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The Highland Rugby Team was organized during the 1975-1976 school year at Highland High School, Salt Lake City, Utah. Larry Gelwix, Sr. served as the Head Coach from that time until his retirement following the 2011 season. Mark Numbers, the team’s current Head Coach, is only the second head coach in the team’s long history.
On March 3, 1976, Highland Rugby held its first practice. Banners were hung in the school, announcements were made to the student body and Coach Gelwix was ready to start the first high school rugby team in the state. Only six players showed up that first day. Gelwix remembers, “We announced that a rugby team would be started and I just assumed that everyone would love rugby as much as I do. I was wrong. No one knew what rugby was.” Gelwix went on a campaign to explain rugby, the second most popular sport in the world, to the Highland students, parents, faculty, administration, and community. Soon after a nucleus of players fell in love with the game and Highland Rugby was born.
The spring of 1976 fielded a team of 26 players and one coach. It is a tremendous honor to be an “original Highland Rugby player” and only 26 young men can claim that privilege. Those first-year Highland Rugby players include Michael Aldous, David Baranowsky, Russ Barry, Ron Brown, Ken Bullock, Tim Clark, Jim Cochran, Dan Davis, Duffy Daynes, Reynold Evans, Dan Jarcho, Grant Jones, Dave Knudsen, Mark Lambert, Gordon Martell, Mark Nelson, Randy Newman, Kelly Nielsen, Bryan Nilsen, Bill Page, Howard Smith, Ken Stevens, Jim Stringham, Ron Vanbibber, Warren Walker and John Wright.
Two weeks after the start of practice and none of the players having ever even seen a rugby game before, Highland was ready to play its first game but Highland was the only high school team in Utah. A game was arranged with Brigham Young University’s Junior Varsity team. BYU has always been a national college rugby powerhouse with a large number of foreign-born players who grew up playing rugby. This was no small task for a “bunch of high school kids.”
New jerseys, shorts, and socks had been ordered, but had not yet arrived. Fearing the worst and hoping for the best, Coach Gelwix drove home the afternoon of the game for one last look to see if the uniforms had arrived. Luckily, two large boxes of rugby gear were on his front porch. Without even opening the boxes, Gelwix threw them in the trunk of his car and raced back to the school to meet his team. After the one hour drive from Salt Lake City to Provo and the BYU campus, brand new jerseys with creases still in the jerseys and shorts were handed out, the team warmed up, and was ready to play. John Seggar, BYU’s rugby coach, walked over to the Highland team and said, “Well, you boys look pretty. Now let’s see if you can play rugby.”
In fairness to the rookie Highland Team, they had no business being on the same field in a game with experienced college players. BYU beat Highland 41-6 but Highland surprised everyone. These kids, ages 15-18 years old, with just eight practices under their belts were now playing the reserves of one of the nation’s top collegiate programs and they could actually play the game!
Since then, Highland Rugby has gone on to a famous record, having the Utah State Championship every year between 1976 and 2011 and winning 20 of 27 USA Rugby National Championships contested between 1985 and 2011, with six runner-up national champions and one third-place finish. In 1998, it competed in the first World School Boys Championship in Harare, Zimbabwe. It was the only team from the Western Hemisphere to qualify for the tournament and finished third. Highland Rugby has competed all across the United States and in many countries throughout the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and Zimbabwe.
Highland Rugby’s objective is to develop world-class athletes and compete at the highest level while also developing world-class young people capable of high achievement throughout their lives.