That was a rough year, and the very first year for a lot of the guys who are now seniors here. But we had a plan and a vision and fortunately the kids bought in. —Ed Larson
LEHI — All of them had the opportunity to move on, and it would have been hard to blame them if they had. Now, that same group who stuck around has an opportunity to win it all this Friday when taking on Skyridge in the 5A championship game.
And they have the opportunity to do it at Lehi High School, of all places.
It's no secret how much the Pioneer program has struggled over the years. From 2005 to 2012, the team won a total of eight games, the same total several teams around the state obtain in just one season.
In 2013 the program experienced a bit of a surge when winning five games under then coach David Hastings, before he packed his bags to coach elsewhere. Current coach Ed Larson took over in the wake of Hastings' departure, with his impressive coaching resume and some justifiable optimism given his credentials.
It was then, under Larson, that the program again plummeted to its old ways, going 0-10 in 2014.
"That was a rough year, and the very first year for a lot of the guys who are now seniors here," Larson said. "But we had a plan and a vision and fortunately the kids bought in."
Larson brought to Lehi a pass-happy attack that was a complete departure from Hastings' classic wing-T offense that almost entirely depended on the run. Larson's mostly inexperienced team took a good amount of initial lumps as a result.
"It was rough. I mean, I was just a freshman and didn't play much, but you could see how it affected the older guys," said Lehi quarterback Cammon Cooper. "It definitely made me want to work hard to make sure we could have better success, and I believed we could see that success at Lehi."
The Pioneers saw a little improvement in 2015, winning three games and one region game, while playing in a typically brutal Region 4. Following that season players had every opportunity to move on, given the founding of Skyridge High School, which lies just over the 1-15 freeway from Lehi. The new school would take around half of Lehi's student population and several standout players within the football program.
Cooper could have bolted, and many top players did make their way to Skyridge, but the reasons for staying were sound, despite Lehi's massive recent struggles.
"I trusted coach Larson; that was a big thing, but probably the biggest thing was the relationships I had here and the success I believed we would eventually have," Cooper said. "But yeah, the relationship with coaches was huge, and playing in what is an awesome offense."
Cooper's trust in his teammates and coaches paid off. The Pioneers went on to qualify for the playoffs in 2016, before losing to eventual 5A champion Bingham in the quarterfinal round, before reaching their current stage.
"It's really been emotional for me, to be honest," said Lehi receiver Kade Moore, who was also a freshman on that 0-10 2014 team. "I love Lehi, and it's an amazing experience going through all the lows, but just working and working — believing in what can happen and then achieving what you worked so hard for. It's been an amazing experience for all of us, and now we want to add to that experience by coming out on top this Friday."
Friday's opponent obviously consists of many players who chose to break off from the Lehi program after the 2015 season, although Lehi players and coaches are quick to deflect any suggestion of a greater emotional component being involved when taking on Skyridge.
"We know a lot of guys on that team, but we really haven't been in close contact for a while," Cooper said. "It's really not a big thing for me. I don't know about others on the team, but I do feel playing for a championship is big enough. We don't need to create another distraction."
As for Larson, he understands everything Lehi has been through, as much as anyone, and relishes the opportunity to help reward his players for all their hard work and the community, for its continued support.
"It's a bittersweet week for me, since I know I won't get to coach these great kids who have been through so much again," Larson said. "But the opportunity to go out like this — it's an amazing opportunity to do something for our great community and something for these guys to remember for the rest of their lives."