ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- When Kellen Gordon got tired of being typecast as a lineman because of his size and made the switch from football to rugby in high school, there were few long-term goals to work toward.
Beyond giving him a reason to get a college education and offering the possibility of playing for club team during the summers and after getting his degree, the Central Washington player had little more than the love of the game keeping him on the field.
That all changed in 2009, when rugby sevens, the scaled-down version of the traditional 15-man game, was added to the Olympic roster for men and women beginning in 2016 at Rio de Janeiro. The vote by the International Olympic Committee has led to a surge of interest in the sport, with the World Sevens Series making a stop in the United States and the second college championships for men's sevens scheduled for Philadelphia next weekend.
"A lot of guys dream about being on the USA 15s squad and go to a World Cup or something," Gordon said. "The idea of the Olympics and playing sevens as well ... the idea of playing that and for a professional side is exciting and something to work for."
When Central Washington and 15 other top college rugby programs gather in Philadelphia for the USA Sevens Collegiate championships, they'll be playing before the watchful eye of USA Rugby officials trying to project how certain players might fit into a plan that's a half-decade from reaching fruition.
Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Olympics might still be five years away, but the core of the first U.S. Olympic sevens team likely will be on display in Philadelphia.
That there even is a college championship devoted to the seven-a-side game is another notch in the growth of rugby in the United States. According to statistics from USA Rugby, the sport saw a 48 percent overall increase in participation between 2005 and 2010. It was most prevalent at the youth and high school levels. USA Rugby expects to get its 100,000th registered member soon, up from 62,000 five years ago.
"I don't think we've reached the tipping point," said Nigel Melville, the CEO of USA Rugby. "There is momentum being created, but I think there will be more momentum being created the next two years. By going to youth markets the last two years we've increased the number of kids that will develop into rugby players. We have to keep those kids growing and building the skills and everything else that goes with it."
Part of the optimism infusing Melville and others in the rugby community stems from the rise in popularity of sevens and its television-friendly format. The scaled-down game was once considered a "festival" version of the sport or a way to stay in shape during the offseason.
But it's long been the game of choice for many smaller countries, especially the Pacific islands of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, which are among the world's top teams. Former Fijian star Waisale Serevi -- considered the best sevens player in the world during his international career -- now lives in the Seattle area and is teaching the game and trying to raise its profile.
Sevens is played on the same field as the traditional 15-man game, but is limited to 14 minutes of breakneck action carved into two seven-minute halves. Unlike 15s, where games go for 80 minutes and scoring usually comes in a staged progression because there are so many players on the field, a score can happen seemingly at any time in sevens.
It's a series of seven one-on-one matchups where athleticism is at a premium and there isn't any backup if one player makes a mistake.
"If you have a lot of speed and have a lot of big power, 230- and 240-pound guys who can move like the wind, combined with the aerobic capacity with the ability to run 14 minutes straight, it's something that makes a sevens athlete special," said Evan Haigh, coach of the Old Puget Sound Beach rugby club of Seattle, the reigning U.S. club champions at sevens.
The game also is easier to understand for fans and players with limited rugby experience. The intricacies of rucking and scrumming that are crucial to being good in 15s aren't as important in sevens.
And for television executives -- NBC will broadcast the college championships and showed the Sevens World Series event in Las Vegas in February -- the short game fits perfectly between commercial breaks. For the upcoming college championships, teams will play three pool matches on the first day before advancing to the knockout phase on day two.
"Our attention spans nowadays are based on the 30-minute sitcom," said Dan Lyle, the executive director of USA Sevens, the organization that runs the Las Vegas event and college championships. "... It very much plays itself toward the American audience."
Lyle was largely responsible for putting together the field that will compete in Philadelphia. It's a mixture of traditional rugby powers, such as California and Utah -- who played for the title last year -- and some big-name Division I schools seeking a larger rugby profile. Arizona, Army, Boston College, Dartmouth, Texas, North Carolina, LSU, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Navy, Penn State and Temple make up the rest of the invited field.
"We set out to find the best historic schools combined with good high-quality brands that would show a cross section of the United States and appeal from California to Maine to Florida to Texas," Lyle said. "We went out with that criteria and we're looking to help change programs."
Central Washington is the only team to earn its way into the tournament, and the only NCAA Division II school in the field. In the college rugby world, the Wildcats are far from small-school, considered the top program in the Pacific Northwest.
Central Washington won its way to Philadelphia by winning the college portion of the Las Vegas tournament in February, beating Kutztown, another Division II school, in the finals. As if having tournament experience isn't benefit enough, the Wildcats also will have Haigh and Serevi working as volunteer coaches on the sideline in Philadelphia.
"I think what we proved to ourselves is it doesn't matter what name or where you are from or what the name is on your jersey. When we were in Vegas we played against the big-name schools," Central Washington's Tim Stanfill said. "It doesn't matter what school you're from, it's what you do on the field. We've played together long enough that we know what we're capable of and what we can do."