Editor’s Note: Due to the coverage of other events in the county, this season’s preview of high school was delayed until after the first week of the season. The results of those games have been incorporated into this preview.
The pads are on. The grass is cut. The stands are filled. Football is back.
For one team, it’s the final year of a quarterback who has taken his team to new heights. For another team, it’s the energy of a young team looking to prove that they are not rebuilding. And for another, it could be the season where they finally, finally, put it together.
Gunnison head coach Patrick King told Mid-Utah Radio at the beginning of the season, “The game I’m most excited about is one that doesn’t get interrupted by COVID.” The lack of normalcy that pervaded each week of the 2020 football season looks to be last year’s memory more than this year’s reality.
Provided that that normalcy is here to stay, football fans across Sanpete County know where they’re going to be every Friday night.
We are ready for kickoff.
A year ago today, the North Sanpete Hawks looked every bit the part of a championship team, but life had other plans.
As many things come in threes, so too did the trifecta of tragedies that derailed a promising campaign for Rhett Bird’s contenders.
First was the COVID-19 crisis, which impacted North Sanpete more than any other team in the county. The Hawks got about halfway through the season before several players tested positive for the virus or were ineligible to play via contact tracing, just in time to be forced to field a ridiculously depleted lineup against the eventual 3A champions of Juab, which resulted in a 49-27 loss that wasn’t even that close.
Second, the Hawks saw quarterback Landon Bowles go down with a severe MCL injury against American Leadership Academy. Bowles was on pace to be third in the state in touchdown passes and likely eclipse 3,000 single-season passing yards. Instead, then-sophomore Ty Allan took over at the position, and despite valor in the late season, the absence of Bowles loomed large.
Then, as playoffs rolled around, the Hawks fell victim to Delta, the most underrated team in the playoff. Delta’s inspired 2020 playoff run to the semifinals began at the expense of the Hawks in the first round as North Sanpete’s season came to an unmerciful end weeks before anyone expected it to.
“It just goes to speak to the type of competition that we have,” Bird said. “Not only that, but the coaches that we have in [Region 14], and the coaches that we have in 3A. They prepare all the kids well for 3A football.”
The good news is that Bowles is now in his senior year, looking healthy, and is more skilled than ever, to the point that Bird claims he barely has to coach him. Bird said that Bowles looked comfortable and confident in the pocket even in offseason exhibitions against 6A Bingham, arguably the best defensive team in Utah, coached by Bird’s uncle, Dave Peck.
The challenge for Bowles this year is in working with an entirely new group of backs and receivers after the Hawks graduated the top three running backs and top three receivers from 2020. Bird said that the focus in Bowles’ development this offseason shifted towards extending plays and making decisions after the first three seconds, compensating for an expectedly longer time it will take for the young new crop of receivers to get open.
“He’s been more of the coach than I’ve been this year,” Bird said. “When there’s a mess-up, or a kid’s not in the right spot, it’s Landon getting to the kid before I even get to the kid.”
Outside of Bowles, the offense benefits from a new running back that transferred from 6A Westlake in senior Dakoda Harward, who will be giving the running game a flashy high-twitch look getting between tackles.
On defense, Andy Mower looks to be the hard-hitting leader of a group that still bears a great deal of experience from the athletic defenses that came before it.
Bird said that the defense is placing a new focus on defending against the run, the beating heart of nearly every offense the Hawks will play this year. More than half of this year’s defensive starters will only be playing on that side of the ball, more than any other season.
North Sanpete’s non-region schedule is the toughest they have had in several years. Not only do they begin the season with a 5A matchup in Payson at home, they also will face up once again with traditional 3A power Grantsville, rematch against Delta, and face one of 4A’s best teams, Desert Hills.
MT. PLEASANT—With a new-look offense and plenty of fresh faces, fans weren’t completely sure what to expect last Friday.
What almost no one expected was Payson.
North Sanpete football was ambushed early by the visiting 5A Payson Lions in a surprising 40-35 loss, handing the Hawks their first season opening-loss in three years in a game that was projected by many to be a blowout win.
“If you take that Payson team and put them in 3A…they would be a top-5 team in the state,” Bird said.
Despite being effective in short intervals and putting up 35 points, the Hawks’ offense in quarterback Landon Bowles’ first game as a senior was disastrously out of sync for most of the game, turning the ball over seven times and establishing very little in terms of a run game.
This forced Bowles to be nearly the entire offense as he completed 34 of a mountainous 55 pass attempts for 423 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions, only the second time in his entire career that he has been intercepted more than three times and tying his entire 2020 interception total. The 55 attempts were by far the most pass attempts he has thrown in a single game, eclipsing his previous high of 36 against Delta in 2019. Bowles also rushed for 33 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.
“We do have to clean a lot of things up,” Bird said. “We didn’t play a clean game by any means. Part of that is that Landon had a lot of pressure on him. We’ve turned the offense over to him a lot more than I have in the past. He has a lot of freedom, so when he gets out of the pocket, he’s got to make better decisions, and he knows that.”
Payson scored their first touchdown of the game in only two plays taking a total of 30 seconds, the first with a double pass from the wide receiver that went for over 60 yards.
After a series of punts back and forth, Payson got within scoring position once again, this time turning it into a chip shot field goal to make it 10-0 and get the Hawks sweating.
The ensuing kickoff saw senior Kolby Robinson return it all the way to the 50-yard line to breathe some confidence back into North Sanpete. A few plays later with North Sanpete inside the 20, a Payson defender undercut the scoring route to the right end zone and intercepted Bowles, taking it a full 95 yards back for the touchdown to put Payson up, 17-0.
Two Hawk fumbles later, the Lions’ used the foot of perhaps the best kicker in Utah this year to nail a 41-yard field goal for the 20-0 lead.
Bowles threw a second pick at the 4:20 mark of the second quarter over the middle.
With three minutes remaining, the Hawks finally got into rhythm and drove downfield, then Bowles got them on the board, rolling out and delivering a high-point touchdown pass to junior Ty Allen.
Two plays into Payson’s next drive, junior P.J. Cook intercepted the Lions’ quarterback to give North Sanpete one more chance before the first half ended, and the Hawks’ delivered. Bowles rolled out left and zipped the pass to Allen, who dove for a touchdown reception going out of bounds, and suddenly it was 20-14.
Payson still left the first half on their terms with an astounding 52-yard field goal to go into halftime with a 23-14 lead.
After halftime, the two teams traded touchdowns. Bowles scored a touchdown all by himself, running up the left side for a 4-yard score.
Payson answered again by the foot of their kicker, who buried a 46-yarder for the 33-21 lead.
On North Sanpete’s next drive came the worst-looking turnover of the night as Bowles evaded the sack and tried to shovel pass forward for a few yards, but the Payson defender jumped in front just in time for Bowles’ third interception. The Lions turned that interception into a 19-point lead off a touchdown run up the middle at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
On the next drive, fans got to see what the excitement of Harward was all about as he redeemed himself from his previous fumble. Harvard zipped around the trench and turned on the jets to burn the entire Payson secondary for a 44-yard touchdown run.
Bowles gave the Hawks the best chance possible for a miracle with a 46-yard touchdown pass to senior Morgan Bowles with 37 seconds remaining, but the ensuing onside kick went right into Payson’s hands to secure the notch in the loss column.
Harward led all rushers with 57 yards on only two carries. Bowles’ second touchdown pass was his 50th career touchdown throw for North Sanpete.
The Hawks will be on the road for the next two weeks. They will face Emery this Friday.
This year marks a special benchmark for Manti Coach Cole Meacham; it’s the first year that he will be recognized as the longest-tenured head coach in all of Utah prep football.
How ironic that his first year with that distinction is one where youth abounds across the Templars’ roster.
“We’ll have to see what happens as the season goes,” Meacham said. “Hopefully, we’ll do a little bit better than people are predicting. We’ll have to find out.”
Manti was laden with seniors, primarily at skill positions, in 2020, and while it was a bumpy season, they were looking great late in the season with a win over North Sanpete and a solid outing against Juab. But a first-round loss loomed large for a program about to graduate a two-year starter at quarterback along with 13 other starters.
The 2021 season features a tough-as-nails group in Region 14, housing the defending champions in Juab, another top-5 team in North Sanpete, and a brand new challenge in Canyon View.
So what is the key to a successful 2021 season for the Templars? For Meacham, the answer is two words: playing unselfishly.
The offense, returning only two starters, is getting far more focus and work in the offseason due to the number of new faces. “Offensively, we’re really going to split the load up,” Meacham said. “The last few weeks of practice, it’s been pretty even between 2-3 guys. We’re going to spread the ball around.”
Senior A.J. Cox figures to be a key contributor for both sides of the ball, starting in the backfield as well as on defense. Filling the void left by former quarterback Jax Parry, both junior Larsen Pogroszewski and junior Kayson Douglas will be taking reps under center to bring different looks to the offensive gameplan.
On defense, the Templars return seven starters, including senior Isaac Schoppe, who was a star on the line in 2020 despite struggles for the team in the trenches all season long.
Last season, after Manti suffered an embarrassing 42-14 to Richfield in the fifth week of the season, Meacham knew they were missing one very important thing: confidence. This season will see a focus on confidence and determination for the Templars to play the kind of game they know they’re capable of starting from the very first game.
Meacham’s 22nd season looks like it will be one to watch.
Manti begins the season at home against Union, a former region opponent, and then will be on a rigorous three game road trip to take on Delta, Juan Diego, and Grantsville, before returning home for a big-time matchup with last year’s 3A runner-up, Morgan.
MANTI—Coach Cole Meacham knew his young roster needed some confidence to start their season out.
As the final whistle sounded, fists punched the air, and red jerseys hopped with joy around the sideline. Confidence came early for the Templars in 2021.
Manti football rode the dominating effort of their experienced defense to shut the visiting Union Cougars down and claim a victory in opening weekend, 19-7. The defensive effort turned into the least points allowed in a season opener by Manti since 2016.
“They really did well,” Meacham said. “I don’t think anybody offensively had to carry too much load. The kids just got out there and had fun.”
Meacham showed in his 22nd year that it was never too late to try new tricks as Manti broke out two different offensive looks with junior quarterbacks Larson Pogroszewski and Kayson taking turns under center. Pogroszewski led a run-based offense with 45 yards on six carries with 1-2 passing for only 2 yards. Douglas showcased the receivers with a deadly efficient passing performance, completing 17 of 23 attempts for 139 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
Senior A.J. Cox led all rushers with 55 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, while senior Carter Stevenson scored the other touchdown to go with 29 yards on nine carries.
Junior Keegan Strickland caught the lone passing touchdown for Manti.
Meacham still saw room for improvement with the defense, despite holding Union to a single positive rushing play, allowing under 100 total net yards, and limiting Union senior quarterback to 11-33 passing for 123 yards.
“We’ve still got a ways to go on defense, too,” Meacham said. “We made mistakes on defense that we’ve got to clean up. The defense always comes along a lot quicker than the offense.”
Stevenson’s touchdown was the first score of the night as he burst through the right side on the first drive of the game, dashing for the 20-yard score.
After bottling up Union on their first drive, Manti looked to be in position to score again, but a penalty drove them back out of scoring range. Douglas responded with a long throw to the slant into the end zone, but it was picked off by the Cougars.
Late in the second quarter, Manti got downfield on a run-heavy drive, and Cox came through with the scoring play as he fielded the pitch play and cut up the middle, carrying two Union defenders the last three yards for the 10-yard touchdown and the 12-0 lead after a failed two-point conversion.
Late in the third quarter, Latham put some wind in the Cougars’ sails with a long drive, first by completing a long pass to get Union inside the 5-yard line. Latham then fooled the Manti defense by breaking the trend and keeping it himself with a cut inside to tumble into the end zone for a Union touchdown.
Despite the score, any hope that Union had of scoring again for a lead was salted away by a combined effort of the suffocating defense and run-heavy offense eating up the clock for the entire fourth quarter. Ironically, Manti’s last scoring drive culminated with a pass as Douglas rolled out right and hit Strickland falling out of bounds for a highlight-worthy touchdown and the 19-7 lead, which would seal the game for the Templars.
The Templars home win precedes a long road trip. Manti will be on the road to take on 2A Delta this Friday.
It seems like forever since Gunnison Valley’s football field was a place of positivity, but in Coach Patrick King’s third year since leaving Florida for the job, 2021 has all the makings of a special season in the south of Sanpete.
“We’ve got a lot of returning starters on both sides of the ball,” King said. “This will be the largest senior class we’ve had in a long time. I believe senior leadership is going to lift us to where we want to be. We feel that will be a year that we will be competitive, and I see senior leadership being a key strength.”
Like many teams last year, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced problems that entirely changed the outcome of a promising season for the Bulldogs. Two games were wiped from the schedule with no ability to replace them, both of which were predicted as likely wins for the upstart team; but were cancelled well enough in advance to not be forfeit and counted as wins.
In the eight games that Gunnison did play, King’s young squad showcased a clear capacity to win that had not been seen in Gunnison in years, but hampered by the overall rawness and inexperience of the team. This was perhaps no better exhibited by the 17-0 lead the Bulldogs held over eventual 2A runner-up Duchesne, just before allowing 35 straight points.
After several years of defensive ineptitude, Gunnison never allowed more than 40 points and only allowed more than 30 points three times. On offense, the Bulldogs finally looked like a team tough enough to pick on some other teams, and they did so with blowout wins over Monticello and Rich.
The Bulldogs return 11 senior starters, including nearly all of their offense after graduating starting running back Zach Stewart. On defense, several of Gunnison’s most impactful players return, including Will Wescott, who was a force on the defensive line in 2020.
“We’re three years in, and this is a rebuilding effort,” King said. “These seniors have had 30 games. We’re at a point where we feel like our capacity is a lot higher than it’s been. We’ve closed the gap with most of the teams we play.”
Senior Jack Hansen continues at quarterback for the Bulldogs, while senior Dylan Anderson finally gets his shot at running back after two years in Stewart’s shadow.
Hansen is the “key piece” for the Bulldogs in 2021, King said, a dual-threat quarterback who “personifies grit.” Hansen not only starts at quarterback, but also at free safety, where he was All-State in 2020, and at punter.
While the Bulldogs have much of their own puzzle pieces fitting together, the landscape of their competition dramatically changed with the shifting realignment of the offseason. 1A football was reintroduced by the Utah High School Activities Association, and Gunnison moved into the 1A South, becoming the new face in a region of foes much more familiar with each other than the Bulldogs.
Gunnison’s region schedule will see Enterprise, North Sevier, Kanab, Milford, and Parowan. The Bulldogs’ last victory against any one of these teams came in 2014 against North Sevier.
If there was ever a year for Gunnison to be up to the challenge, 2021 is as good a year as ever.
Gunnison is scheduled to begin their season at home against Whitehorse and will then be on the road to take on Monticello next week.
GUNNISON—In a bizarre turn of events, Gunnison Valley football earned their first win of the season in the easiest way possible—showing up.
As reported by Coach Patrick King, the Whitehorse Raiders officially forfeited their first game of the season to Gunnison. It is the second straight year that Whitehorse decided to not play their scheduled season opener against the Bulldogs after they opted out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic.
However, this year being without restrictions that complicated the 2020 season, Whitehorse reportedly forfeited the game due to a dearth of participation, King said. While unconfirmed by Whitehorse, King said that the Raiders had roughly 30 players at their endowment game the prior Friday, but by their Wednesday practice had so few players show up that they could not even field a full team.
There has not been any cause disclosed for the sudden lapse in participation, but it doesn’t appear to have been severe enough to cancel Whitehorse’s season. Consequently, Gunnison’s season was further altered by another change, as Providence Hall, formerly a Week 4 opponent for Gunnison, cancelled their game with the Bulldogs and filled in Whitehorse as their opponent, as reported by King.
“My guess is they will want to pick us back up after Whitehorse cancels later in the year on them,” King said.
King said his staff is “considering Week 4 opponents, but we may not be able to make it work” due to the week being a precursor to Labor Day weekend.
The Bulldogs will begin their season in earnest with a road game against Monticello this Friday. Their first home game of the season will be next week as they host Rich.