graduate from Ohio State University. No matter how far she goes, she will always be Ohio Rugby.

And for those looking to follow Wilson’s path through the rugby world, take the tact that she did.

“I let rugby lead the way.”

Philip Payne - I Am Ohio Rugby

Someone who spends 30 years in a given field is sure to cross paths with some of its top names and talent, not to mention learn a few things along the way. Philip Payne is the current Head Coach of Ohio State University's women's rugby team. He has been involved with rugby longer than his players have been alive, he is passing along rugby knowledge from Ohio's rugby forefathers and he is Ohio Rugby.

Philip Payne came upon the sport during a strange and long-forgotten time called the 80s, 1984 to be exact. He began playing during his high school days for the South Pittsburgh Hooligans. After that he took his love of the sport to the campus of Baldwin Wallace, where he started the university's team, the Jesters, with his friends Chris Fee and Charles Guscott. Once he left Baldwin Wallace, Payne spent the remainder of his playing days with Scioto Valley down in Columbus, Ohio. Payne played rugby for fun while he was still active on the field, acting as the anchor for the pack.

"I played until I was 36 when injuries piled up and then I tore my Achilles," Payne said. "I was always a front-row. When I was in shape I was a hooker, but from the time I played at Scioto Valley I was a prop."

After he graduated and moved to Columbus, Payne concentrated on his career rather than making playing his priority. The atmosphere around the Scioto Valley team wasn't lost on him, though. Even though his teammates concentrated more of their energy on action between the white lines, the dedication and culture of the group was far from lost on him.

"I loved Scioto Valley and their drive for excellence," he said. "To be surrounded by guys that took the game so seriously was an eye-opener."

Once Payne stopped playing he still remained active on the Columbus rugby scene, trading in his shorty shorts and cleats for a clipboard. He helped coach the men's team at Ohio State University for five years before moving to the university's women's team, where he has been the head man in charge for the last eight years. Where Payne has gone as coach, success has followed. When he was with the university's men's team they were perennial top-tier contenders and during his time with the women they have been consistently in the initial rounds of Nationals for Division I.

"We will get a National Championship," Payne said. "But lots of luck and having the ball bounce your way a few times is needed."

As Payne has coached for at OSU, he has made a few on-field enemies. One persistent thorn in his side has been Pete Steinberg, the coach at Penn State University. According to Payne, there had been times when the two teams met in the Elite Eight and the Buckeyes had the match barely slip through their fingers only to have Penn State go on to win it all.

"Their depth is their greatest strength," Payne said. "They have 70 girls on their squad where we have 33. However, my 33 currently all want A-side time and it's this culture of doing the work off the field and pushing each other that will help us close the gap."

Unlike some people who spend a lot of time in rugby, Payne's most memorable moments don't have anything to do with his playing. According to Payne, he has gotten the most joy from the coaches he has come across in his life and during his coaching career with the university. Some of his favorite people he has met during his three-decade career have been fellow coaches. Steven Finkel, Nick Fedorenko and Gary Wilson heavily influenced Payne while he was at Scioto Valley; and had it not been for Tom Rooney urging him to get into coaching Payne's career might not have been as long as it has been.

"Also, to have coached alongside Dan Porter for seven years, who I consider one of the top rugby minds that was in the United States at the time, was a blessing," Payne said. "He passed away more than four years ago, but the way he approached the game still shapes what we do at OSU. In fact, everyone I mentioned has significantly contributed to my coaching style, even if they don't realize it."

Payne's coaches made a bug impact on him and his experiences with rugby, and he tries to do the same with the young ladies he coaches at Ohio State. He loves discovering new talent and introducing athletes to the sport.

"At the end of the day it's a game," Payne said. "And I want the girls to have the time of their lives."

Coach Payne's tactics have translated into churning out some top-notch talent that has had success beyond the college game.

"We have had many All-Americans, an Eagle in the last World Cup in Sarah Wilson, and hopefully an
Eagle in the upcoming Olympics," he said. "To get to the next level it takes a strong women who can look in the mirror, understand the hard steps that are in front of them and put in the time off the field to better themselves and their game."

Philip Payne has had a long career in rugby and has come in contact with a number of great people in the process. Though the teams in the state don't get the attention that the teams on the coasts get, he knows there is a great crop of talent coming up. While he is with the Ohio State rugby family, Payne will continue to turn on more players to the sport of rugby and take their talent to new heights as someone who, for almost 30 years, has been Ohio Rugby.

Stephen Miller - I Am Ohio Rugby

There is no shortage of rugby in Ohio, especially at the grassroots and high school levels. Out in Medina there is a young program making strides towards becoming a major force on the scene. The team is the high school's boys' rugby team and Stephen Miller is the Head Coach.

Miller has been involved with rugby just under a decade, playing for four and coaching for just as many. While his playing years don't span decades like other coaches, his background is nothing to sneeze at. After wrestling and being a walk-on for Kent State's football team, Miller began to play rugby and from there his career took on an odd trajectory.

"I started off as a prop my Freshman year, moved to lock my Sophomore year and finished as an eightman my Junior and Senior years," Miller said. Normally, pack members move from the back of the scrum to the front as they get older and, usually, heavier.

While at Kent, Miller helped his team to victories over Ohio State during his junior year. Under his leadership as Captain, he led his team to a berth in the Midwest tournament his Senior year. Overall, the whole process of learning and doing well at rugby proved to be beneficial for Miller in a number of ways.

"I was down on myself after football and wrestling did not work out my Freshman year at Kent State," he said. "I met some awesome guys in the Spring of 2000 on the Kent State University practice pitch and learned how to play the greatest sport on the planet."

After learning to play rugby himself, Miller began teaching the sport to students at Medina High School. When he joined the coaching staff, the Bees were coming off of a winless opening season. During that first season the Medina team managed to put up ten total points and were the whipping boys of their group. From there on, though, the team improved under Miller and the other coaches and so did the outcome of their matches. The next year Medina took three out of their seven regular season matches. The most memorable win from that season for Miller was their 29-24 win over Ignatius. From there, everything has been trending upwards. Miller and the Bees earned a home playoff match in 2013 after going 7-3 during the regular season, there have been several players move on to collegiate rugby after earning scholarships and the group of players has grown from 13 to 40. All this success and progress caught the eye of the school as well.

"We are currently in the 'Varsity Tryout Phase' with the school," Miller said. "We have access to all facilities and full support of the Athletic Department."

Though the team has made strides and steadily improved over the years, they still have progress they need to make. Miller said that Brunswick and Highland have consistently given his boys trouble. Between Highland's pure rugby style and Brunswick's ground-and-pound style of play, Miller has yet to find a way to overcome these two teams. If his team's growth is any indication, it could be just a matter of time before he's able to overtake his two rivals.

As he has coached Medina through the years, Miller has come in contact and gotten to know a number of exceptional players. Many of his initial players have gone on to play at higher levels of the game at institutes of higher education.

"Coming into our fifth season in 2015, most of our guys are in colleges and universities across the nation," Miller said.

Graduates from the team have gone on to play for teams at places like Cleveland State University, University of Akron and Notre Dame College. A number of the Medina graduates had been named to the All-Ohio team during their time with the team.

"With each one I remember their first season or two and how they played, what they would and would not do," he said. "Then to see them grow into star players and great teammates is the best feeling. These guys do all the work, we just try to help them make better choices on and off the pitch. Rugby teaches life lessons more than any other sport out there. We try to take advantage of those coaching moments and help mature our kids to be better students, sons, brothers and develop them into great men for the future."

Miller has been with the Medina high school program, pretty much, since its inception; and it's his hope that he would be able to stay with them deep into the future. Through his years with rugby, he has come in contact with a number of strong players and good people and he hopes to continue that adventure while positively impacting future players that come across his path.

Stephen Miller is a former player and now a coach that is helping his high school rugby team grow. He teaches the sport of rugby and imparts life lessons to the young men who join his team. He's building a rugby presence in his corner of Medina and he is Ohio Rugby.

Thomas T. Cleary: I Am Ohio Rugby
The Ohio Rugby landscape is full of some of the greatest minds and players to come out of the state, and even the Midwest. Many of those minds and talents are on the field today. Some have hung up their playing shorts and are bringing up the next crop of great players that will represent the state, the Midwest and maybe even the USA. One such person is Thomas Cleary. He is a former Kent State University player, a current coach at Saint Edwards High School and he is Ohio Rugby.

Cleary's rugby career began 25 years ago, in a distant time called the 90s. It was a simpler time back then, and Cleary was playing for Kent State University.

"I started playing lock in the beginning," Cleary said. "But after about three games I was moved to tight head prop, where I played for the rest of my rugby career."

According to Cleary he made some cameos at hooker and eight man when the need arose. When he got short on wind, Cleary kept the wings company and allowed the play to develop before returning to the heat of battle.

As he recalls it, Cleary has had a few defining moments that have stuck with him throughout his illustrious career. One set of memories involve an enemy. Another involves a special set of teammates.

"As a player I would say being on the first, and only, team at Kent State to ever beat Bowling Green [is one of the high marks of my playing career] and it occurred in two consecutive seasons," Cleary said. "I also had the opportunity to play rugby for Columbus-Fort Benning, in Columbus, Georgia, with a team comprised of Army Rangers and civilians. To play alongside men who were serving our country was a great honor and some of the best men I have ever had the privilege to play alongside."

Cleary didn't stop after his time down South. Recently, Cleary has been spotted in company of one of the most successful teams in the state, the Cleveland Rovers. Cleary played with the Cleveland men's side as they made their way to a Midwest Championship and a berth at Nationals.

"It was something I'll never forget," he said. Cleary can still be found prowling the sidelines of Rovers' home matches, cheering on his comrades as they pursue glory without him.

Before he hung up his boots, Cleary notched up a number of other impressive wins and achievements. In 2002 he traveled up to Saranac Lake in New York to play in the CanAm Rugby Tournament. His team managed to take the tournament that year, but the victory paled in comparison to what else he got from the weekend.

"That was where I met my best friend and my wife Jaime 'Barnes' Cleary," he said. "We met when my friend and I crashed in their hotel room. She later tackled me into a chair and almost broke my ribs when I attempted to get to the shower. It was pain at first sight, I mean love at first sight."

When he's not taking in a Rovers' match on Saturdays or being manhandled by his wife, Cleary can be found at Saint Edward High School. He's supposed to be there. Don't worry. He's the Head Coach of the rugby team at the school. Under his instruction, the team has won Midwest championships as well as back-to-back State championships. During the summers, Cleary crosses enemy lines and teams with Coach Brian Sabolik from Saint Ignatius to form a summer sevens team comprised of players from both schools.

"To be able to coach these boys and help them realize their dreams and achieve a goal in their life is just awesome," Cleary said of his coaching experiences with his high school 15s side. "To stand back and  take it all in and watch the boys celebrate is a moment I will always remember... To be able to take two of the biggest rivals in Ohio high school sports, and also two of the best rugby programs in the state, and combine them into one team is just great. I have made so many friends between the players and the parents from both schools. It's just a rewarding experience for me."

The coaching experience is about more than wreaking havoc on the Ohio high school rugby scene or creating all-star sevens squads from some of the state's top high school rugby prospects. According to Cleary, his coaching comes down to the players, their success and their development. Over the course of time players are with Cleary and his coaching staff, not only do they change greatly in their stature but many of them make leaps and bounds in their acumen and skills.

"Everything changes so quickly and you get to be part of their development and growth as a player," he said. "It gives me a sense of pride and satisfaction. Anytime I can be a part of one of my players achieving a goal or dream is something that I take pride in."

There are so many players that have come out of the Saint Edward rugby machine to do great things. Of the many that came to mind, Cleary mentioned Bryan Kean, Luke Markovich, Ian Hildebrandt, Danny Peyton, Jack Walsh, Neil McNamara, Kevin Trickle, Ronan Forrestal, Everret Smith, Rodney Thomas and Jacob Tennant. All of these players have gone on to play with high-level rugby teams like Bowling Green, Ohio State, Miami of Ohio and Notre Dame College. Tennant played with the United States Marines as well.

"All these players, and so many more, have come from the Saint Edward Rugby program and have gone on to do so many great things," Cleary said. "I wish I had the time and space to mention them all."

Whether he is coaching, observing or playing, Cleary is a rugby fanatic; and most of all he is an Ohio rugby fanatic.

"The thing that makes Ohio rugby special is the people involved in running it, the players and the parents and supporters," he said. "There are so many people that donate their time and effort in order to make the league work. From the administrators to the coaches and from the refs to the trainers its amazing the amount of time people put in so that the kids can have a positive experience. In my opinion a way to improve this would be for more people to get involved and experience just how rewarding and fun this all can be."

Thomas Cleary is a lot of things to a lot of people - husband, coach, teammate, drinking buddy, heckler, friend. No matter what he is to people as individuals, one thing is for sure: he is Ohio Rugby.

Jaime "Barnes" Cleary: I Am Ohio Rugby
Jaime Cleary is an accomplished rugby coach, ex-player and mother; but perhaps paramount of all her accomplishments is that she continuously stays involved in the Ohio rugby scene and tries to keep her husband, Tom Cleary, out of trouble. She is a dedicated woman with a diverse array of talents, and she is Ohio Rugby.

Jaime began her rugby career in the late 90s at Bowling Green State University. She played there for three years before taking her talents to Maryland for two years, playing for the Stingers, before settling down in Cleveland, where the played for the Cleveland Eastern Suburbs Women's Rugby Football Club. Since 2003 she has splayed with the Iron Maidens, a team she helped establish on the city's West side.

Looking back at her playing days, Jaime's fondest memories include going to the Sweet 16 of Nationals with BGSU's women and playing in Brussels, Belgium with the Iron Maidens.

"Playing on foreign soil gives you so much American pride," she said.

Recently, Jaime has been concentrating her rugby-related energy on raising up the next crop of female Ohio ruggers at St. Joseph Academy . Jaime started the club in 2007, and from there everything came up roses for her and her girls. She was named Coach of the Year three years after starting the club and won a number of Division I and Division II state titles. While many would be quick to credit Jaime's coaching skills and rugby experience as the reason for he high school girls' success, she'll be the first to defer credit to the team.

"The girls are amazing individuals that are prepared to learn as much as they can in four short years," she said. "It's when you can stand on the sideline and see them make their own good decisions together as a team that you, as a coach, can be proud of what they have become."

While Jaime enjoys seeing her players excel and develop during their high school days, she remains hands-on in their pursuits after St. Joseph Academy as well. One of Jaime's main goals as a high school coach is that her players that move on are successful as they pursue higher heights of education and rugby as well.

" We are always writing recommendations for players and encouraging them to continue playing in college and beyond," she said. "It's great to see them playing at higher levels but it feels even better when you get to put on a jersey and play with them or even against them for a game."

If making sure her players are able to excel in rugby beyond their high school days is Jaime's top priority, then it is safe to say that she has been pretty successful thus far. She has sent Mary Jo Reddy and Ali Decrane to Ohio State University. Reddy received a rugby scholarship and Decrane was also selected for the Youth Olympic Team as well as the National Youth Stars and Stripes Team. Jennafer Dziuba received a scholarship to Notre Dame College; and those are only a few of the outstanding players that played for Jaime. She also has her eye on Rachael Kean and Anne Rolf as two up-and-coming players on the team.

Jaime has made rugby a big part of her professional life as a coach but her story is unique in that rugby has been very tightly woven into her personal story as well. Jaime met her husband at a rugby tournament and the two have shared their ups and downs, both personally and rugby-related, ever since.

"I have to say that it is difficult to have a successful marriage, raise two wonderful children, work full-time jobs and coach thriving rugby teams," she said. "Tom and I really support each other and the schools we coach for. Rugby has been a great gift to our family and we want to give back as much as we can."

Jaime's favorite memory that combines rugby and her husband - aside from the spectacle that was their wedding - is when both their teams won state titles in 2013. When the final whistle blew and Tom's team had won she was sprinting across the field to congratulate him.

" We both worked so hard and for our teams to reward us with those titles was such a high," she said. "When you win a trophy in our house it gets to be the centerpiece of the dining room table. Those large trophies were a reminder of how hard work pays off and made it difficult to pass the butter for a few weeks."

Rugby has been a big part of Jaime's life to this point, but she knows that she has been lucky to have a lot of support - support that she is thankful for.

" There are days that I don't know how we get it done," she said. "But I have to give so much credit to players' parents who help watch our children during games and tournaments, our players who work hard to make our jobs easier and to my husband who is flexible with our rigorous schedules to make practices and travel happen."

Jaime Cleary has been involved with rugby longer than most of her players have been alive. She has two of her own and a husband who, at times, probably counts as another larger child. She has taken her talents all over the nation and overseas but now she is passing on her knowledge to up-and-coming generations in Cleveland. She is an example of what rugby can give to people and what people can do to give back; and she is Ohio Rugby.

1 comment:

  1. We love you both! Thanks for all that you do for our kids!!