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Realignment hasn't just damaged college rivalries — high schools are victims as well

Published: Thursday, Aug. 29 2013 1:45 p.m. MDT

Bear River plays Morgan in the 3A boys basketball state championship game at the Dee Events Center in Ogden on Saturday, Feb.  23, 2013. Realignment has since separated Morgan and Bear River, former regional rivals. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Bear River plays Morgan in the 3A boys basketball state championship game at the Dee Events Center in Ogden on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013. Realignment has since separated Morgan and Bear River, former regional rivals. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

It was a perfect night for high school football. The Morgan Trojans were hosting Bear River on September 26, 2003 and things looked pretty bleak for the visiting Bears football team. They had let their long-time archrival Trojans run out to a 21-8 halftime lead, and what promised to be a historic season was in jeopardy. Bear River knew they had a special team that season and had high expectations. However, the Bears had lost three straight to the Trojans, and on the road that night at Morgan and down two scores, the Bears might have felt their dream season slipping away.

But this was against Morgan. There was no love lost between these two teams, and there never had been. The Bears began fighting their way back into the game, and behind two third-quarter scores, found themselves knotted up with the Trojans 21-21 entering the fourth quarter.

Morgan had a knack, however for grind it out football, and behind their Head Coach Renn Hoopes and his patented triple option offense, the Trojans drove to the Bears' four yard line with just under 30 seconds left in the game. The Trojans were poised to upset the Bears and make it four in a row when a kid named Westergard leaped up and snagged a Morgan pass at the one yard line, scooted up the sideline right in front of the Trojan bench, and found his way into the end zone 99 yards later for the winning score. The once-giddy Trojan side of the field sat in stunned silence while the Bear fans erupted in joyous bedlam. They had won. But this was not just any game.

Morgan High School plays Wasatch High School during  Friday night's football game at Wasatch High in Heber on September 4, 2009.  Kristin Murphy, Deseret News (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Morgan High School plays Wasatch High School during Friday night's football game at Wasatch High in Heber on September 4, 2009. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

This was Morgan. On their home field. The Bears went on to shut out every other region opponent that season, and steamrolled their way to a state title. Only Morgan could have… should have… beaten them.

Rivalries like this one are long and storied. The 2003 game was just one of many hard fought, close, thrilling battles between the Bears and Trojans over the years. The rivalry was not limited to just football, either. Be it boys' or girls' basketball, wrestling, or any of the other UHSAA-sanctioned sports, routs were few and dull moments even fewer over the history of the rivalry.

We talk of the rivalry now in past tense. High school classification realignment has changed the landscape of high school sports in recent years, particularly when it comes to football. Morgan lost traditional rival Wasatch to a different region several years ago, and this year, when Wasatch becomes a 4A school, meetings between the former foes will become even more unlikely. The same is true of Morgan and Bear River, who will find themselves in different regions this season.

Bear River's Jake Miller (R) celebrates his touchdown with teamate Colton Fronk after he recovered a fumble and ran it in against Dixie in semi final football action Nov 9, 2006 in Salt Lake City.   Jeffrey D. Allred/photo (Jeffrey D. Allred, ) Bear River's Jake Miller (R) celebrates his touchdown with teamate Colton Fronk after he recovered a fumble and ran it in against Dixie in semi final football action Nov 9, 2006 in Salt Lake City. Jeffrey D. Allred/photo (Jeffrey D. Allred, )

The loss of these rivalries impacts more than just the games on the field. Van Park, Athletic Director at Bear River High School, discussed some of these effects. “In general, realignment has increased our travel costs… made scheduling very difficult… and will have a big impact on our gate,” he said. “For example, in football we have to travel clear to Uintah, Tooele, Stansbury, Grantsville, Park City, Juan Diego, which are all 2 hours away or further.” Additionally, he explained, the team has to travel more because the new region has shrunk from 7 to 5 teams, and thus pre-season games are harder to come by because local schools already have their schedules filled with teams that they have played for a long time. This results in scheduling aberrations, such as having the boys’ basketball team playing 4 games in a week this coming season.

Morgan Head Basketball Coach Jim Wiscombe agrees with Park. “Our gate from visiting schools will be half of what it has been because of the rivalries that we’ve had and the distance our new region schools will have to travel.” He also feels that the new region alignment will cause the student athletes to miss more school and vastly increase the cost of transportation. Morgan will be traveling to Union (Roosevelt) and Uintah (Vernal) this season for region competition, with each of those schools being at least a 2.5 hour bus ride away.

Wasatch High School, which jumps from 3A to 4A this year, has experienced similar difficulties. Lonnie Magnusson, who coached boys’ basketball last year for the Wasps, says that his school tried to keep rivalries alive even though regions or classifications change. “We have usually tried to keep the old rivalries going by getting them on our non league schedule.” It’s not always easy, he says: “When I came to Wasatch from Lehi that was a huge rivalry and we kept it going for a while (even after they moved up to 4A) but then something happened where we could not get it worked out one year and we have never been able to get it back.”

The loss of old rivals is painful. Kovi Christiansen, Morgan’s Head Football Coach, says that “not playing Bear River is like BYU and Utah not playing.” Park echoes that sentiment: “There is no question that they were the most spirited, competitive, and intense games.” But Christiansen, like most of the coaches interviewed, likes to keep a positive mind-set regarding rivalries: “I think you develop rivalries with whomever you play. I am sure we will become rivals with other teams that we have hard-fought games with.”

Everyone who has been involved with these rivalries over the years has a story or two of great games, close finishes, and high drama. Van Park recalls that 2003 football game, along with a game his team won at Morgan in 2008 in double overtime on a half-court shot by Matt Weyland as time expired. The following year, Morgan gave Bear River their only loss in an otherwise perfect region season. That meant that Bear River had to beat Logan, yet another rival that has been lost to realignment, in the final game of the year to capture the region title. “Most years there was always a lot at stake with region titles when we played Morgan, making a great high school sporting environment.”

Even this past season, the Bears and the Trojans met in two highly competitive regular season basketball games before the Trojans got the best of them in the State 3A title game. It was a spirited, hotly-contested game, and a fitting conclusion to one of the best 3A rivalries ever. Wiscombe, who gave the Trojans the last word in the rivalry, said it best: “There will always be new rivalries. We will have the opportunity to compete and we are not going to worry about things that we can't control. I wish the teams in our old region the best.”

Chris is a graduate of the University of Utah and Santa Clara Law School and practices law in Heber. He is the father of four, an avid fly-fisherman, and announcer of many Morgan High School sports events. Email him at: cvcinutah@gmail.com.

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