The Utah High School Activities Association has long had a problem in Class 3A football, and it’s not one that’s easy to solve.
On one hand, you have schools like Grantsville, Morgan, North Sanpete, Juab, Grand, San Juan, Richfield and Delta — among others — who are all from isolated small towns, sometimes up to 60 miles away from their nearest opponents. On the other, you have private schools Juan Diego and Judge Memorial, along with charter school Summit Academy in the midst of the Salt Lake Valley.
Maybe, sometimes, Morgan can get someone from the Ogden area to make the trip up Interstate 84 to play football for the Trojans. Grantsville can get someone who would otherwise be going to Stansbury or Tooele. Juab might pull someone from southern Utah County. Richfield and South Sevier are in the same school district. South Summit might get someone from Park City. But those instances are fairly few and far between — and they’re still picking from a far more limited talent base than the Salt Lake Valley schools are.
Juan Diego, Judge Memorial and Summit Academy have the entire Salt Lake Valley — and beyond — as their boundaries. If you’re from a well-off family, and you happen not to make the team at Corner Canyon, Alta, East or Highland, Judge and Juan Diego are right in your backyard. If you’re a fairly good student from Lehi, Skyridge, Herriman or Riverton, and Summit Academy still has room, you can play for the Bears without increasing your drive to school by too much.
Those inherent advantages have made it difficult, if not impossible, for the rural schools to compete for state titles, particularly in football. The Salt Lake Valley schools have too much talent, too much size and too much depth to get pushed around by a group of small-town kids that’s been playing together since they were in grade school, right?
Wrong. At least this year. And, thankfully so.
Look at this year’s four semifinalists: North Sanpete, Juab, Grantsville and Morgan. According to World Population Review, Mount Pleasant’s estimated population is 3,418. Nephi’s is 6,111. Grantsville’s is 11,568. Morgan’s is 4,260. All are small towns whose high school football teams are part of the lifeblood of their respective communities.
If you go to games at Juan Diego, Judge or Summit Academy, the crowd consists of a few parents and close friends of the players. In a small town, it’s a community event that involves everyone from every walk of life, with thousands filling the bleachers.
It feels good to know that in communities like Grantsville, Nephi, Morgan and Mount Pleasant, the dream of winning a state championship that so many boys cling to isn’t so far-fetched, after all. The next generation of Cowboys, Wasps, Trojans and Hawks can dare to dream as big as they want.
And that’s not to say Juan Diego, Judge and Summit Academy won’t be back. They will — though Judge has fallen on hard times in recent years. But at least this year, it’s all about the small-town kids. Based on student population, sure, those three schools have pretty much the same number of students as the other schools in Class 3A. In terms of competitive balance — well, that’s the problem the UHSAA still needs to figure out.
So, score one for the little guys. This season’s Class 3A semifinals should generate some hope across the state. No matter where you’re from, one of these years might just be your year.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. He grew up in a small town where Friday-night football games brought everything to a standstill. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.