Throughout all of last season, San Juan looked like an unstoppable force poised for a third straight 2A state championship.
Millard derailed those hopes though with a surprising semifinal victory and revealed that San Juan had some weaknesses after all and exploited them. Nobody from the 2A South region came close to doing that during the regular season as San Juan won its seven games by an average of 27 points.
Incredibly, the Broncos only started four seniors on that team, and with most of those starters returning, one can't help but wonder if a fifth-straight region title is an inevitability at this point.
Coach Monty Lee certainly doesn't want his players looking at it that way.
"I just think that hunger needs to be there. You need to always be able to dangle that carrot out in front of them. I don't want them to think about state championships and state playoffs, I want them to think about the game ahead of them and keep things in perspective," said Lee. "Once you start looking ahead, the edge is taken off."
That might've been what happened in the 35-20 semifinal loss to Millard. The Broncos were surrendering less than a touchdown per game heading into the semis, but the defense got torched allowing over 400 rushing yards and five TDs.
If anything, that loss made San Juan's nine defensive returning starters even hungrier.
Richfield, Beaver and Enterprise, who tied for second in 2A South last season, know they face an uphill battle to catch San Juan. They're excited about the challenge though.
"I feel as good as we probably ever have since I've been here," said Richfield coach Corey Morrison. "We have almost every one of our skill kids back and a couple of our lineman."
Like San Juan, Richfield's season was ended by Millard last year, and the game wasn't close at all.
Richfield plays at San Juan in Week 6 this year, and Morrison said it's important his team has momentum heading into the game.
South Sevier coach Weston Zabriskie jokes that it will take a perfect game to beat San Juan. He believes the football tradition down in Blanding is a big part of it.
"They walk onto the field and those kids have been so used to winning they just know they're going to win," said Zabriskie.
"In most every other sport we're quite competitive with them, but they have that football attitude, that football tradition. One of the biggest things to get San Juan is change the attitude, don't be intimidated when they come out on the field."
That's much easier said than done.
Beaver came closer than anybody in the Southern region to knocking off San Juan last season. With the game tied 7-7 at the half though, the Broncos returned the second half kickoff for a touchdown and coasted the rest of the way.
This year, Beaver hosts San Juan — and Richfield — and it's hoping home-field advantage and a strong group of returning starters might be enough to dethrone the defending region champs.
"What we have this year is some really good senior leadership, and we have some good juniors. This is one of the first times in a while we'd had two groups, a junior and senior class that are pretty good," said Beaver coach Steve Hutchings.
Complacency in Blanding might be the only way to knock off San Juan, but coach Lee will do everything in his power to prevent that from happening.
"The philosophy we want to have within our program is you're going to be better today than yesterday. Make some strides and some effort to be better today than you were yesterday, if we can do that and we can keep that going forward we have a chance to be in the top four (at state) again," said Lee.
2A SOUTH PROJECTIONS
(Preseason rankings are based on coaches' votes)
1. SAN JUAN: Only started four seniors last year and still advanced to the semifinals with a perfect record. That makes the Broncos very scary with the majority of the starters returning. Among them is QB Barkley Christensen, who threw for 1,919 yards and 20 TDs last year. Leading receiver Bobby Bowring is also back after hauling in 669 yards and 8 TDs. Logan Meyer returns at running back, and his injury in the semifinals really hurt San Juan in loss to Millard. Coming off a year in which it surrendered a paltry 5.7 points per game, Bogh Bayles and Mason Shumway are back to anchor the defensive line again. 2011 RECORD: 10-1. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Millard in semifinals.
2. RICHFIELD: With most of its skill position players back, not to mention a couple of lineman, expectations are higher at Richfield than they've been in the previous four years under coach Corey Morrison. Among those six returning offensive starters is senior Josh Henry, who rushed for 748 yards and 9 TDs last year. Junior fullback Brody Ellis added over 600 yards rushing. Senior Jaden Ross is back to anchor the lines. Richfield averaged 19 ppg last season, which must get better this year to compete for the league championship. 2011 RECORD: 6-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Millard in quarterfinals.
3. BEAVER: With a strong senior and junior class, the Beavers are hoping to break into 2A's elite. Junior Michael Roberts will likely be the starter at QB, with the all-important fullback position still up in the air heading into August. The strength of the offense is on the line, with Landon Smith, Sam Myers and Tyler Terry all returning. Defensively, Beaver needs to improve upon last year's 22 ppg to challenge San Juan at top of region. It's counting on 4-year starting linebacker Kendall White to help achieve those goals. 2011 RECORD: 6-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to South Summit in quarterfinals.
4. ENTERPRISE: The Wolves are abandoning the spread offense in favor of the Wing-T under first-year coach Malin Williams. He hopes it helps his young team compete in a balanced region this year. Sophomore Jake Jones threw for over 1,000 yards and 15 TDs in the spread last year, but he also threw 16 INTs. He'll need to cut down on those mistakes to be successful. Joe Holt will be the likely starter at fullback, while Dustin Tullis will start at halfback. Dylan Tripp is a strong, experienced returning starter on the offensive and defensive line, while Rob Reber and Jacob Clark are also returning contributors on the line. 2011 RECORD: 6-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Emery in first round.
5. KANAB: When it came up against some of the better teams in 2A last year, the offense and defense fizzled with repeated blowouts. The Cowboys are counting on six returning starters on both sides of the ball to change that trend. Among those starters is lineman Waylon Stebbins, the only three-year starter on the team. Brandon Jensen is a returning starter at QB, and his top receiving threat from a year ago, Brandon Nielson, is also back. Kanab's numbers have been down the past two years, but coach Bucky Orton said he has strong leadership from his senior class and there's plenty of talent from the sophomores and juniors. 2011 RECORD: 5-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to North Summit in first round.
6. SOUTH SEVIER: Returns 24 players with varsity experience, and it's hard to imagine the Rams won't win more than just one game this year. They return four offensive lineman, including running back Garett Johnson who rushed for 753 yards and 6 TDs. Turnovers were the big problem offensively last year, something the team has been focused on all offseason. Two college recruits will anchor the defense. Safety Patrick Baker is a two-time all-stater with interest out of Utah and Utah State. Linebacker Alani Pututau is a very athletic move-in from California, and colleges are looking at him as a fullback. The defensive line could be a strength as well with returning starters Bryce Bair and Wyatt Anderson. 2011 RECORD: 1-8. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.
7. GRAND: Is counting on five returning senior starters and a talented junior class to get the program back to respectability. Among the returning starters is junior QB Jacob Francis, who racked up over 1,900 yards of total offense and 11 TDs last year. He's got plenty of returning help in the trenches to protect him as Edgar Gomez, Trae Downard and David Bentley are all back. Kamron Call and Koi Cook were among Grand's leading tacklers a year ago and they're back to anchor the linebackers. Grand ranked in the bottom four in 2A scoring offense and defense last year, an area that must improve if its going to be a threat in league play. 2011 RECORD: 2-8. PLAYOFFS: Lost to South Summit in first round.
8. PAROWAN: Recent SUU graduate Brigham Nielsen takes over a program that didn't win a game last year. He faces an uphill battle inheriting the worst defense in 2A, but he's brought in Rod Murphy to be his defensive coordinator. Parowan's senior class was pretty small, so it has 13 players who were either full or part-time starters last season. How that translates remains to be seen as Nielsen is transitioning to the triple option offense, an offense he played in at Highland High. The coaching staff is still tinkering with what positions best suit their personnel, but Austin Pickett, Jake Topham and Taylor Harris will all factor into the offense in some capacity. 2011 RECORD: 0-9. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.
TUESDAY: 2A North preview
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company