FAIRMONT – For McKenzie McIntosh, it all started with “Forever Strong.”
The rugby-centered 2008 film illuminated something within McIntosh, and made her curious about pursuing the sport herself.
“We watched the movie, and she turned to me and said ‘Dad, I want to try rugby,’” Tom McIntosh, McKenzie’s father, said. “So at that point I started doing some research and I found Ray Bezjak at Fairmont State.”
Bezjak, the Falcons’ club women’s rugby coach, was happy to let McIntosh, in 8th grade at the time, watch his team practice, but didn’t have great news about her prospects as a youth player.
For players interested in rugby like McKenzie — who lives in Fairview — there are no programs in West Virginia to play.
“[West Virginia]’s kind of black hole when it comes to rugby at the youth level,” Bezjak said.
McKenzie still had ambitions of playing rugby in college, but now, to get a chance at that dream, she’d have to go a different route — one much farther.
“[Tom] was of the mindset that if his daughter was going to get a scholarship, get an opportunity, that she was just going to have to go out there and play,” Bezjak said.
MacKenzie McIntosh spent the next two seasons traveling three times a week to Pittsburgh, and playing in tournaments up and down the East Coast, going about finding teams that needed an extra player at each tournament, and making quite a splash in the process.”
On the pitch, McKenzie caught the eye of select teams and academies from all around the country. At Ruggerfest, a high-profile rugby tournament in North Carolina, McIntosh played with a team from a rugby academy in Atlanta, Georgia. And once she had played on their team, they didn’t want to let her go. The same went for many teams on which McIntosh played.
“The academy was trying to convince her to move to Atlanta at one point, so they could train her up,” Bezjak said. “She’s been offered to move up to Pittsburgh where they would house her for a couple years. Ella she’s the kind of player that you could win a state championship or get a national bid with. The hype is there because it’s real.”
By now, McIntosh has her pick of several colleges, and is nationally ranked for her class. But though McKenzie had burst on the scene and, through talent and determination, garnered attention from most every college scout who attended her games, the extreme lengths she had to go through made it clear West Virginia was every bit the “black hole” Bezjak said it was.
John Schneider runs Doddridge County Parks and Recreation Department. For the past three years, the parks had put on their Mountain State Scottish and Celtic Gathering, celebrating Celtic and Scottish heritage of North Central West Virginia. For last year’s festival, Schneider wanted to include something different, something to spice up the event. Going with the theme of the celebration, Schneider decided to look into staging a rugby showcase.
“[Rugby]’s huge in that part of the world,” Schneider said. “It’s bigger than football.”
When it came time to try and find a club to play at the festival, however, Schneider was faced with a hit with that “black hole.” The only club he could find had recently dissolved, but they put him in contact with Bezjak, who managed to bring in some girls rugby teams from Pittsburgh, along with McKenzie McIntosh and a handful of local youth players.
The effect was immediate. On the day of the showcase, several local girls came running up to Schneider.
“They were like ‘This is awesome, we really want to play,’” Schneider said.
After being surprised by the complete lack of options for youth rugby, and seeing the eagerness of some of the local youth, Schneider and Bezjak kept in touch, and decided to start the West Virginia War Hounds.
Going on trips to Doddridge and Ritchie County schools, Schneider and Bezjak recruited both boys and girls for the War Hounds, a developmental team that would be sponsored and based out of Doddridge County Park.
“The girls really liked it because they had never played anything like it. We started out with only five or six, we didn’t think we were going to have enough for a team. But every time we found a girl who was at least willing to come out to practice, they loved it. Absolutely loved it.”
A pair of girls from Marion County were among those who came out for the team, including McKenzie McIntosh.
Originally, Bezjak reached out to the United States Rugby Foundation, a nonprofit that organizes rugby programs across the country, for help scheduling games. But the foundation couldn’t find any competition for the War Hounds nearby.
“There are no other high school teams, boys or girls, active in the state of West Virginia,” Schneider said. “We’re it.”
So the War Hounds went a different route, as Schneider called it, they were an “outlaw team,” going to tournaments they could, and managing to organize some in their home state too.
The War Hounds held two tournaments this past season. The Clash of Clans, took place at the Scottish and Celtic Gathering, and the other, called Almost Heaven 7’s took place in The Bridge Sports Complex in Bridgeport.
At those tournaments the support for the team only grew.
“We were taking a break,” Schneider said. “I was walking through, and a local person that I knew in high school stopped me and she said ‘Why haven’t we been doing this around here forever? This is awesome, I would’ve killed to be able to play this when I was in high school.’”
“There was probably 250 or 300 people who just came and sat and watched rugby. And most of them had no clue what was going on. One of our assistant coaches, Adam, was walking up and down the sidelines the entire day, and all he did was answer questions about the game. He would stand up and say ‘Alright, does anybody else have a question?’ and he would go over and answer the next question.”
And, to Schneider’s surprise, his team, which had only a few practices under their belt, was learning quickly.
Their first game was against a team from West Allegheny in Pennsylvania.
“First half, they ran all over us,” Schneider said. “Second half, they didn’t score.”
“The girls progressed very quickly. The girls that came out really wanted to play, their hearts were in it.”
Bezjak said McIntosh played in about five of the team’s 14 games, as she often had scheduling conflicts with other tournaments, but her impact was profound.
“If Mac didn’t have that rugby team come and play a showcase match there, we would’ve never started the War Hounds,” Bezjak said. “Mac’s part of that legacy because she’s helped inspire other girls who want to play this now that they’ve seen it. That’s something I’ve noticed — once people see it, they become very interested in it.”
“McKenzie was real invested in getting this team going,” Tom McIntosh said. “Not everybody can go to PIttsburgh three nights a week. It gets the local scene going and hopefully gets something established for the long-term future.”
By season’s end in June, Schneider said at least three of his girls were getting attention from college scouts, and he expected their numbers to increase significantly next year. Both he and Bezjak hope they won’t be the only youth rugby club for long.
“There’s a lot of opportunity,” Bezjak said. “West Virginia, with their athletes at the high school level, would be perfect for rugby. I believe if we can just open the doors a little bit, with the athletes we have from high school boys and high school girls the ability to advance is there.”
“This was a proof of concept.”
As for McKenzie, who will be a senior at North Marion High, Tom McIntosh said she is deliberating between two college offers, both with great nursing programs, which is what she wants to pursue as a career.
After blazing her own path to the collegiate ranks, and now having ignited a burgeoning rugby club, perhaps more girls like McKenzie will come from the Mountain State.
“She did it on her own,” Schneider said. “Then she spurred interest in our girls, and the team’s grown from that.”