HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PREVIEW
We count ourselves lucky to see gridirons at all this season
By Matt Harris
It’s the same thing every year.
Days start to shorten, and evenings start to get a little cooler, and the weather itself seems prepared to welcome this year’s Sanpete County high school football squads back to the field yet again.
This time, however, we count ourselves lucky to see the gridiron’s return.
In the face of numerous restrictions, safeguards, and constant tension, Gunnison Valley, Manti and North Sanpete high school football teams are back for another year, with expectations and excitement running high in every part of the valley.
Last season, which feels like it took place sometime in 2003 at this point, North Sanpete and Manti had spectacular seasons finishing second and third, respectively, in the toughest region in 3A. Meanwhile, Gunnison took one of the most youthful squads in the state and, with a few more injuries to boot, managed a respectable 3-7 campaign in their first season with a new head coach.
Where every squad in the county has raised their standard even higher than it’s been in years, 2020 may be a year not easily forgotten. In the midst of so much uncertainty and fear across the sports world, fans of the Bulldogs, Hawks and Templars may see some truly special football.
Coach Patrick King knew full well his first season in Gunnison wouldn’t see him granted many favors, but the powers above saw fit to push a few extra rainclouds the Bulldogs’ way in 2019.
Last season, an already-inexperienced Gunnison football team saw their junior quarterback, Harley Hill, go down for the season in the very first game against an overpowering Milford squad.
Then, as the offense scrambled to adjust their game plan, the defense, coordinated by King, struggled to keep teams from living in the end zone.
In the end, the uglier parts of King’s first season featured four blowout losses where the defense gave up more than 40 points, and the offense managed more than a single touchdown only four times in eight games.
But there is much more to the story.
At a school with less winning seasons in the last 20 years than one hand can count, the Bulldogs won three games and looked solid doing so.
“We had to start from the ground up,” King said. “We built a foundation. We talk about being ‘that gritty team from Gunnison.’ When a program struggles, sometimes, you just have to start with the basics, just teach ground-floor stuff….that was year one, and we feel like we did a pretty good job.”
Statistically speaking, there wasn’t anything impressive about the Bulldogs. Their three wins over Rich, Providence Hall, and Layton Christian were by a combined 17 points. By comparison, they lost the other seven games by a combined 255 points.
But in true “gritty team from Gunnison” fashion, they won games. And they lost games with the same level of energy.
“There’s certainly improvement when teams play us, and two or three weeks later, they’re still feeling the results of playing us,” King said. King had multiple opposing coaches comment on the toughness of the team, a pronounced contrast from recent years.
This year, King and the Bulldogs see an opportunity to be something more than gritty. They have one of their best chances at a winning season since 2005.
Gunnison’s greatest strength now lies in their starting experience. Fifteen starters return for the Bulldogs, including senior running back Zach Stewart, who figures to be the “spark plug”, King said, for the Gunnison offense after he rushed for 407 yards, second on the team, and scored three of Gunnison’s nine offensive touchdowns in 2019. On defense, Stewart was second on the team in total tackles with 38.
King reported that Hill will not be returning for the Bulldogs this year, and junior receiver Jack Hansen will move to quarterback to call the shots on the offense. Hansen did not throw a pass last year, but was effective in small samples in the rushing game with five attempts for 16 yards. Both Stewart and Hansen are projected to thrive much more than last year behind an offensive line that King reported being an average of almost 40 pounds heavier per player.
On defense, eight starters return to Gunnison, and Hansen is the leading tackler at safety with 44 tackles in 2019. The line figures to be a strength on this side as well, returning three defensive ends and nose tackle Will Wescott.
Deseret News polls predict Gunnison to finish fifth in the 2A South Region, just ahead of Rich, but observers across the state know that the Bulldogs have what it takes to challenge for higher, and King sees this program trending in exactly the right direction.
Gunnison will open the season against Milford next Friday. The home opener will be on Aug 28 against Kanab.
The 2019 Templars were something special.
It wasn’t just because they had their winningest season, 8-3, since the 2012 state championship year. It wasn’t just because they broke a four-year span without a winning season in a program not in any way accustomed to losing.
The Templars were the kind of special last year that was destined to win the state title, but they ran into a problem.
They weren’t the only ones having a special year.
Manti’s resurgent season was cut short in the quarterfinals of the 3A playoffs by a 33-14 loss to eventual champion Morgan. Even before that, their regular season had them weighed, measured, and found wanting against Juab, North Sanpete and Grantsville, the eventual semifinalists. Manti went 1-3 against these teams.
Manti football may be the team most impacted by graduation in Sanpete, having lost 18 seniors. The Templars return nine starters, with five on offense and four on defense, and are tasked with the tall order of replacing nearly all of their starting offensive and defensive linemen.
“It’s big,” Coach Cole Meacham said. “Those guys did a great job last year. Most of the guys that saw time on both sides of the ball, on the line, we lost to graduation.”
Meacham’s faith is primarily in three remaining returners on the line, seniors Anthony Henningson and Kayden Clark, and junior Isaac Schoppe, who all have limited experience from last year. These three will undoubtedly serve as the anchormen of the offensive and defensive lines.
Meacham’s squad in 2019 didn’t have a particularly powerful offense, being led by several juniors and ranking 10th in scoring among 3A teams with 22.5 points per game. What it did have in 2019, however, was a terrific defense that ranked seventh in 3A with 17.7 points allowed per game despite being on the field plenty more than other top defenses. The Templars leaned “quite a bit” on their defense, Meacham said, to achieve success in a tough Region 14 schedule.
“Our offense is still in the growing stages,” Meacham said. “Over the last couple years, we’ve changed our offense up a little bit, and we’re still learning. Those offensive players, especially those backs and receivers, we get a lot of them back, and I think we’re gonna see, if they keep working like they are, our offense is gonna step up. A lot of the guys last year didn’t do a great job, but especially the back and receivers, some of the complexities of the offense, they’re starting to get ‘em.”
Manti’s offensive skill players return with plenty of starting experience with senior quarterback Jax Parry, senior running back Tyler Taukeiaho, and senior running back Austin Cox, as well as receivers Tanner Justesen and Tyson Brenchley.
Parry had a solid 2019 campaign under center for the Templars, completing 52 percent of his passes for 1451 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He struggled with his mobility, Meacham said, as he took several sacks leading to his rushing totals averaging negative yardage. Meacham expects to see Parry be more elusive in his movements at the snap this year.
Taukeiaho, Cox, and Brenchley each rushed for 300 yards or more last season, but the Templars struggled to score the ball on the ground, only scoring nine rushing touchdowns despite nearly 2,000 rushing yards. It is highly expected that Manti’s scoring ability on the ground will raise its ceiling in 2020.
Picked to finish second in Region 14 by Deseret News polls, Meacham’s team knows and expects that this season won’t be much easier than the last. Not only are most of 3A’s top teams retooled and ready for another round, but many of last year’s less-accomplished squads look ready to make the jump.
“We’ve just gotta work,” Meacham said. “We’ve gotta work our tails off.”
The Templars open their season on the road for two weeks. Their first game will be at Crimson Cliffs this Friday, after which they are scheduled to travel to play Payson next Friday. Their home opener will be on Aug. 28 against Grantsville.
Few could have predicted the trajectory of the North Sanpete football program since 2016 when Coach Rhett Bird took over the team.
In four seasons, Bird transformed the Hawks, taking them from a mid- to low-level 3A squad to turning them into a dynamic program that is no stranger to deep playoff runs.
Last season, the Hawks turned in arguably the most dominant season in the history of North Sanpete football, churning out an 11-2 season before losing a 10-7 heartbreaker in the semifinals against eventual champion Morgan.
North Sanpete wasn’t just winning games, most of the time they were crushing their opponents in a brand of entertainment typically reserved for fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Hawks second-ranked defense allowed only a single touchdown in the first three weeks of the season and held opponents on the season to less than 10 points allowed per game.
Meanwhile, the Hawks’ offense ranked fourth in 3A with 31.5 points per game as the passing and run games fired on every cylinder all season long.
So now what?
“Obviously, our goal every year is to go win that first state championship,” Bird said. “We’ve been there, really close, the last two years.”
North Sanpete’s semifinal loss, Bird said, is the object of almost every lesson taught by coaches on the practice field. “A lot of the coaches still kinda have that on their mind,” Bird said. “They’re teaching the concepts every single day we get out on the field, they’re using that semifinal game and those playoff games to teach the concepts the kids need to know.”
The Hawks are challenged this season, not only by the graduation of several skill players, but also some turnover in the coaching. Last spring, Bird’s defensive coordinator and longtime mentor, Dave Peck, accepted the opportunity to take his old job back at 6A Bingham. The defensive reins were handed to 13-year coaching veteran Cade Beck for the new season. Bird was also excited to report the addition of former North Sanpete head coach Matt Roberts, who coached Bird in 2013.
North Sanpete’s offense lost several key players, most notably fullback Connor Jorgensen, who rushed for 13 touchdowns and caught six more in his senior season, and Payton Clawson, who accounted for 13 touchdowns combined in rushing, receiving, and passing. The Hawks also graduated receiver Jaxton Langschwager, who accounted for seven receiving touchdowns.
The missing skill pieces are going to be filled, but it may be up to the exciting development of junior quarterback Landon Bowles to make up the difference. Bowles showed flashes of magnanimous potential in 2019, passing for over 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns, including a monster performance against Delta where he netted 361 passing yards and six touchdowns.
The then-sophomore had his share of decision-making difficulties that came with his youth, however. Bowles’ solid year also came with 13 interceptions, four of which came in the semifinal game against Morgan.
Bird said he told Landon at the end of last year that he needed to use his legs more often in order to make the jump to be an exceptional quarterback. Bowles is recorded as having 20 rush attempts last season that accounted for 10 yards total.
“I think he was a little bit nervous to take hits last year, being a sophomore and a little bit undersized to run the ball,” Bird said. “That’s what we’re expecting out of him this year. We’re hoping that he finds that inner toughness.”
Bird has lauded the athleticism that Bowles has brought to camp and said he has broken out on a run play numerous times in practices.
It’s not just Bowles, either. Where the departing seniors brought an identity of tough running, Bird said this year’s team will be noted for its speed. Bird expects that speed to open up the field for Bowles to throw the ball.
Where there are some large shoes to fill in the run game, senior Magnus Clawson, who caught 33 passes including three touchdowns last year, projects to be a force on the field at the receiver position, while senior Cole Mickel, who played on the offensive line last year, was moved to tight end and has impressed coaches with his ability.
On defense, Mickel starts at outside linebacker and is expected to have a special year. Bird said that Mickel has been the vocal leader in practices, balancing out the quiet leadership-by-example that Clawson provides on offense.
Deseret News polls predict a third-place finish for the Hawks in a tough Region 14, and Bird knows that every game on their schedule will be a difficult one. “We know what we need to do because we’ve been a part of some pretty good teams,” Bird said. “The daily things we’ve gotta take care of, the discipline things, the showing up every day, the hard work ethic, the passion, those things, we’ve gotta take care of every single day because we know that if we do, everything else is gonna take care of itself in the end.”
North Sanpete’s season opens on the road against Grantsville this Friday. Their home opener will be next Friday against Emery.