Only in rugby would the national championships be considered a tune-up for state.
And only would one club claim a 1-2 showing at nationals sets it up for a state title run. But the legacy of Highland rugby has that effect, and as the last vestige of Utah’s most famed club, Trybe is probably entitled to some optimism, even with the struggles at nationals on May 18 and 19.
“When the team goes to state,” captain Scott Jeptson said, “we’ll be able to sharpen those up and hopefully play with no mistakes.”
Or there’s Soloway Vainuku, a Brighton junior who plays flanker for Trybe: “I think we’re going to win it all.”
When legendary Highland coach Larry Gelwix retired after last season to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the club became a foundation aimed at developing more teams in Utah. Enter Trybe, which is overseen by former Highland player and assistant coach Jeramy Evans.
“It didn’t makes sense to let it just die,” Evans said.
While Trybe, which is made up of 137 players from across the Salt Lake Valley, is frequently referred to as “formerly Highland,” Evans distances his club from that moniker. Instead, he says, Trybe, which is named for the family spirit of a “tribe” and a “try” in rugby, strives to meet the standards set by Highland.
“There’s a pattern to the way we were taught as youngsters that we’re still teaching to the kids,” Evans said.
Trybe entered Friday’s national tournament opener with just one loss this season, but lost 10-8 to Colorado Springs on a last-minute penalty, which Evans set the tone for the weekend.
“We kind of missed our shot there,” Evans said. “But had we won that game, I feel like our team was good enough to compete at the higher levels.”
United, from Utah County, lost in the national title game to Indianapolis Cathedral.
“It was definitely frustrating to lose,” Vainuku said, “because given our past records and just winning it so easily.”
In the state championships this weekend at the University of Utah, Trybe, which is now 8-3, will play Snow Canyon in a semifinal on Friday. If it wins, it will play either United or Herriman, the only Utah team to beat Trybe this season, in Saturday’s championship.
Evans pointed to Herriman as another team that spawned from Highland and is spreading the sport. Herriman coaches Larry and Jeff Wilson are former Highland coaches (Larry, the Herriman High football coach also previously coached at Highland High School).
“It’s all really, really cool that they’re successful,” Evans said.
Whether Trybe is “formerly Highland” or not is less significant, Vainuku, said, than what it represents. He said the team does all the charity work and community outreach Highland was known for, which was showcased in the documentary “Forever Strong.”
“I think,” Vainuku said, “we do carry the name of Highland, in a sense.”
Now, he and the rest of Trybe just hope they can carry on the winning tradition.