Personally, I think we could have beat Dixie last year, but we overlooked them. We know this year not only to take it one game at a time but to take it one play at a time —Cole Nelson, Juan Diego quarterback
SALT LAKE CITY — The 3AA football semifinal matchup between Juan Diego and Pine View, slated to take place at 11 a.m. Thursday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, is all about numbers.
No stranger to the stadium turf, Juan Diego earned a spot as one of the final four teams in the tournament for the fifth time in six years. The Soaring Eagle is 11-0 on the season. They won the 3AA North region and have not played a game with a final margin less than two touchdowns since the end of August.
The Panthers, meanwhile, totaled a staggering 601 yards in their quarterfinal victory over Hurricane. In spite of giving up three fumbles, they defeated the Tigers by 35 points and scored on nine of 12 possessions, including six in a row.
“All season long, our receiving core has just been getting better and better,” said head coach Ray Hosner. “And our quarterback is really maturing in his role.”
Pine View will drive 300 miles to play the semifinal matchup — a site it is returning to for the first time since 2008.
On the other hand, Juan Diego has not only become a familiar sight in the semifinals but also won three state championships in a row between 2008 and 2010. Its run toward the championship last year was cut short with a one-point loss to another Southern Utah team, Dixie, in the semifinals.
“I get sick to my stomach thinking about it,” Juan Diego quarterback Cole Nelson said of falling to the Flyers, 14-13. “Personally, I think we could have beat Dixie last year, but we overlooked them. We know this year not only to take it one game at a time but to take it one play at a time.”
Hosner, however, does not see the difference in team history in the state tournament as a huge problem.
“Our kids have a family history,” Hosner said, referencing the Panthers’ runnerup and semifinal finishes in 2007 and 2008, respectively. “A bunch of these kids have been there with their brothers.”
Nelson accounted for two touchdowns in the Soaring Eagle's quarterfinal victory over Snow Canyon. He is leading the team with more than 800 passing yards, 900 rushing yards and 27 combined scores.
Adding depth to the offense is Chase Williams, who has racked up 964 yards and nine rushing touchdowns, and Jessie Springer, who has nearly 800 yards and 10 scores. On defense, Semisi Bloomfield has almost 50 tackles along with eight sacks.
The Panthers have been led all year by quarterback Kody Wilstead. He has 3,656 passing yards and 30 touchdowns. He totaled 421 yards and three scores in his team's quarterfinal victory alone. Jack Bangerter has 1,219 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns, while Pano Tiatia and Triston Duran have combined for more than 1,000 rushing yards and 11 scores.
“We are focused on our system, doing the things we do,” Hosner said. “This group of kids has been up at 6 a.m., working hard all year. (Reaching the semifinals) just shows, when you put in hard work, good things can happen. I am really proud that we have this opportunity.”
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.