Warrior Built Part Seven: Pathway to the MLR
Herriman, UT - Utah has historically been known for its wealth of rugby talent individually and collectively as teams in the Utah Warriors' Pathway program continue to set the standard in the MLR with a fully unified program that provides opportunities for players both young and old, and of all skill levels.
Utah boasts a committed rugby community with a solid player and coaching talent pool that other Major League Rugby (MLR) teams don't inherently have in their respective backyards. Whether it was the vaunted Highland Rugby that won 22 High School National Championships over the course of 30-plus years, and the more-recent national champions Herriman High winning in 2021, or Brigham Young University (BYU) that won five collegiate national championships with the most recent one in 2015.
These and other teams inspired the Utah Warriors' commitment to foster the growth of this rugby community through its many Pathway programs. Starting with the Jr. Warriors program for kids under the age of 14, followed by the U18 Academy Team, the Warriors are looking to provide Utah's growing youth population participatory and elite development opportunities alike.
On the upper end of the spectrum, the Utah Selects has served as the Warriors' stated minor-league developmental team before players might graduate to the full Warriors MLR squad. And now complimenting the Selects is the newly announced Crossroads Cup that offers Utah's adult men's players the opportunity to develop and showcase for possible Utah Selects invitations.
Over the past three MLR seasons, the Warriors have provided over 150 local and domestic players development opportunities with the Utah Selects and have graduated 11 players to the Warriors' MLR side, including Tomasi Tonga, Joe Mano, James Vaifale, Mike Gieselman and others.
These 11 players have accounted for 128 appearances in Warriors' MLR matches. Three former Utah Selects players have also gone on to play for other MLR teams, showing the talent that the Warriors' Pathway continues to develop.
The Utah Warriors' programs from U18 to the MLR side have produced 8 players have earned National Team Pathway (USA Rugby Academy, Falcons, U20s, U18s) or International (Eagles, USA 7s) recognition, including Logan Tago who most recently spent time with the USA 7s team in 2022.
Six Warriors' U18 Academy players have also gone on to gain scholarships at universities out of state including JT Taio'ivao (St. Mary's), Tyler Anderson (Lindenwood) and Nick Andiarena (Adrian College), while others like Creed Hicken and Mason Walker are staying close to home playing their rugby at the University of Utah, while another six are expected to pursue their rugby careers at BYU soon following the completion of LDS Missions.
In total, over the last three years the Warriors' U18 Academy has qualified 15 players for "home team" designation under the MLR's Grassroots Development Incentive program where a player's rights are retained after college by that MLR team if the player meets minimum development time requirements in that team's academy system. This is the most of any MLR team to date and many of these players will begin impacting the Selects and MLR rosters in the coming years.
While the goal of all sports Pathway programs is to produce top-end talent, the Utah Warriors continue to emphasize the "Whole Athlete" inside all of its Pathway programs. This emphasis focuses on the player's overall technical, social, physical and psychological development.
With the "Whole Athlete" in mind, the Warriors Pathway also focuses on providing life-long rugby opportunities for athletes at the youth levels to even the adult levels with the Warriors' Touch Rugby League which is a community-based program designed to offer men and women the opportunity to keep playing rugby no matter what their age or ability. The Utah Warriors Touch Rugby League, which is in its fifth season of operation, aims to offer anyone in the state of Utah the opportunity to learn the game while having fun with co-workers, friends and family members.
In all, the Utah Warriors' Pathway is the MLR's most unified and fastest-growing platform for elite, adult and youth players alike. While the overarching goal is to build future Warriors, the secondary goals of the Pathway programs are also meant to build Warriors Nation by providing opportunities, not only for coach and player development, but also for fan and lifelong rugby experience.
This op-ed was written by Utah Warriors CEO Kimball Kjar. For more information on the Utah Warriors Pathway programs, please visit www.warriorsrugby.com and select an option under "Pathway." To learn more about the Crossroads Cup, visit crossroadscup.com
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