When Pepe Semeraro first signed up to play rugby as a sixth-grader, he had no idea how much it would change his life.
Now a senior at Dixon High School, Semeraro has traveled to Italy, Argentina, England, Canada and across the United States - all because of rugby. In the fall, he will play at an exclusive rugby academy while attending Santa Barbara City College.
"I wouldn't be the man I am today without rugby," Semeraro said. "I can't think of another sport where you sit down and break bread with the guy who just broke your nose. It's a lifestyle, a brotherhood."
Senior Matt Ternan once was a hard-hitting defensive back on Jesuit's football team before turning his considerable skills full time to rugby.
"I fell in love with creativity and freedom that rugby offers," said Ternan, a Jesuit captain who will play for national rugby powerhouse Cal in the fall. "Football is more structured and 'do-what-the-coach-tells-you.' In rugby, you are taught how to play on the fly."
While most schools in California don't offer the sport and it is not sanctioned by the CIF, rugby has gained a solid foothold in Northern California, especially the Sacramento area.
The Northern California Youth Rugby Association, comprising 200 teams and 4,000 players from under 8s through high school, is one of the largest associations in the United States.
Jesuit and Dixon, dissimilar private and public schools that started modestly, are national powers. Jesuit is ranked No. 3 and Dixon No. 5 nationally in RugbyMag.com's current high school top 25.
Fred Khasigian, an orthopedic surgeon who played football and rugby at USC, was coach of a dying club team in need of a new practice field and new direction when he approached then-Jesuit athletic director Chris Smart about forming a school-only team.
Khasigian's son Kirk had played football at Jesuit but not rugby, the sport in which he was an All-American at Cal.
"He was super nice," Fred Khasigian said of Smart. "If he wasn't in a good mood, who knows where we might be today. Back then, it gave us a chance."
Khasigian's younger son Kyle was one of Jesuit's first standouts before also going on to play at Cal.
"We struggled our first two years, and then in 1999 we won the national championship by playing out of our minds," Fred Khasigian said. "That gave us a real boost. We started to get more players and better athletes coming out. We built from there."
Jesuit has since won five more national titles - the most recent in 2011 - knocking off an assortment of private school and club powers, and sending dozens of players into the college ranks, including several who are members of the USA Eagles, the national men's rugby team.
This year, Jesuit has 150 athletes in the program and it competes in the eight-team Single School League of De La Salle of Concord, Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland, Bellarmine of San Jose, Pittsburg, McClatchy, Christian Brothers and Dixon - all in a bid to earn CIF sanctioning.
The Marauders also have a second varsity team that plays in a multi-school league that includes Granite Bay, Burbank and Del Oro. Those teams can draw players from several high schools.
Dixon, which began in 2007, gained national credibility last season by winning the High School National Invitational Championship in Salt Lake City.
"It was a pretty inspiring story, considering our modest beginnings," said Dixon program founder and coach Robert Salaber, a former Cal rugby player and UC Davis coach whose sons and former Rams stars Nick and Anthony are now playing for the Bears. "We started with 20 middle schoolers six years ago, and now we're up to 135 from U-12s through high school. It's definitely taking off."
So is the rivalry with Jesuit, even eclipsing the Marauders' famed, sometimes acrimonious, dust-ups of years past with the Burbank Islanders.
Last season, Dixon split matches with Jesuit. This year the Marauders handily won both meetings, including last Saturday's 56-24 NorCal finale at the Cherry Island Soccer Complex in Elverta.
But both could meet one more time at the May 16-18 national finals in Elkhart, Ind., where both schools will compete in the eight-team single-school bracket. If Jesuit and Dixon win their first games, they'll meet in the semifinals.
Being at the national finals is a tribute to both Jesuit and Dixon, as well as the area's stellar rugby community.
"At this point, it's all about Sacramento rugby," longtime Jesuit coach John Shorey said. "We are rivals, but we need to go there together."
In a display of sport unity, competing teams gather to bond on the field, a practice that has become a postgame tradition.
It's those moments, when team captains extol the virtues of their rivals, that keep players like Dixon's bruising Chris Rico wanting more, even after a tough loss.
"Playing rugby has made me a better person," said Rico, who will join Semeraro in Santa Barbara. "It's taught me how to get along with other people, how to win humbly and how to handle defeat. I love what it's teaching me."
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.