The regular season wasn’t kind to the Herriman Mustangs, who entered the 6A state tournament as the 18th seed after finishing their regular season with a 5-8 record.
Now, just 10 days after starting their playoff run, the Mustangs have themselves a winning 9-8 record and will be playing for the 6A state championship.
Herriman secured yet another upset in a 2-1 victory over sixth-seeded Farmington in Monday’s 6A semifinals at Juan Diego high school to secure a trip to Rio Tinto Stadium, where it will face the Davis Darts — who defeated Mountain Ridge by a 2-0 scoreline in the prior semifinal match.
The Cinderella squad needed extra time to dispatch the Phoenix, but a golden goal was scored in the second overtime by Grant Taylor, who finished off a pinpoint set-piece cross from senior Landon Allen just under three minutes into the period.
Many had (rightfully) counted the Mustangs out after a stretch in the regular season where they lost seven games in a row — five of which came in overtime, ironically — but Allen said that he and his teammates never counted themselves out.
And now, after upset wins over Corner Canyon (second seed), West (seventh seed) and Farmington, Allen and the Mustangs find themselves in a position that they always knew deep down they could reach.
“We are a tough group of boys, and I know the results didn’t show it, but we’re a special group,” Allen said. “It has just come down to our mentality and who wants it more.”
The Mustangs found themselves in the lead in the 47th minute after the official awarded a controversial penalty kick to Taylor, who jumped to win a ball in the box with Farmington keeper Davis Wadsworth in the area. The official ruled that Wadsworth impeded Taylor’s attempt to go for the ball and pointed to the spot.
Allen slotted home the penalty shot and the underdogs found themselves in the driver’s seat.
But in the 60th minute, the Phoenix pulled the equalizer back after an extended scramble for the ball in the Herriman penalty box saw Cameron Bingham kick the ball, which took a deflection off a Mustang player on its way to the back of the net.
Bingham was later shown a red card in the first overtime, which propelled Herriman in the second overtime period as it played with an extra man on the pitch.
Herriman head coach Marcello Gasperini said that his players changed the way they practiced as they neared the tournament’s start — a change he thinks is the main reason for the team’s playoff success.
“Every training became a tryout,” Gasperini said. “Every day they stepped on the field, they had to know that there’s a guy behind them who wants to take their spot. Our training sessions had that focus on being the best you can be and training like champions.”
Now after falling in last year’s 6A semifinals as a three seed, the Mustangs must’ve found that they’re better suited as an underdog, as they will play for the title as an 18 seed.
“The objective from day one has always been the same for us,” Gasperini said. “Yeah, a region trophy is great to have in the case, but the state trophy’s bigger. For us, region play was about adjusting, getting the right personnel and the right rhythm of the game. We needed to be good at the right time and today shows that we’re the right team to be in the final.”
Taking down the fifth-seeded Darts, however, will be no small task for the Mustangs.
Davis felt in control for virtually all of its semifinal match against seventh-seeded Mountain Ridge.
Andrew Donigan knocked home the Darts’ opening goal in the 25th minute to give an added layer of comfort to an already composed Davis backline, who managed to keep the Sentinels off the scoresheet all afternoon.
The Davis defense was able to perform despite missing a key piece in senior captain Nash Jensen, who was shown a red card in the quarterfinals. Kevin Barnes, another senior captain for the Darts, said he and his teammates wanted to make sure that the quarterfinal matchup wasn’t Jensen’s final high school game.
“We all played this game for Nash,” Barnes said. “We wanted to make sure he got to play one more game, at Rio Tinto. We were all united for something bigger than us and that’s what saw us through.”
After defending for a full 80 minutes, the Darts added a second goal in the literal last second of the game when Elliott Pehrson booted a long shot at goal after seeing Mountain Ridge’s keeper off his line.
The goal changed nothing about the result, but put a fitting finishing touch on a rock-solid performance from the Darts, who Barnes said have had a chip on their shoulders all season after bowing out in last year’s quarterfinals to 21st-seeded Fremont.
“Our whole tournament run has just been one game at a time, so we’re going to enjoy this win right now, but we’ll be back to work tomorrow,” Barnes said.
Each riding significant waves of momentum, the two sides will collide and vie for the chance to hoist the state championship trophy Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium.