EPHRAIM There's a fine new quarterback actually two at Snow College this year, a punishing new running back, too. In fact, almost everyone is new to some degree. Just four starters returned from last year.
But don't let that fool you. In other ways, nothing has changed. You still drive 110 miles from Salt Lake and hang a left at the stoplight. And you still have to deal with the, well, culture. That was the case this week when a certain Salt Lake sports columnist headed south to scare up a story on the No. 1-ranked Badgers. In the process, he scared up at least a thousand sheep, which for some reason decided to congregate on State Highway 132.
That's life in Sanpete County. Sheep, space, sky. And football. The Badgers are 7-0 and ranked No. 1 nationally among junior colleges, same as they were this time last year.
Seems big things come in small, out-of-the-way packages.
"We expected this," said Badger coach Steve Coburn, matter-of-factly. "We as a coaching staff knew who we recruited and what we had coming back."
Still, expectations and results can vary. Last year's team finished the season rated No. 2 nationally.
So what did the Badgers do? Like horror-flick zombies, they just kept coming. This year their plan is to win the national championship at the Tops of the Mountains Bowl in December.
Hard to imagine, considering the Badgers must retool every year. There are graduations and transfers at every school. But at Snow there are LDS missions, too all of which threaten to leave the place looking like store shelves after a white sale.
"It is a juggling act," said Coburn. "Most junior colleges lose 25 to 30 percent of their players each year. We lose 50 percent."
Nevertheless, a little bit of attitude and a lot of drive-by recruiting (most of their players come from the Wasatch Front) can go a long way.
"We sell Ephraim," said Coburn. "We sell the school, the academics and the program."
Though Snow went 11-1 last season, it also triggered the biggest exodus since the Irish potato famine. NJCAA player of the year Cade Cooper went to BYU to play quarterback. Defensive tackle Junior Tea signed with Oklahoma State. Tight end Devin Frischknecht, last year's top receiver, enlisted with Washington State. Defensive lineman Sioeli Nau went to Oregon State. Star running back Matt Asiata went to Utah, where he earned a starting spot before breaking his leg. Defensive lineman Thor Pili moved to UNLV, while offensive linemen Wes Potter and Tyrell Curtis signed with Troy University.
This year Snow players are being recruited by Oregon State, Florida State, Washington State, Oklahoma State, North Carolina State, BYU, Utah, Utah State, Troy and other upper-division schools. Three-hundred-pound offensive lineman Andrew Mitchell is among the top recruits in the country.
Running back Soni Sotele replaced Asiata and has 781 rushing yards, including 207 in one game.
Still, that doesn't mean the Badgers aren't scrambling every year to put together a cohesive team.
"It's how we live," said Coburn. "It's what we do."
At four-year colleges in Utah, players often play a year, serve a mission, then return for three. At two-year Snow College, they play a year, leave for two, and play just one more.
When Cooper left for BYU, Coburn turned to Weber State transfer Jon Eastman, who passed for 876 yards in the early season. But after Eastman broke his foot three weeks ago, freshman Houston Erbstoesser took over. All he did was earn national player of the week recognition in his first full game. Between them they have completed 60 percent of their passes, including 17 touchdowns.
With Eastman nearing a return, a quarterback controversy is sure to erupt.
Like that's a bad thing?
Meanwhile, the defense is allowing the fewest yards in the nation.
How the Badgers manage to hold things together amid such change is a mystery. The one constant has been Coburn. A defensive coordinator for six seasons before becoming head coach, he has recruiting down to a science.
Will things ever settle down?
Which is fine by him.
"We tell them they'll get a chance to be seen (by scouts)," said Coburn.Clever, isn't it? The key to getting them to come is to convince them they'll be moving on.