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Highland Hands Lesson to Herriman, Warning for Future

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Highland Hands Lesson to Herriman, Warning for Future

Highland in gray vs Herriman in white. Photo Olivia Netzler.

Highland's defeat of Herriman in the Utah Red Varsity final was a bit of a shocker, but was forshadowed earlier this season.

After Herriman defeated Highland earlier in the year both Herriman and Highland coaches said the game would be much, much closer the next time they met. It was. Highland spent a lot of time during the season tinkering with their lineup and finding the right combinations. Herriman, meanwhile, was running into that problem that perennially strong teams run into—too many games are won too comfortably. The teams run a risk of not handling pressure well.

This was certainly true of Herriman, who had played a 24-24 tie with United in a non-standings game but had won their seven other in-state games, usually by wide margins. And when opponents did score against them, it was usually late in the contest. The semifinal defeat of a very good Mountain Ridge team to the tune of 55-19 merely added to the image of invincibility. What that sometimes means is not everyone sticks their tackles, and if an opponent approaches the game with nothing to lose the favorite can be shaken.

So that's what happened in the final. Highland started the game pressuring Herriman in their 22 and running hard lines and forcing Herriman players to make the tackle.

Strangely enough, after almost 10 minutes in scoring position, Highland gave up a try—a dropped ball was picked up by Sake Tukuafu who raced almost untouched for about 60 meters for the try. Herriman got the ball back off the restart and pieced together a very well-worked try, sucking in Highland forwards and then quickly sending it wide to No. 8 Cayden Syddall, who finished it off. He also put over the conversion and Herriman led 14-0.

But Highland continued to throw caution to the wind and really that's how you win a game you're not supposed to win. All of that finally led to a try through traffic and Highland was still in it.

And Herriman knew that, and you could see it in their body language. They rushed things. An attacking lineout and a maul into in-goal was a try waiting to happen. But the Mustangs were a bit high in their push and they didn't keep together. The ball was ripped away as Herriman tried to touch it down. That led to a goalline dropout, and Highland center Peizge Mailei chased on and ripped the ball out of a Herriman pair of hands. Mailei galloped to within a couple of meters of the tryline, was brought down, and Highland scored off a penalty tap with prop Tonga Afifonua diving over. It was a 100-meter turnaround, and a 14-point turnaround. 14-14.

Mailei was red-carded the week before in the semifinals, but the red card was successfully appealed down to a yellow—advocates said it was borderline at bed—and he was able to play.

Herriman came right back down and just marched over, showing they can take control of matters. So it was 19-14 Herriman at halftime. But Herriman didn't respect Highland's speed on the outside and were burned very early—Highland able to find a little room thanks to a Herriman yellow card late in the first half and wing Ashton Olevao (fun fact, the son of the Highland HS head football coach Kautai Olevao) just blazed a trail to the goalposts. Highland 21 Herriman 19. Herriman scored right after after a tackle jarred the ball loose right under the posts ... but the referee was playing advantage for an earlier knock-on by Herriman. No try. Syddall had a penalty kick lined, and it hit one upright and then the other before dropped back into play. More points not quite claimed.

Then a brilliant break from Viliami Esikia (Coach Vaha Esikia's son) put the center over. Now it was 28-19 and Herriman was adrift by two scores. Highland continued to pressure, and Herriman started to play with a little desperation—penalties, high tackles creeping into their defensive game. Quick hands put Mailei over in the corner, and now it was 33-19.

Still Herriman was in it. Two converted tries would tie the game. They almost did it. First off, though, Herriman lost the ball right at the tryline when they seemed set to score. Moments later, though, Syddall was found out on the wing and he touched it down. Syddall opted not to tee up the conversion and instead looked to drop kick it to save time. It was from the touchline and he missed. 33-24.

But they came right back, getting a penalty at midfield, taking the lineout, and eventually crashing over under the posts. 33-31. There was time for more, but Herriman lost the ball forward in the tackle. From the scrum Highland kicked it free.

It was a momentous day for Highland, and a harsh lesson for Herriman. Yes, the Mustangs had a couple of high-profile players who didn't start, but that wasn't their undoing. Little frantic moments trying to get on the right side of the scoreline was their undoing. Highland knew they had improved, and played with a relaxed abandon that allowed them to execute.

Of the stars of the game, Afifonua, Mailei, and big, hardworking lock Moala Molisi are all sophomores. Highland graduates just four starters. So the good news, more than any result now, is that they will be back, and that only makes Utah's rugby scene that much better.