Sanpete football brewing serious power programs
By Matt Harris
There has not been a more exciting upcoming season of high school football in Sanpete County in many years.
A power program could be brewing in the north. At Manti, a coach will try to make an impact in his 25th anniversary season with an experienced roster. An earnest rebuild will begin in the south under the direction of an intriguing new coach.
No team in all of Utah had a more shocking turnaround than North Sanpete football in 2018, and the Hawks are nowhere near satisfied.
“The bar has been raised,” Coach Rhett Bird said last year after North Sanpete lost to Summit Academy, 55-18, in the 3A state championship, the first in school history.
Now the Hawks are ready assert themselves as a newfound power in the state. As Bird attested, there is plenty of work to do.
“I think it comes down to culture,” Bird said. “All around, our culture is what was raised last year…it was our culture all the way around. The kids bought into what we were asking them to do on and off the field. That’s something that we gotta continue to build on this year.”
Surrounded by an elite coaching staff on both sides of the ball, Bird has created a winning program, but the Hawks will lose plenty of production in terms of graduating seniors. Nonetheless, North Sanpete still returns seven starters on offense and five on defense.
Bird’s first move was to add two coaches, one for defensive backs and one for offensive scheming.
The whole program, Bird included, continues to benefit from the mentorship and knowledge of Bird’s uncle, Hawk defensive coordinator, and high school coaching veteran Dave Peck.
“When he sees me in a trial, or he sees me in an error,” Bird said of Peck, “he’s right there correcting me, and he’s doing it in a way that’s helping me become a better head coach.”
During last season, it took some time to get the Hawks in gear, but sitting at 2-2 on the season, the Hawks were down 14-10 against then-defending state champion Juan Diego at a homecoming game in Draper.
That is the moment, Bird said, that North Sanpete finally bought in, and it “clicked.” North Sanpete took down the Soaring Eagles on the road in front of their own homecoming crowd, 17-14, with a late go-ahead touchdown. “From that point forward,” Bird said. “Nothing was gonna stop us.”
The Hawks’ defense was dominant all season, allowing only 16.8 points per game, getting 19.5 sacks, and intercepting 17 passes, five of which came from safety Payton Clawson, who returns as a senior this year. Bird trusted Peck and the defense to make games winnable every single week.
North Sanpete‘s offense left room for improvement, not that they were bad. Scoring just shy of 18 points per game, the Hawks focused on the running game and only passed for seven touchdowns all year.
They did just enough to win games, a pattern that fit one of Bird’s favorite movie quotes, from “The Fast and the Furious:” “It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile; winning is winning.”
“The year before, we were 0-10,” Bird said, “so we wanted to give our kids the very best chance to be successful this year, and that’s kind of the formula that we came up with…We’re going to be conservative on offense because we know our defense is good.”
Things are changing for the offense going into a new season. With more than half their starters returning, the Hawks are have a new face at quarterback, sophomore Landon Bowles. Despite his youth, “he throws the ball like you can’t believe,” Bird said. “Coming back from camp, I can’t believe how much he retains the knowledge that we gave him.”
Clawson, as well as senior all-state fullback Connor Jorgensen, account for much of the production on offense for North Sanpete. Last year, Jorgensen compiled 737 yards of total offense and averaged over 8 yards per carry on 64 attempts.
The Hawk defense is expected to be even better, and that is a scary thought for region foes. “[Peck] is surprised at how far along we are this year,” Bird said. “We’ve never had all of our schemes put in for game one (before), and we’ve had our schemes put in for two weeks now, every scheme that we run.”
Simply put, North Sanpete’s dream run to the title game last year was not a miracle; it was a beginning.
Talking about the UHSAA’s change to RPI seeding for the playoffs, Bird knows the weight it carries. “It’s interesting because every game matters now,” Bird said. “Traditionally,… you had four, five preseason games, you get ready for region, you have do well in region.
Now, game one, the endowment game, could be the most important game you’re playing…It gives everyone a chance to make the playoffs, and you have come ready to play every single week.”
North Sanpete’s season begins with a home game gainst Grantsville next Friday, Aug. 16.
Playing young is always a struggle. But as any banker knows, if you invest early, you reap the dividends.
Manti football dealt with twin curses of youth and injuries last season in a 4-6 effort, and it might seem to be to time to get ready for another “middle-of-the-pack” season.
The real story is that this Templar squad is a battle-tested group who made the playoffs despite having very few seniors. The team is returning 13 starters, seven on offense and six on defense, and are bringing back an experienced starting quarterback in Jax Parry to go into the new Region 14.
Through the first four games of last season, the Templars looked solid on both sides of the ball, averaging 28.7 points per game and shutting out two of their first four opponents. In a beat-down at the hands of eventual champion Summit Academy, the Templars lost their high-powered senior quarterback, Kyle King, to a season-ending injury, thrusting Parry into the action.
Parry helped Manti pull off an unlikely victory at Juab the next week, but the wheels fell off after that, and the Templars lost their last four games while averaging just over 10 points per game.
“We just didn’t pull it together through the season,” Coach Cole Meacham said.
Parry, according to Deseret News statistics, struggled so mightily that he is still looking for his first credited touchdown. Nevertheless, he looks to have the faith of Meacham and the staff.
The Templars, under Meacham, have always strived for a balanced offense. “With Jax, with the other players we have,” Meacham said, “we feel like we’re going to have the ability to throw the ball and throw it not just out of desperation like we’ve tried to do in the past.”
The backfield currently has 5-6 players gunning for primary ball-carrier duties, Meacham reported, and the list is slowly whittling down.
Meacham enters his 20th season as head coach of the program and his 25th season coaching at Manti. Since that special 2012 season when the Templars brought home the 2A state title, Manti has struggled to excel, especially since moving up to the 3A ranks. In comparison to the 2012 squad, however, the 2019 team bears some similarity.
“The thing that, as coaches, we’re seeing out of these guys right now that we like most is, we’re starting to develop some leadership,” Meacham said. “Not just one or two kids. We’re starting to see several kids that are stepping up and leading and being a good influence…With that positive leadership, I think that’s where it gets a team through the tough times.”
In addition to Parry, the Templars return leading tackler Mitchell Newman and senior receiver Travis Thomson.
Talking about the RPI change, Meacham didn’t think it would affect much of anything. “I think once a team makes it in the semifinals, you generally have four teams that are probably good enough to win a state championship,” Meacham said. “…If four teams out of that [other] region end up with the higher seed, I don’t think it’s going to make a long-term difference.”
Manti begins their its with intriguing game next Friday, hosting the first-ever game for Crimson Cliffs, a brand-new high school in Washington County.
Not many football programs could have used a fresh start more than Gunnison football. Enter Patrick King, one of Utah prep football’s most intriguing head coaching hires this season.
King, a native Floridian, is not just a new face to Bulldog football, he’s a new face to the Sanpete Valley. Starting his coaching career in the Jacksonville area, even being a head baseball coach in 2018, King had a recent coaching stop in Colorado and has spent his entire coaching career with schools Gunnison’s size or smaller.
“I’ve wanted to be a head coach for quite a while,” King said. “I’ve wanted to live in the mountains for a while…the position came open here, so after two, three months stay in Colorado, I ended up making it here to Gunnison…We just think it’s a terrific town and community.”
Gunnison’s opening, not only for a football coach, but for a history teacher and weightlifting coach vacated by the departure of Jack Pay, created what King called a “perfect storm” for him to fit with the Bulldogs community.
Ironically, Gunnison’s recent lack of success was a point of attraction for King. “We’re starting at a place where we can build something that we’re happy with,” King said. “We can come in with a new approach, and we can become who we want to be…We can say, ‘Let’s circle the wagons, let’s really come together, and let’s become that gritty team from Gunnison.’”
There’s a lot of work to do as the Bulldogs have not had a winning season in more than a decade and had only one win in the last two seasons since their successful-by-comparison 3-7 campaign in 2016.
“We want to change the process (of) we go about things,” King said. “Winning’s a byproduct of what you do on a daily basis…we have to practice; we have to do the things that we have to do in a weekly period to be ready for a game. We’re bringing a fresh process of leadership that we believe will get back to fundamentals and correct a lot of the issues that we’ve had in the past.”
It would be very difficult for the Bulldogs to reestablish a team and program identity in the same tough region they played in last year, but realignment has worked in their favor for 2019.
With the dispersion of the 1A football classification, the new look 2A North region features Gunnison, North Summit, and a host of former 1A teams, many of whom had losing records last year.
“I think the region’s actually going to be competitive,” King said. “I think you’ll see some parity in there, but we don’t take anybody lightly. We go from week to week.”
Deseret News projections show some faith in King and the Bulldogs. The newspaper projects them to land in fourth place among the seven region teams.
Gunnison’s offense struggled to score as usual last year, particularly due to Pay’s against-the-grain commitment to air out the ball when the team often didn’t have the receiver talent to justify it.
After averaging 18.9 points per game in 2018, King plans to integrate a hybrid pro-style offense that can capitalize on Gunnison players’ familiarity with throwing the ball and recommit to a true-and-honest run offense.
Senior Brandon Tucker will carry a heavy workload at running back, but will have help from a brand-new starting quarterback. Although King said the starting QB position is still up for grabs, most eyes seem to be on Harley Hill, a 6’4” junior who completed four passes in backup last season. King called Hill “one of the toughest, if not the toughest, kid we have.”
The heaviest anchor weighing down the Bulldogs last season was a defense that, in points allowed per game, was the second worst in the state, allowing nearly 50 points per game. Analysis of films showed King a big part of the problem was an inability of the Bulldogs defenders to tackle properly.
“We have to change our mindset,” King said. “I don’t think that’s reflective of the ability that’s in the locker room. The reality is when you’re going through the things this team has gone through, the other team scores first, and everyone in the stadium starts to tuck their head and say, ‘Here we go again.’ We’re focused on defense first, and we’re getting back to those principles…I expect a good turnaround on that side of the ball.”
King was unconcerned about RPI. “We’re focused on Milford (their first opponent) and that’s the only place we’re focused,” King said. “With RPI, I think you make it to the playoffs, and you climb the mountain. If you want to be the man, you’re going to have to beat the man at some point in the playoffs.”
Gunnison foregoes the first week of high school football action and begins its season on Friday, Aug. 23, with a game at home against defending champion Milford.