The Herriman Mustangs triumphed in a spirited contest over Highland in Utah HS action at Sugarhouse Park on Saturday.
Although this was the first ever meeting between the two teams, their respective staffs are very familiar with each other. Herriman's Director of Rugby, Jeff Wilson, is a Highland alum and was a Highland assistant for ten seasons. Herriman boasts four other ex-Highland Rugby players on its staff, including Head Coach Derek Smith.
The current, year-and-a-half-old incarnation of Highland, now a single school team, is coached by Mark Numbers, a former Highland teammate of three of the Herriman coaches, as well as fellow Highland alums Kory Olsen and Dan Berg.
Both teams came in to the game undefeated in league play and the pre-game expectations of an exciting contest came to fruition. Both teams were a bit shorthanded in the affair, with Herriman missing U17 All-Americans Sione Bloomfield and Kalisi Moli who were on their way to Europe, and four-year staring hooker Beau Bequette with injury.
Highland was down a starter each in the pack and the backline as well. Playing on their home field, Highland struck almost immediately in the first five minutes of the game. Talented flyhalf Matt Miner put a kick over the Herriman back three and got them scrambling, and all the Mustangs were able to muster was a rushed kick back from fullback Colin Snow. The kick was fielded by John Cameron of Highland, who sidestepped Snow's tackle attempt and showed a great burst through a gap in the Mustang defense for a try between the posts. Miner converted for a quick 7-0 lead. Herriman was quick to respond, moving the ball down the field off of the kickoff with some timely running and a couple of Highland penalties at the breakdown. After kicking for touch down to 5m out from the line, the Mustangs tried a driving maul that was well defended by Highland. Highland was equal to the task against pick and jam attempts, and referee Sam Madsen whistled a potential score held up, 5m scrum to Herriman. The ball would go out to the backs and find Sophomore inside center Tomasi Tonga, who lowered his shoulder and knocked the Highland fullback to the ground before offloading to Flyhalf Jordan Marrott for a try. Marrott’s presence was welcome, as the junior captain returned from a two-game absence after a bout with Mononucleosis. The conversion was missed and Highland clung to a 7-5 lead.
The game turned a bit sloppy after this, with both teams feeling each other out and making gains, but not able to string together consistent phase play against each squad’s stellar defense. Miner continued to test the Mustangs with kicks, but replacement fullback Dom Miranda provided nice cover, and Highland wing Justise Jones had several nice gains for the hosts but at times was lacking support. Herriman spent a good deal of the half camped down in the Highland end but wasted opportunity time and again by not making the extra pass, getting held up in a maul, and getting pushed out of bounds on a few occasions. Flanker Vuni Bloomfield and wings Daniel Osornio and Brig Rush were the primary penetrators, but little was shown for the efforts. Finally, the Mustangs did put a score on the board, as Marrot ran wide from 15m out and drew in the opposing wing, then deftly passed to Osornio for the score in the corner. The tough conversion was missed, and after more sloppy offense and great defense by both sides, the half drew to a close with Herriman holding on to a 10-7 lead.
With both squads certainly unhappy over the inconsistent play of their teams, the second half began with renewed vigor and intent to execute. Herriman was penalized early and the tandem of Miner and scrumhalf Elliot McDaniel moved the ball down the field, kicking to touch for a lineout deep in Herriman territory. Looking back, the ensuing lineout may have been the turning point in the game. Highland was poised to score and attempted a driving maul, but the Herriman forwards, led by prop Irvin Medina-Garcia, bound in tight and drove the Highland maul out of bounds. It would be quite a while before Highland made another promising threat to score, as Herriman controlled the game for the next 20 minutes. Reserve center Niua Mahe made several physical runs through the arm tackles of Highland’s defense, and Osornio continued to make things difficult on the outside. Highland’s defense once again stiffened up near the goal, but were pinged several times and, after a few warnings, Herriman was given a penalty try when Highland was offside at a ruck from 1m out and wrapped up Herriman scrumhalf Dallin Abbott before he could get a handle on the ball. Abbott was true on the conversion and the lead was double digits, 17-7.
Bloomfield, Marrott, and Mahe continued to put Herriman right back on the attack after the kickoff, as the pace of play was noticeably increased in the second half, showing a high level of fitness. A Herriman knock on would only thwart things briefly, as a stolen scrum and a free kick would give the Mustangs a tap which was taken by Abbott and spun out to the backs. Sophomore wing Brig Rush would make a nice, spinning run down close and Marrott was Johnny on the spot, picking the ball before a ruck could form and weaving in for a try from about 10m out. The sideline conversion was just off from the posts, and the lead increased to 22-7.
Thirsty for more, Herriman once again went on the attack from the kickoff, quickly moving the ball down the field with Marrott, Mahe, and senior captain and 8-man Misi Tonga. Another well taken tap by Marrott found him down near the goal line and throwing what looked to be an ill-advised pass high and outside, but Rush came to the rescue, snatching it out of midair and diving over in the corner for another score. The far conversion was again well struck but just off the mark, and in the span of less than 10 minutes the score had increased 17 points to 27-7.
With about 10 minutes to go in the contest, Herriman began subbing and Highland took advantage behind Miner, who put a booming kick deep in to the Herriman and then ran the ball near the try line. David Ika would put down the ball from the ruck for an unconverted Highland try and some much needed momentum, 27-12. A short Herriman kickoff gave Highland a middle scrum, and a stolen feed was pounced on by McDaniel, putting Herriman on the back foot, but the Highland backs were victims of some mishandled balls and turned the scoring opportunity over. A big run by Cameron off of a scrum would put Highland back in attacking position, however, and the ball came out to senior Fonomanu Sekona, who exploited a gap in the Herriman defense and raced 50m for a score. The conversion by Miner was good at the final whistle, 27-19.