Last week I spoke with Herriman Mustangs RFC head coach Jeff Wilson. Wilson’s team won a thriller over Trybe (formally Highland, reformed this season) 12-12 (3-1 in penalty kicks in the Utah high school rugby Division 1 championship. Wilson, an assistant football coach at Herriman, played football and rugby at Highland High before playing college football at Southern Utah and Rocky Mountain College as an offensive lineman.
I asked him about the championship game, the program, his players and national championships, which his team was left out of.
Q: What was the Championship game like?
A: It was great. It was amazing. It was cool. There were some mixed emotions going in because playing Trybe. When they were Highland, a lot of those kids were kids I used to coach when they were younger. So it was kind of neat because, if we can’t win it, they can, cause I know so many of them. It was an interesting deal knowing so many of them and having a familiarity with them and knowing they were going to be well coached.
Saturday was amazing. What a game! In all my years coaching rugby, it’s the first time a game has gone down to kicks. It was just incredible. I’m sure the spectators had fun. You could not ask for a better game. It probably aged my five years. I shook my head afterwards, and told my kids ‘You got stop making these things so close. You’ll give me a heart attack.’ What a fun thing to be a part of! Just a neat experience to have a part in and just to watch as a coach unfolding on the field — it was just a special thing.
We’re down to our last … we’re losing. We’re down to our last possession. We have (Ka’Ohu Maumau) on the field that hasn’t been a starter, and we have two freshmen on the field. We’re banged up. By the end of that game, we were down eight starters. Some were injured coming in. Some got injured during that game. We are held together with duct tape. We have this kind of rag-tag group of guys.
(Maumau) who scored the try, he’s a good player, but for whatever reason hasn’t gotten over the hump to be a starter. If we lose the ball, the game is over. And so he fights his way in and puts the ball down, and I say ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ But it was also one of those deals where I had complete confidence that we were going to tie it up and send it to overtime and that we’re going to win it. I was confident in our guys. They just battle. I told them after the game, ‘You guys refuse to lose.’ We were undefeated, but we didn’t win our games by a ton of points. We kind of grinded it out. They just find a way to win. If they do that enough, they just keep doing it.
Same thing happened the first time we played Trybe. We were down 10 points and came back and scored three times in those 10 minutes and ended up winning the game by eight, but with 10 minutes left, you would said, ‘We’re done.’ Our kids just refused to let it happen. They just refused to be beaten.
Q: How did you build this program?
A: It started when the school (opened two years ago). We could only do a 9th/10th grade team last year. And so we played in that division. We beat Highland during the year, which was a turning point for us. We lost to United in the semifinals. The kid made an unbelievable kick to beat us. We lost, but good on you.
(This year) I only had four seniors. I had to fight for inclusion in Division 1. I’m not a self-promoter, it’s not in my nature. But I had to do it for our team. Drawing from my experience (coaching an playing at Highland), I can tell you, because I’ve been there, done that so many times, this team is going to be good enough to compete at the Division 1 level. And I had to just try to convince everybody that and just throw myself out there. If we tank this season, I look like crap. I told my kids, ‘thanks for having my back on this.’ But I knew they would. We had the right kind of kids — and I have great assistant coaches.
That’s where my experience with Highland is so helpful. Because once you’ve been to that level before, you take stock of your team and kind of say, ‘yes we can get there’ or ‘no we can’t’, and I thought we could.
Q: Which came first, football or rugby?
A: I started playing football first, then in my junior year in high school I added rugby, and I wrestled as well. I guess football came first, but I don’t think I could ever choose between them. They are just different. I love them both. Football paid for college, so I didn’t play rugby in college, the football coach said football’s paying for college — you’re not playing rugby. And I understand that. I have a huge passion for football. I just gets into you.
But at the same time, I said ‘If I’m going to coach and teach for a living and I’m going to coach football, I may as well coach rugby in the spring because I love that too.
Q: Who had a standout year for you this season?
A: It’s such a team thing. It’s one of those deals, it you have one guy that’s a stud and a bunch of average guys, you’re going to struggle. You’ve got to be solid 1 through 15. And it’s got to come from everybody. Our two seniors who started definitely did a good job. Alex Mickelson and Spencer Garcia. We had some great captains. Francis Bernard. Gabe Ruflin and Moliki Mulitalo. Thad Hay was a kid that just burst onto the scene. Great athlete, but hadn’t played the game before. He took to the game like a duck to water. And was Tueni Lupeamanu (we held him out of final because of injury). Tyler Chapman broke his nose. We were without eight of our starting 15. Our (assistant coaches Mike Smith, Derek Smith and Don Fountaine) developed a lot of very good depth. Other guys stepped on the field and didn’t miss a beat. By the end of the game we had two freshmen and four sophomores on the field, so it was a pretty cool deal.
Q: What makes rugby in Utah go so well together?
A: It’s a combination of things. Highland helped certainly just because they have had the marquee program for so long time. It was like, ‘compete or get beat’. Competition always makes people better. You have BYU, which has been a traditionally strong rugby college for a lot of years. and now Utah has joined them at that level as well. Rugby is a huge, huge game in the Polynesian culture. You have the big Polynesian culture in Utah, that has certainly helped drive the sport to its popularity because most American kids don’t grow up playing rugby, but most of the Polynesian kids play and have some knowledge of the game. It’s not a foreign game to them. And then we have some other coaches of programs, like Jeramy Evans at Trybe and the Puriri brothers at United (Colin Puriri) and Snow Canyon (Michael Puriri). They’re guys from New Zealand, where the best rugby is played. They relocated to Utah and they bring just a wealth of knowledge. Those guys can just flat-out coach. It’s just a combination of a lot of those things. And we’re not a state that has spring football. If a kid wants to do some kind of activity (like football), It’s a natural draw.
Q: So next year, you’ll be invited to nationals, I take it?
A: Who knows? The way they changed the system was weird. Before you’ve always been able to qualify — the best team would go, but this year, they said they would make it an invitational and we are going to choose teams before the season. Well, we didn’t have a resume before the season. We never played varsity before. I tried to sell them on the same thing I sold our state on Division 1. But they said, ‘you just don’t have a resume, we are going to go with teams that have more history.’ And I guess you can’t blame them for that. You don’t really get bitter at them for not selecting you because of when they selected you can understand why they made the decision they made. The only think I get upset about is it’s not when they should have been making the selection. You make it at the end of the season when teams have been able to prove their mettle. I looked at that we have three teams from our state going and we’re not one of them and I said, ‘The only way we can prove that we belong at that level is to beat all three of them.’ And we did. I told our boys, ‘if we run the table, we kick down the door and make the opportunity for ourselves.’ And hopefully that’s what we’ve done. I would think we have a great opportunity to be at nationals, but for the past year, nothing is a given. It’s kind of out of our hands. We just play. We worry about what we can control and not worry about anything else. We just play rugby.
It’s like the deal we had with our jerseys. We had brand new custom jerseys we ordered. They came in (and) they didn’t match our shorts at all. It wasn’t even close. It was the (most) awful mismatch of blues. We ended up sending them back. Our kids were disappointed. I told them ‘look, it doesn’t matter what we put on our chests.’ That has no bearing on how we play rugby. They could put us in pink for all I care. You could put us in tank tops, we will go play. We’ll just play rugby. And let everyone else sort out the rest. If you can’t control it, what does it do worrying about it?