Six county rugby players make state
Although their team went just 2-3 in the regular season and bowed out of the first round of the playoffs, six Summit County high schoolers were recognized for their standout play with nominations to the Utah Rugby Union all-state teams in June.
Playing for the Murray-based Wasatch Rugby Club, Mitch Freckleton, Andy Richardson, Scott Carson and Michael Shearer were selected from Park City High School, and Karson Crittendon and Chance Field were chosen from South Summit High School.
"Utah’s high school competition is second to none in the country," said Park City Rugby Football Club president Alan Short, who helped to introduce many of the players to the sport. The team was 0-4 in non-official scrimmages and suffered some lopsided losses, but Utah is home to national heavyweights Highland and a number of other well-established teams.
Short called Freckleton the "natural" leader of the Wasatch Rugby Club. "For a big guy, he gets around the field really well," he said.
All-state players were invited to try out for the Utah All-Star National Select team, and Freckleton was the only Summit County player to earn a spot. That team traveled to Denver on June 18 to defend its championship in the Rocky Mountain Challenge, a national U-19 rugby tournament, and came up just short in a 7-3 championship game loss to a Texas team.
Richardson brought speed and strong decision-making to the Wasatch Rugby Club, while Carson added an unstoppable motor. Short called the PCHS cross-country runner "one of my favorite players."
"He can run, run, run, and not many players can keep up with him," he said.
While his teammates all made the U-19 all-state team, Shearer was tabbed for the U-17 team as a junior. He lacked confidence when he was first introduced to the sport three years ago, but you wouldn’t know it now, Short said. "It’s guys like him that make us want to keep (the program) going."
Short said both Crittendon and Field are new to rugby but showed athleticism in their first season and have learned the nuances quickly.
Park City High School was represented by a team at the North American 7s Invitational held June 26 at Rio Tinto Stadium – an experience soured by a harsh introduction to a different style of rugby.
"The kids were a little bit disheartened because they lost so badly," Wasatch Rugby head coach Ben Knudsen said.
Sevens rugby, popular for its fast pace, high scoring and seven-minute halves, will be featured in the 2016 Olympics, and the University of Utah recently won the USA Sevens National Collegiate Championship. It has fewer injuries than full-sided rugby, and high schoolers often compete against college-aged competitors or adult teams.
The Summit County high schoolers also participated in exhibition sevens games at City Park during this year’s Fourth of July celebration, keeping characteristically occupied throughout the summer season. The team practices three days a week all year long.
"We get our high school kids brand new, so we spend most of our time teaching them how to pass the ball, not how to structure an attack," said Knudsen.
Short said Freckleton discussed playing rugby with Brandon Matich at PCHS and the former PCHS football coach bristled at the notion of his players risking injury, saying it might jeopardize their playing time if he found out. Short and Knudsen hope new coach Kai Smalley will be more accommodating.
"While rugby’s construed as this physical, violent sport, there are studies that say there are actually more injuries in football," Short said. Pads can make players feel indestructible, he said, and open-field rugby tackles are often less dangerous than impacts of football tackles.
Knudsen estimates that half of this year’s Wasatch roster was from Summit County, the result of a long friendship between Knudsen and Short, who tried to start a high school team in Summit County two years ago but couldn’t find the requisite 25 players.
"We’re working toward getting those numbers up," Short said. He has met with PCHS athletic director Doug Payne and two junior high schools to stir up interest at younger ages.
"The youth, we believe, is the way to go," he said. "That’s what we’ve seen all over the country. Once kids get to play it, they love it, because everyone’s involved, everyone can touch the ball or play offense or defense at any time."
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