McKenzie Hawkins smiles, even giggles a little bit, when she describes being tackled by Candace Barley.
Hawkins was a fifth-grader at the time. Barley was by then a regular with the U.S. junior national team and one of the two or three best high school rugby players in the state.
“The hardest I’ve ever been hit is by Candace Barley,” Hawkins, now a seventh-grader at Alcoa Middle School, said. “She picked me up and slammed me down.
“That was an eye opener.”
Again, she giggles.
It’s not every kid that can laugh off a hit like that, but then Hawkins and her Maryville Rugby Football Club teammates are anything but ordinary.
The MRFC girls won the club’s third consecutive USA Rugby South Region championship over the weekend in Greenville, S.C., shutting out Oconee, Ga., 53-0, in the championship match at Furman University.
The under-19 team, comprised of players from area high schools, excepting the middle schooler Hawkins, will compete in the USA Rugby high school national championships next month in Sandy, Utah, just outside Salt Lake.
The MRFC boys fell in a close one in the opener at the Southern regional, storming back over the next two days to claim the bronze from Chapin, S.C., in a match that went overtime. Aaron Dotson emerged the hero for Maryville in the extra session, splitting the uprights from 22 yards in sudden death to lift the club to a 13-10 victory.
Both Maryville teams will take part in the Smoky Mountain Athletic Club championships this weekend at Tennessee Rugby Park in Oak Ridge. The girls open the tournament on Thursday, with the boys following on Saturday. The girls and boys championships are scheduled for Sunday, with times yet to be determined.
Both teams are favored to reach the state championships next weekend in Murfreesboro, and for good reason. Since the club’s inception in 2003, Maryville has rapidly become a state power, thanks, in no small part, to players like the super-athletic Barley.
The Lee University freshman is the youngest player ever to don a U.S. women’s under-20 national team jersey, Barley earning selection as a 14-year-old. She was 15 years, 34 days when she played her first international match.
The 5-foot-9 Hawkins, whose goal is to make the national team when rugby becomes an Olympic sport in 2016, is cut from the same cloth. It was Barley, after all, who christened her into the sport.
Tackles like the one Barley visited upon Hawkins do happen, but to think that’s all there is to rugby is to miss quite a lot, Maryville High School senior Paige Ragland said. Ragland said she took up the sport when her older sister said it just wasn’t working out with the two of them on the soccer field together.
“She said I was too aggressive for soccer anymore,” Ragland said.
One of MRFC’s smaller players, Ragland, like Hawkins, said she was hooked on rugby after her first big collision.
“Since I took that first hit, it’s been a blast,” she said.
That’s when the thinking side of the sport generally kicks in, teammate and Maryville High senior Canterra Whysong said.
“I came to the first practice, and I loved it,” she said. “I like the technique of it all. I like brain teasers, and that’s a lot how girls’ rugby is.”
The rules of rugby have a lot to do with its accessibility to players of both genders and all ages. There are no forward passes, i.e. no blindside hits or kill shots. The ball can only be advanced by lateral to teammate. Tackling must be done above the waist, with players required by rule to “wrap up” after making contact.
It only looks like football, Alcoa High School senior Jon Burchfield said.
“Football is more about trying to run the guy over, running through him,” he said. “In rugby, you have to wrap up, or it’s a penalty.”
Burchfield played on the offensive line on Alcoa’s state championship football team this past season. He loves the game, he said, but rugby offers something his days on the gridiron never did.
In football, Burchfield spent much of last season opening holes for Tornado running back JaRon Toney, who smashed the state record for rushing touchdowns last year. In rugby, he gets to carry the ball, Burchfield said.
“It’s great,” he said. “I’m carrying the ball a lot more this year.”
That, Maryville High senior Lee Paine said, is by design.
“When we get down there near the goal line, we try to make sure he gets the ball,” he said.
Burchfield, in only his second season with the club, was elected team captain earlier this spring. It’s not uncommon for players to come to the club with little or no experience.
“The first game I ever saw was the first game I ever played in,” said Maryville High junior Catherine Eichhorn, now one of MRFC’s elite players.
The physical aspect of the game is not to be underestimated, MRFC coach Jay Hawkins, McKenzie’s dad, said.
“Everybody thinks it’s dangerous because you don’t have any pads,” he said. “The rules for rugby are there for safety and to keep the game moving.”
“In the fall, we try to get the kids out and we teach a ton of technique,” Rick McGhie, another of the club’s coaches, said.
Rugby is anything but a free-for-all, Eichhorn said.
“Everybody thinks it’s just chaos,” she said, “and it’s so much more to it than that.”
An element of the sport perhaps more valuable than any, Jay Hawkins said, is the effect it can have on a player’s self confidence.
McKenzie Hawkins was already competing against girls much, much older by the sixth grade. At an under-19 national tournament a year ago, Maryville took to the pitch against a team where several players were already in college, including the player marking McKenzie, who was a freshman at Auburn.
“I thought, ‘Jeez! They’re huge,’” Jay Hawkins said, “‘but I told them, ‘You can take ‘em.’
“You can’t be scared of boys and girls like that. I know the girls that come out and play rugby, and stick with it, have more confidence in themselves.”
Perhaps the greatest show of confidence was on display when Kim Hawkins, McKenzie’s mom, gave her OK for her daughter to take up the sport, but then Jay had all that worked out a long time ago.
Jay and McGhie were first introduced to rugby while attending college at Memphis State, now the University of Memphis. That’s where Kim and Jay first met.
“(McKenzie’s) mom and I, our first date was a rugby game,” Jay said.
McKenzie was a regular at MRFC practices by the time Jay was named one of the club’s coaches. She knew the game better than many of the players by the time she played in her first match. It did a lot to allay many of her mom’s concerns, McKenzie said.
“I just remember her saying, ‘OK, but just be careful,’” she said.
While well and truly the kid on the team, McKenzie Hawkins said acceptance by the club’s older players is a big reason why she stayed with the sport.
“The camaraderie and meeting everyone is what kept me playing,” she said.
Not everything about rugby is the way it should be, Whysong said.
“They were drunk when they made the ball,” she said.
Still, where else in Blount County can you have students from Alcoa and Maryville, Heritage and William Blount all pulling for each other, all playing on the same team?
“I kind of like us being a multi-school team,” Paine said. “That way we can tap into all of them.”
Wonder how that would look for football?