Photo of Vatos Rugby club

The Highlands Vatos rugby club won their third national championship June 2 in Philadelphia. Courtesy photo

Las Vegas, New Mexico – The New Mexico Highlands University Vatos rugby club won another national championship June 2 in Philadelphia at the 2019 national tournament.

It was the third time in five years the Vatos were victorious at the national level, with the club taking home national titles in 2015 and 2016.

The Vatos beat Claremont College, the defending national champs, 17-12 in the June 2 national championship game in the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) sevens championship series. Seven denotes the number of players each team has on the field at a time.

Brandon Rey, a former Vato who played on the 2015 championship team, is the club’s current coach. He earned his master’s degree in human performance and sport from Highlands in May 2019.

“It feels great bringing back another championship, with all the hard work in May paying off,” Rey said. “It was more nerve-wracking as a coach because you’re not on the field of play to influence the game that way. But it means even more winning during my tenure as coach.

“It feels surreal that the club used my coaching philosophy and strategies to win. It was good to watch my baby grow and flourish,” said Rey, who is in his second year coaching the Vatos.

Geology junior Donavan Kandjii made the winning score, which is called a try, in the championship game.

“Every single Vato on the field at any given time was an MVP,” Kandji said. “It is an honor, and it will always be an honor, to be a Vato.”

Rey said that the starters and the bench played their roles and elevated each other’s play.

“Donavan and all the players really went into this competition as a strong unit and played well together. This trophy is not only for Highlands University, but for the state of New Mexico and all the Vatos alumni worldwide,” Rey said.

The Vatos were dominant in the first day of the National Small College Rugby Organization sevens series June 1, making it through three games undefeated. The Vatos beat Loyola University-Maryland 15-7, Thomas Moore University 33-0, and Susquehanna University 45-0.

On June 2, the Vatos beat Christendom College 29-0 in the semifinals game.