High school football: Programs are on the rise in 3AA North region

Published: Friday, Aug. 8 2014 9:40 p.m. MDT

Football 3A Quarterfinal Football between Hurricane and Juan Diego, Friday, Nov. 2, 2012.

Ben Brewer, Deseret News

In the three years since Juan Diego won its third-straight state championship in 2010, the balance of power in 3AA football has shifted to southern Utah.

No team from the current 3AA North region has advanced to the championship game the last three years, and only Juan Diego has advanced to the semifinals.

Is it a permanent shift, or can programs like Juan Diego, Bear River and Stansbury help level the playing field in 2014?

Stansbury coach Clint Christiansen, whose team has been eliminated in the quarterfinals the last three years by a St. George school, knows firsthand that closing the gap won’t be easy.

“I think they have a lot more depth than we do down there. We can’t afford injuries, and I think last year we ended up with eight starters out for the playoff game,” said Christiansen.

Besides depth within each team, depth within the region has been just as important as three straight state titles down south. Any team can beat anyone in 3AA South on a given night, which has played out the past two years with the No. 3 seed going on to win the state championship.

That’s not been the case in 3AA North in a long time.

After Juan Diego, Stansbury and Bear River, who all won seven or more games, there was a noticeable drop-off to Uintah, Tooele and Park City, who won just three games each. After that, the free fall continued to Ben Lomond, which has lost 20 straight.

To close the gap on the southern schools, collectively the entire 3AA North region needs to get better so every Friday night is a battle. Juan Diego won the region last year with a 38.6-point average margin of victory. Consistently resting starters in the second half is no way to prepare for grind-it-out games in the playoffs.

“At the end you don’t want to be going on cruise control. It makes it tough if you’re blowing teams out, 'cause in the first round you’re going to face the nightmare, and that’s why they have the advantage down there — every game has been so close,” said Christiansen.

Thanks to new coaches who’ve helped energize struggling programs the past couple of years, the competition in 3AA North from top to bottom should be much better.

While Juan Diego and Stansbury are still the projected top two teams, the race for the No. 3 seed that Bear River claimed last year is going to be a dogfight.

Tooele should be 1,000 percent better heading into the fourth season under coach Kyle Brady. Park City figures to be exponentially better as well after coach Mike Shepherd steered the program back on course during a frustrating 2013 season.

Uintah will also be in the hunt with eight returning starters on both sides of the ball in year three for coach Cody Reutzel.

Those three programs were competitive with each other last year, but they should be more competitive with the upper-tier teams this year also.

“In the past we didn’t play with those teams. In my first year it wasn’t even close,” said Reutzel. “Last year they beat us squarely, but we gave them a good fight. Now it’s time for, we don’t want to just give them a fight anymore, we want to come out of one of those games with a win.”

Juan Diego takes a lot of flack publicly for being allowed to recruit as a private school, but Brady and Bear River coach Chris Wise don’t want to talk negatively about the subject.

Wise believes it sends the wrong message to his players that they can’t compete.

Brady wants his players to embrace the challenge.