Utah is a hotbed of rugby fanaticism. There are typically more fans at a prep rugby game than at most sanctioned high school sports games, the BYU and University of Utah rugby teams are regularly ranked among the top five collegiate teams in the nation, and Highland has been synonymous with rugby success on the high-school level for decades.
"The last couple of years we've had the high school national champion, the runner-up national champion and three national collegiate finishes. There's great rugby in Utah," Highland rugby head coach Larry Gelwix said.
If the level of rugby in Utah is a cut above the rest of the nation, Gelwix is the man responsible. After finishing his master's degree at BYU, Gelwix took a job teaching in the Highland school system. Besides teaching, he was also coaching varsity soccer and football. Always an avid rugby player he played at BYU and with the Provo rugby club Gelwix decided to fill his one free season by starting a rugby program at Highland.
"I decided what every young man needed was just to play rugby. I coached football in the fall, wrestling in the winter, but had nothing to do in the spring, so I started up a rugby team. I never dreamed it would take on a life of its own," Gelwix said.
One of the greatest success stories in high school athletics, the Highland rugby team has won the national championship more times, 16, than they've lost games. The program has an unbelievable 355-9 record in the team's history.
"We haven't hit double-digit losses in 32 years," Gelwix said. "I figure we have a bad day about every four years."
"It's definitely a challenge to play against Highland. There's no better rugby than here in Utah, and with Highland's level being as high as it is, that's part of the reason why Utah's rugby is so good," Murray head coach Trevor Williams said. "Everyone is trying to get up there, too."
With a program as storied as Highland's, it's no surprise that Hollywood eventually came calling. Produced by Go Films and Picture Rock Entertainment, a film about the Highland rugby team will be released nationwide in theaters this fall. Written by David Pliler and directed by Ryan Little, "Forever Strong" stars Sean Faris ("Reunion") as Rick Penning, a rugby player from Arizona who was sent to a home for wayward kids in Utah. He ended up playing for Highland against a rugby team coached by his father, Richard Penning (Neal McDonough, "Flags of Our Fathers"), in the national championship.
"They interviewed alumni, current players, parents and coaches to get stories. Then they selected stories and wove them into a storyline for a single season," Gelwix said. "The Highland rugby team in the movie is played by alumni players, which is a lot of fun, because they all know what it means to play in the program."
Despite losing the Highland practice field in a controversial decision four days before the start of the season last year (the team now practices at Cottonwood High), Gelwix refuses to ever change the name of the team.
"We're the premiere team in America. We've got an international reputation," Gelwix said. "In the rugby circles, you mention Highland's name anywhere in the country and they can tell you all about us. So, there's some value in keeping the name."
In the early years, the Highland team mainly competed against the junior varsity teams from Utah universities such as BYU, Weber State, Utah State and the University of Utah. In recent years, the sport has been growing by leaps and bounds at the prep level, however.
Besides Highland, there are currently eight other high school teams competing in Utah. Next year, the number of teams is expected to jump even more, with at least two teams organizing in the St. George and Cedar City areas.Since high school rugby is not a sanctioned varsity sport, the teams often take their names for geographical identification purposes.