CEDAR CITY — Well, that was fast.
With the revamped 3A classification and playoff structure, the semifinals are already knocking on the weekend door. The shortened schedule only weeded the contenders out quicker.
Judge (9-2), Manti (9-2), Morgan (9-2) and Juab (8-3) accounted for the top two seeds from the North and South regions and simply have been the best teams in 3A from start to finish.
“Those four are pretty decent ball clubs,” Morgan coach Kovi Christiansen said. “We’re kind of excited to have one fewer game to get further in the playoffs. It’s nice to have just four teams left right now. You get to this point in the year and you just try and keep everybody healthy and try to peak right about now. It’s been helpful that way that the playoffs are going faster.”
The first semifinal games pair Judge and Juab on Friday at 4 p.m., with Morgan and Manti following suit on Saturday at 4 p.m. The tournament switched venues from Rice-Eccles Stadium to the Eccles Coliseum on the campus of Southern Utah.
The change in location created an unintentional, lengthy trek for all four programs. Manti is the closest, 162 miles away. Juab is 169, Judge is 252 and Morgan has to travel 290 miles.
“We would definitely like to be playing closer,” Christiansen said. “There’s one school that far south in all of 3A and they didn’t make the playoffs. We’re grateful for the chance to play on a college field, but it would be nice if 3A games were more centrally located to 3A schools."
“I think it’s crazy,” Judge coach James Cordova said. “It’s a lot of bus money. That’s a lot of gas, a lot of food — it’s a lot of logistical problems. We’ll do whatever they ask us to do.”
The Bulldogs enter as the No. 1-ranked team after winning nine straight games after losing games to Pine View (3AA) and Woods Cross (4A) in the opening weeks.
Quarterback Kaden Elliss leads Judge in rushing with 774 yards and 15 touchdowns while throwing for 629 yards for eight touchdowns with only three interceptions. Max Barnett and Henry Garcia have contributed 13 combined rushing scores.
Juab poses a unique challenge through the air. Nick Robins has thrown for just north of 2,000 yards and 29 touchdowns to seven different receivers. Dedric Davidson, Brandon Morgan and Jeff Rowley were on the receiving end of 23 touchdowns.
“They’re able to put in enough offense to give everybody headaches,” Cordova said. “They don’t run the same play in the same series ever, which is very different for 3A. Most teams have six plays we run Their quarterback pretty much is as good as it gets out there. I haven’t seen much better than him.”
Cordova expressed confidence in his "formidable" defensive ends, Ricki Maka and Tommy Franquelin, and their ability to create pressure in the pocket.
The Trojans are fresh off a 32-13 win over Richfield. The win served as a rebound game after Judge snapped its seven-game win streak.
“I think it brought us back to reality a little bit,” Christiansen said when asked if the loss potentially alleviated pressure. “We’ve got to come ready to play and we’ve got to do our thing and not let people dictate what needs to happen. I think it was an eye-opening experience, hopefully, for the players and coaches, and I hope it’s made us more hungry to go out and play four quarters.”
Morgan has rushed for 2,863 yards and 42 touchdowns with contributions from 19 players. Manti is no slouch on the ground, either. The Templars quickly announced their presence to the 3A world after making the jump from 2A following two straight state titles.
“They’re very good at hiding who get the ball; a lot of misdirection,” Christiansen said. “They’ve got good running backs, like we do, and they’ve got a great line. We’re trying to get geared up the best we can to be able to find the ball and get off the blocks and make tackles.”
Kamren Fowles has tallied 1,211 yards and 19 touchdowns, while Jared Schiess and Bradly Sego have come on strong over the last several weeks.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @phibbs_
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company