‘Eager to prove themselves:’ Herriman High School Varsity Rugby begins season with sights on National 15s ChampionshipMar 03, 2020 11:52AM ● By Mark Jackson
Lucky Kapiolani Fisi’ipeau passes to Daxton McPeak in Herriman’s Championship victory against East Valley in Arizona. (Photo by Tonia McPeak)
By Mark Jackson | [email protected]
On March 7, Herriman High School varsity rugby begins the 15s season with a home game against Riverton High with high hopes for its first national title victory at the end of the season.
The Mustangs claimed Utah’s fall state 7s championship and dominated the Arizona 7s tournament in December. Now, they will turn their momentum toward the ultimate goal: winning their first national rugby title.
Herriman has had two close 15s national title defeats in the last two years.
Last spring, the varsity team watched the 2019 national championship slip through its fingers, as it gave up the deciding points on defense in the final seconds of the game.
Three of this years’ leaders, juniors Jackson Hammer, Mason Barker and Strider Fountaine, were on the field last year when the winning points were scored and Herriman lost the lead in the final seconds.
“They were distraught,” said coach Zach Thorum. “But within 15 minutes, they were talking about what we were going to do to prepare for [the 2020 National Championship].”
With that defeat close in memory, this year’s young varsity team remains hungry to make history for Herriman High School.
Whoever the opponent may be, the Herriman Mustangs promise to do everything possible to dominate the 15s national Playoffs in the same fashion as their other recent tournaments:
“Our motto this year was ‘we’re gonna force them to prove they can beat us,’” Thorum said during the off-season. He said the team has focused on its conditioning and its defense and hopes to force other teams to play Herriman’s especially physical style of rugby.
Thanks to Herriman’s passionate coaching staff, the rugby program has grown to more than 80 players across several teams. To build strong varsity rosters, the coaches ensure every player gets game time during seasons and tournaments.
Over the offseason, players diligently organized their own extra practices and workouts and worked to come together as a team.
“Team rules, team policy — a lot of that is player-driven so that they feel ownership,” said Herriman rugby head coach Jeff Wilson before the Arizona 7s tournament. “We are not afraid to treat them like adults.”
Wilson said this approach, aimed at developing players as people first and athletes second, is a key to the program’s success. He also points to coaches such as Elvis Hansen, who coaches at Herriman High School and at Utah Valley University.
The school has consistently produced great rugby players, who are often recruited by Brigham Young University. There, former Herriman coach Derek Smith became scrum coach in 2016 and now coaches BYU’s forwards full time.
After years of investment from coaches, players, families and the Herriman rugby community, this year’s national prospects look promising.
However, the team needs to win the state 15s first. If successful, Herriman High School will have won its sixth straight State Rugby 15s championship title -- itself a historic moment for Herriman rugby.