BY MICHAEL CRESSLER
Well, that’s a first.
The Utah Lions, the state all-star high school rugby program, became the only American team to win the high school division of the Las Vegas Invitational over the weekend.
Opening up in pool play, Utah defeated Bermuda HS All-Star team 22-5 in their opening match and then quickly putting away Bingham United 60-0 with Tance Alsup scoring 4 tries in that match. A defeat of Tennessee Tri-Star Red completed the sweep of the pool with a 22-7 victory. That ended the Lions first day with a sweep of their pool and a point ratio of 104 f or to 12 against and putting the Lions in to the cup quarter finals on Friday. That when the magic happened.
With five Utah teams competing in the LVI (Lions, Herriman, two teams from United and one from Snow Canyon), only Herriman and the Lions remained in the race for the cup on Friday morning.
In the quarterfinals, Lions drew a tough Tennessee Tri-Star blue team, the A-side of the three teams Tennessee brought. Utah quickly put 12 points on the board with both tries coming from Colton Swapp. At halftime Utah added speed and size in the form of Peter Makalio, Himinai Tausinga and Tance Alsup. This caused Tennessee to counter with tactical subs of their own but the coup d’grace came with addition of Ikaika Primacio and Kekoa Isaacs providing power and ball movement in the middle. Captained again by Colton Swapp, the Utah Lions put Tennessee down 24-5.
Meanwhile Herriman fell in a heartbreaking loss to British Columbia Elite 7s team by three points after having led most of the match.
The Lions, having watched BC struggle against the large, 15s style attack of the Herriman team, opted for a bit of deception in their semifinal match. Starting their speediest, most agile side, the Lions passive defense stymied the four-time champions of this event and kept the score 0-0 at the half.
Quickly subbing in the power players of co-captain Bridger Gilgen, Himinai Tausinga, and Matt Miner, BC didn’t know what to do. With 2:34 left in the match, the Bridger Gilgen hammered the BC inside and put the pill down between the posts. Co-captain Elliot McDaniel slotted the conversion for the 7-0 lead.
BC would not be denied and after a defensive breakdown by Utah on the right side, BC put the goal down with no time left leaving the score 7-7 and pushing the game into a 5 minute overtime. Strategy switched for both teams as each tried to find a weakness in the defense but Utah quietly pushed Tance Alsup to the left wing where they had seen a potential speed overlap against BC and at the very end of overtime play, Tance was able to slip past the BC defender and put the ball under the uprights.
In the other semifinal, ICEF, a Los Angeles inner city team narrowly defeated Celtic Barbarians to set up the first all-American Las Vegas Invitational championship.
ICEF, who features a UCLA football commit, had devastated teams with an incredibly powerful running game and a smothering defense. Utah opted for a very patient, passive defense to “keep the line” offering an enticing soft shoulder. The key to Utah defense all day had been sweeper Aleni Aiono who, with incredible speed and agility, had provided the stopping and controlling power required to effectively defend the shoulder Utah would offer to teams during passive defensive play and the roving backup when a high pressure defense was called. While attacking, Utah opted to play ”keep away”. Forcing ICEF to shift rapidly side to side, isolating their better player and opening gaps in their defense. The strategy worked and Utah, under captain Elliot McDaniel’s leadership, defeated ICEF 22-5.