By Kurt Johnson
Editor’s Note – The TOSH Top 30 is our countdown of the top 30 stories from the 2015-16 school sports year, beginning with No. 30 and counting down, one story a day, to No. 1. The 2015-2016 high school sports year was filled with big performances, both team and individual. The act of narrowing down our initial list of top stories for our TOSH Top 30 stories of the year to just 30 was a difficult task. We asked people all over the state for input into our final list and beginning June 22, we are counting them down in reverse, from story No. 30 to story No. 1. Hopefully your favorite story of the past school year made our list.
After a lopsided loss to end the regular season very few people expected to see Herriman collect the big trophy at the end of the state football playoffs, especially when the team that delivered that defeat, Lone Peak, was in the path. That the Mustangs battled through and even came from behind in the state title game to win their first football state championship is an outstanding feat, and it’s No 3 in our TOSH Top 30 stories of the year.
#3 – Herriman perseveres for first football title
The final score was 30-0.
In Week 10 of the 2015 regular season Herriman hosted Lone Peak in what amounted to a Region 4 championship game. The Knights came in undefeated overall, while the Mustangs were unbeaten in league games after losing their first two games of the season, non-region contests against Brighton and Bingham.
With the league title on the line, Herriman was unable to get anything going and Lone Peak hung that shutout on the home team. With that as the final taste in their mouth, the Mustangs entered the postseason as a decided underdog.
Interestingly, the playoffs began with a rematch of that season-opening loss to Brighton and this time the result was very different, a 49-17 Herriman win. The Mustangs followed that up with a 42-13 blowout win over Fremont to reach the state semifinals at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
With a dominating defense led by the state’s most athletic defensive lineman, Leki Fotu, and talented defensive back Noah Vaea, the Mustangs were built for the playoffs. Add to that an offense that was almost exclusively built on the ground game, with Jake Jutkins and Kaden Strasters, and you have the kind of physical team that can be dangerous.
The 5A semifinals included Herriman, powerhouse Bingham and a pair of unbeaten teams – Sky View and Lone Peak. To get to the title game, the Mustangs had to go through Sky View and to do so, it turned to electric defensive back Noah Vaea.
Down 7-3 at intermission, Herriman was struggling to get things going on offense. Four minutes into the third quarter, Vaea picked off a Garrison Beach pass and took it back 21 yards for the first Mustang touchdown of the day. Vaea then recovered a Bobcat fumble on the ensuing kickoff and set Herriman up for another TD.
The Mustang offense was on the field to cash it in, but the 24-yard TD toss on third-and-nine was complete to superstar defensive end Leki Fotu. That minute in the third quarter turned the tables and delivered Herriman to that title game matchup with Lone Peak.
Having lost to the Knights four weeks prior by that 30-0 count, the Mustangs entered the state championship game as the underdog, but that it didn’t seem to bother them much. And…that defense.
Herriman completely turned the tables Lone Peak and led 10-0 at halftime. All the offense strategy that worked so well in October was not delivering for the Knights in November, but they kept battling. Then, Lone Peak scored a touchdown and then it scored another one. With 4:28 remaining, Talmage Gunther connected with Tyson Doman for an 8-yard score that put the Knights on top 14-10.
When Herriman followed that up by going three-and-out on offense, it did not look good for the Mustangs, but there was still that defense. It got the ball back into Herriman’s hands with 2:11 to play and 57 yards to go for a game-winning score.
For a team that struggles to throw the ball generally and had all but eschewed the passing game in this contest, that must have seemed like 157 yards. And it got even more difficult.
At the 1:08 mark, it was fourth-and-5 at the Herriman 48. In his effort to make a big play, sophomore quarterback Hayden Reynolds went beyond the line of scrimmage to deliver a pass. It’s a penalty that comes with loss of down and it looked like the last chance for a win would go begging, but Lone Peak was called for a penalty of its own and the offsetting fouls provided new life.
This time, Reynolds was flushed from the pocket and starting to scramble when he found Vaea running parallel to the line of scrimmage and tossed the ball to him. The junior pulled it in and turned up the sideline, covering 41 yards to the Knights’ 11-yard-line before he was brought down.
Then, it was third-and-11 at the Lone Peak 12 and Reynolds delivered again. This time he hooked up with David Fotu for 11 yards to the 1-yard-line to set up the game-winner, a Strasters power run into the end zone that put the Mustangs over the top.
Lone Peak had reached its highest point in national respect coming into the game, ranked No. 15 in a prestigious national poll, but that did not negatively affect Herriman, nor did the earlier regular-season result. With Fotu and Vaea leading the way and head coach Dustin Pearce pulling all the right strings, this was the Mustangs’ year.
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