When the roughly three dozen players on the Warrior Rugby high school boys team finished scrimmaging at around 7:45 p.m. Thursday, April 4, they wrapped up their drill by breaking down the word “family,” like many sports teams do. For this group, though, the word is more than just a cliche. In many ways, they are quite literally a “family.”

There are blood ties. Two of the three team captains, Ralph and Russell Merz, are identical twins. One of Head Coach Dan Hayes’ assistants is his own son, William. And Dan Hayes and Andrew Meade, who founded the Warrior Rugby program together in 2016, both have a kid currently in the program.

Rugby is a contact sport in which players on opposing teams try to advance an oval-shaped ball toward an end zone, either by running with it or kicking it. Wayne State College, a school that fields teams for men and women, describes it as “about 90% football and 10% soccer.”

There are more than 8 million players and 500 million fans around the globe, according to the World Rugby organization. But the game is much less popular in the United States. In fact, in Licking County, there is only one club: Warrior Rugby.

As rugby players, the group grew up together. The Merz twins have been playing in the program with the other team captain, Robbie Bricker, since the seventh grade. Now, they are seniors in high school, and the team has picked up new players — boys they did not know before — to join them on the pitch. But from day one, Ralph Merz said, the newcomers are “our brothers.”

Today, there are boys and girls rugby teams in both the middle and high school in Southwest Licking, as well as a youth program. 

But it wasn’t always that way. 

Credit: Claire Hayes

When Dan and Andrew got things started in 2016, the Warrior Rugby program looked quite different. There were about 30 boys on the team — the only team in Licking County — and they weren’t exactly rugby-savvy, at first. 

“Our first team was basically a bunch of farm boys who had no idea what they were doing,” William Hayes said.

Even so, that inaugural team dominated their first season, winning the central Ohio Division 3 regular season championship and earning a spot in the state playoffs. 

And the team only got better over time. In both 2021 and 2022, the high school boys team won the single school Division 2 state championship. 

Before the 2018 season, girls at Watkins Memorial decided they wanted to play too, so they started a petition. Their demand: Let us on the boys team or give us our team.

They got their wish, and nearly 30 girls registered for the first “exploratory season” where the team played three exhibition matches. 

Since then, the team has made marked progress. Last year, the girls high school team made a final four appearance in the state playoffs.

This year’s high school boys team has work cut out for itself, though. After the “A Side” (akin to varsity squad in other sports) secured a big opening day win against Dublin on March 15, the group has dropped two straight.

When things get rough, though, the players still embrace every day they get to spend out on the pitch together.

“Even on the bad days, we still have fun,” Russell Merz said.

For Merz, his twin brother, Bricker and the rest of the Warrior seniors, the days as members of the Warrior Rugby program — good ones and bad ones — are counting down. Unless they follow the precedent for former players to return as coaches, that is.

Assistant coach Kyle Clark was a 2017 captain who returned to the program after playing collegiate rugby at Norwich University in Vermont. William Hayes was a captain of the 2019 and 2020 high school teams before joining the coaching staff. Mason Swearingen, an assistant coach for the high school girls team, co-captained the 2020 boys squad with William and captained again in 2021.

But even if they don’t return to coach, for a handful of seniors on the team, their time playing together isn’t ending just because their time with the program is over. Six or seven of them, including the Merz twins and Bricker, will be playing together at Bowling Green State University next year, following in the footsteps of seven program alums already on the collegiate roster.

Because that’s what families do: They stick together.

Both boys and girls teams will play in games against teams from Brunswick, Mentor and Marysville on Sunday, April 14.

Jack Nimesheim writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation and donationsfrom readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.