Jackson Sandberg and Gauge Pyne have seen it all in their four years with the Grantsville football program.
When they were freshmen, the Cowboys were coming off a 1-9 season, and off-the-field turmoil surrounded the program en route to a 4-7 record. The next year, coach Kody Byrd came in and led Grantsville to a 5-5 record and a trip to the state quarterfinals.
Last year, they went 8-2 and advanced to the quarterfinals after finishing second in Class 3A North.
With that recent history of year-by-year growth, where can the Cowboys go from here?
“It goes up every year, and we want to push it even higher than what we have been,” Pyne said. “I feel like we can win region. If we just come together as hard as we can and we just work together and build that bond and we just fight every game, I feel like we can be on top.”
The Cowboys enter the 2019 season as one of the favorites in a revamped Class 3A. The Region 13 coaches picked them to finish third, and the Deseret News has them fourth in their preseason Class 3A rankings. While some teams would shy away from those kind of lofty predictions, Grantsville is embracing them.
“I think if things fall the right way and we stay healthy, we’re one of those top teams,” Byrd said. “We have as good a chance as anybody, I think, to win it. It’s going to be a tough road — there’s some great teams that we’ve got to play, week in and week out.”
Sandberg is a large part of the reason the Cowboys are so confident. He’s going into his second year as Grantsville’s starting quarterback, and with the help of an offensive line that features four returning starters (Pyne, Branson Yager, Chaz Shafer and Austin Grey), he’s looking for even bigger things this season.
“It’s a lot more comfortable,” Sandberg said. “It’s a different speed, so just having the experience and obviously, our summer workouts helped too. I feel a lot better this year.”
Byrd lauded Sandberg’s leadership skills, both as a QB and as a defensive back.
“He’s a naturally great leader, and now he’s put that confidence behind it as well,” Byrd said. “You see him out there correcting kids and making sure they’re in the right spots and making sure they’re doing things the right way. It’s been great. It’s been really good knowing we can put new wrinkles in because of his grasp of the base offense.”
Sandberg has plenty of weapons around him, beginning with the one-two punch of Trent Brown and James Fuluvaka in the backfield. The Cowboys will have to replace 2,000-yard rusher Parker Thomas, but the running-back-by-committee approach could be just as potent. Brown ran for 223 yards on 38 carries (5.9 yards per attempt) last season, and Fuluvaka had 283 yards on 36 attempts (7.9 yards per attempt) — his longest run was 60 yards — with three touchdowns.
“(Brown and Fuluvaka) stepped up and had a great summer,” Byrd said. “We’ve got a good running-back-by-committee, but ultimately, it starts up front (with the offensive line). A big part of our offensive philosophy is to control the clock, grind it out and tire people out, and we’ve got the guys up front to be able to do it.”
Sandberg also has his top two receivers back from 2018. Ammon Bartley had 17 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns, and Taylor Wood caught 15 passes for 220 yards and a score.
Defensively, Pyne will play middle linebacker this season after playing outside in 2018. He had 34 tackles and four tackles-for-loss last year, along with five sacks, six quarterback hurries, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. That came on the heels of a sophomore campaign in which he had 30 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, two sacks and two fumble recoveries.
With 20 games of varsity experience under his belt, Pyne is looking forward to being a leader on both sides of the ball.
“I feel like I have a lot more knowledge of the game — pass blocking and everything like that, and knowing more positions than I ever have,” he said.
Bartley and Eathen Brinkerhoff join Pyne as part of a talented linebacker corps. Grey is the lone returning starter on the defensive line, where Yager, Fuluvaka and Garrett Behunin should all contribute, while Logan White, Chace Gipson and Wood return in the secondary.
Byrd is excited about the potential of his defense, particularly in terms of secondary depth.
“We’ve got a lot of experience back there,” Byrd said. “I think Kaden Kelley has done a great job stepping up this summer, and we’ve got Blake Thomas who’s doing really well. We have probably four (cornerbacks) who can play. Any of those four guys could start and do really well. It’s frustrating for them because they can’t all be out there, but it’s good for us (coaches) because can rotate them in and keep them fresh.”
The Cowboys play a difficult schedule this season, hoping to avoid another early playoff exit. The Region 13 schedule is much more difficult, with the likes of Union, Carbon and Emery being replaced by Juan Diego, Summit Academy and defending Class 2A champion South Summit. In non-region play, the Cowboys will face 2018 Class 3A runner-up North Sanpete along with Manti, Delta, Region 15 favorite San Juan and Class 4A Tooele.
“We did that on purpose, to really test ourselves,” Byrd said. “I wanted something to prepare us against all the different regions.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, they have a number of multi-sport athletes accustomed to playing in big games. In 2018, Grantsville finished third in boys basketball and won the baseball state championship, and a number of players on the football roster were members of at least one of those teams.
“It’s a different experience come playoff time,” Sandberg said. “Just having so many people and the energy’s a lot different. Even though it’s a different sport, It does give you experience.”
Grantsville opens the 2019 season Aug. 16 in Mount Pleasant against North Sanpete. The Cowboys will then travel to Tooele on Aug. 23 before playing their home opener against Manti on Aug. 30. Their first Region 13 game will be Sept. 20 at home against Judge Memorial.