Herriman, in just its second year of existence as both a school and a rugby program, won the Utah State Championship Saturday.
The new team was started last year and the school first opened its doors in 2010, so many of the would-be upperclassmen opted to stay at their previous school, leaving the rugby team with just freshmen and sophomores to work with in its first year. Head coach Jeff Wilson said he had just two players with prior rugby experience, and the rest were all rookies.
The Mustangs played in the Freshman and Sophomore Division of Utah Youth Rugby in the spring of 2011, beating vaunted Highland in the regular season and losing to United in the playoffs.
Over the offseason, Wilson knew he had a good team returning, but he had to convince Utah Youth Rugby’s administration that the Mustangs could compete in the state’s top division, as first-year varsity programs typically have to start in the second division.
“I had to kind of fight for us a bit. I said, ‘Look, I understand why that rule is in place, but I’m going to promise you, and I’ll put my reputation at stake, but we’re going to be able to compete at Division One,’” said Wilson. “So that was even a battle for us to get into the top division.”
Wilson was right, and not only did the Mustangs compete at the top level in Utah, they ran the table and won a state title, beating TRYBE, formed out of the ashes of the old Highland program, for which Wilson had coached for 10 years.
“I know most of those kids and those coaches and so forth, so that was kind of an interesting deal to begin with,” Wilson said.
Herriman beat TRYBE in the regular season, surmounting a 25-15 deficit late in the game for a 33-25 win. Sunday’s final was somewhat reminiscent of their first clash, as the Mustangs trailed TRYBE 12-7 with under a minute to play in regulation before reserve Ka’ohu Maumau scored the tying try at the death.
Maumau entered the game following a neck injury that saw Brandon Jensen ushered off the field and to the hospital. He wound up being fine, but the injury added to the drama of an already intense final, which featured two teams ravaged by injuries trying to limp to a state title.
“That was a little bit of a scary moment. At that point we were down 12-7 and our kids got fired up and said we’ve got to do this for Brandon and some of the other kids who couldn’t be out there with us,” said Wilson.
“We also had to kind of learn how to win. They’d been there, done that so many times it was an expectation they’re going to get that thing done. For us, we had to kind of learn how to do it. First championship game for us.”
The Mustangs showed the patience of a more mature team on the tying drive.
“Kind of a Hollywood-like ending. If we don’t keep possession, I think the game’s over, and we just kept keeping it alive, keeping it alive and got it out,” recalled Wilson. “(Maumau) just ran his tail off and put one down right in the corner for a try and tied the thing up.”
As in so many movies, like “The Big Green” or “The Mighty Ducks”, the game came down to a shootout, following a pair of scoreless overtimes, and Herriman managed to slot two more penalty kicks than TRYBE to claim the state title.
The Hollywood ending was fitting for a Cinderella team that came from nowhere.