Judge Memorial football coach James Cordova is finding out this summer that staying on top is sometimes more difficult than reaching the top.
After his team captured its first state football championship since 1983, he acknowledged that some of the necessary buy-in has been lacking this summer.
“We have a lot of potential. However, our success has caused many in the program to take a less-focused and lower-effort approach than is needed to be a power program,” said Cordova.
Whether it’s in 3A or perhaps 3AA if Judge is bumped up in the next wave of UHSAA realignment this November, Cordova wants the Bulldogs to be a power program.
Judge was indeed the power program in 3A last year, winning 11 straight after starting the year 0-2 with losses to Pine View and Woods Cross. It beat Manti twice en route to the state title, the last a 36-22 win on a snowy day at Weber State.
Defending that state title, or the 3A North region title, won’t be a walk in the park.
Even though Grantsville and Morgan both graduated a lot of key starters, they’re programs that tend to reload instead of rebuild and figure to be right in the thick of the 3A North race.
Last year Grantsville led Judge 14-0 at the half before falling 25-14. Morgan kept it close for three quarters before losing 28-14.
With only about four kids back with legitimate varsity experience from last season, Morgan coach Kovi Christiansen knows it won’t be easy to challenge Judge.
“Hopefully we can stay healthy, 'cause we’re not deep,” he said. “It’s going to take a little bit of luck and them coming together to be able to compete with the Judges and Grantsvilles.”
Grantsville never truly recovered after Judge scored 25 unanswered points in last year’s region clash. The Cowboys were 5-0 at the time and ranked No. 1 by the Deseret News. After beating Emery the following week, they lost close games to Morgan and Delta in Weeks 8 and 9, which forced them to hit the road in the playoffs.
The result was a quick exit with a 28-21 quarterfinal loss to Juab.
“We just played better teams and just didn’t come through,” said Grantsville coach Tony Cloward.
Even though Judge is a larger school with perhaps more overall talent, Cloward believes that Grantsville’s 3A baseball title in May has his players believing they can compete with anyone.
“I think as a school in general and athletics in general, I think we’ve turned that corner. I think our kids truly believe we can win any sport if we just put our effort in,” said Cloward. “I absolutely think baseball will roll over and help us in football.”
Judge, Morgan and Grantsville were clearly the three best teams in 3A North a year ago, but Union — with its abundance of returning starters — is hoping to crack the top three this year. Having five O-line starters back and its quarterback definitely gives Union hope.
“I feel like this is a good opportunity for us to take the next step and maybe beat some teams we’re not supposed to beat,” said coach Matt Labrum.
For Emery, this will likely be a rebuilding year after the majority of last year’s contributors graduated.
As for Carbon, it’s been nearly a decade and a half since it was relevant in 3A football, something first-year coach Jan Jorgensen hopes to fix over time, but it’s hard to imagine it taking effect this season.
FRIDAY: 3AA South Preview
Deseret News projections for 3A North football teams in 2014
(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)
1. JUDGE: The Bulldogs went 11-0 against 3A competition last year, and with five offensive starters and six defensive starters back, they begin the 2014 season ranked No. 1. Max Barnett returns to anchor the offense and the defense. Defensively, he was a first-team all-state linebacker with a team-leading 93 tackles, while offensively he was second on the team with 667 rushing yards and eight TDs. Michael Kearns also returns after rushing for 407 yards and seven TDs. The offensive line that opened such gaping holes throughout last season returns two starters, Ricki Maka and Jacob Cline. Another key returning starter is senior Braden Pelly. The linebacker/tight end was second on the team in tackles with 80 and led the team with 313 receiving yards. 2013 RECORD: 11-2. PLAYOFFS: Beat Manti 36-22 in championship.
2. MORGAN: Jake Peterson (RB/DB) and Bridger Streadbeck (WR/DE) are the only key returning contributors for the Trojans, who were very senior-laden last year. Both will take on larger leadership roles, but newcomers are expected to pick up the bulk of the offensive slack. Spencer Larsen and Chez Stout are speedy running backs expected to fill the graduation void, while Tyler Kelsey and Nick Porter could both get playing time at QB. The lack of any returning experience on the O-line is certainly a storyline worth watching. Defensively, even though Kaleb Schlichte and Wyatt Ekblad didn’t start on the defensive line, they rotated in quite a bit and the Trojans’ defensive front should be a strength this season. 2013 RECORD: 9-3. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Manti 36-28 in semifinals.
3. UNION: Union allowed 30-plus points in five of 10 games last year, and 40-plus in three of those. Getting tougher and playing with more intensity has been a big focus this offseason. Nic Smith is the only returning linebacker from last year, but the defensive line and secondary are pretty much all back. Paul Kaufusi — 39 tackles, seven sacks — and Jordan Gurr will help anchor the defensive line, while Zac Rose, Vil Lutui, Henrique Moreira and Everett Henry will all be counted on in the secondary. Offensively, Tye Winterton returns at QB and all five offensive linemen in front of him are back too. Smith was an all-state receiver last year, but he’ll contribute even more on the ground this year. 2013 RECORD: 4-6. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.
4. GRANTSVILLE: Along with quarterback Nephi Meono, the only offensive returning starters this season for the Cowboys are offensive lineman Colton Adams and blocking tight end Cade Coon. The newcomers have good size, however, which isn’t always the case at Grantsville. Wyatt Barrus, the 3A baseball MVP, and Lorenzo Silva will combine to try and fill Ky Fisher’s TD machine role at running back. Defensively, the return of Conner Collings, who moved away for a year, and Meono will strengthen the secondary. The only returning starter on the defensive front is Coon, but he's someone big things are expected of. 2013 RECORD: 7-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Juab 28-21 in quarterfinals.
5. EMERY: The Spartans graduated the bulk of their starters from a year ago, and will be very young again this year with several sophomores and juniors starting. One area Emery does return experience is at quarterback with Tai Justice. Matt Mecham is also back this year and he’ll play a key role offensively and defensively. At fullback last year he rushed for 448 yards and five TDs, while defensively he led Emery in tackles with 84. He’ll be counted on to increase that productivity on both sides of the ball. Nathan Potter is a returning starter in the trenches, while Evan Swenson and Tyler Olsen bring experience back in the secondary. 2013 RECORD: 4-7. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Manti 35-14 in quarterfinals.
6. CARBON: Jan Jorgensen returns to his alma mater as its head coach, but turning the program around won’t be easy. The Dinos have lost 17 straight and haven’t had a winning season since 2000. He has roughly six returning starters on each side of the ball to work with. Jarod Lessar is back at quarterback, while two of his primary receiver threats — Garrett Blanc and Braxton Jones — also return. Jacky Byrge received limited carries at RB last year, but he’s expected to take on a much larger load in 2014. Marcus Santi returns to anchor the offensive and defensive line. Dailyn Mower will anchor the linebacking corps again this season after leading the team in tackles. 2013 RECORD: 0-10. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.
Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer.