The 2021 San Juan Bronco championship-winning football season will forever be etched in the minds of players, coaches, parents, and fans
by Rhett Sifford
The 2021 San Juan High School football season is one that players, coaches, parents, and fans will never forget. The Broncos are the 2A Utah State Champions after their 34-21 win over defending champion Beaver this past Saturday, November 13 at Weber State University.
From the start of the year, it was expected that San Juan would be one of the teams, if not the team, to beat.
Moving from the 3A classification to 2A this year gave the Broncos a bit of an edge, but they knew it still wouldn’t be an easy task to achieve a state title. Having 20 seniors on the roster didn’t hurt either.
The coaching staff designed the first half of the season as well as they could to provide challenging opponents. The second half of the season was comprised of 2A South Region games.
The Broncos kicked off the year in St. George on August 13 with a tough matchup against 4A Desert Hills. When San Juan scored on their opening drive, they had momentary thoughts of a big upset.
But those hopes were dashed when the Thunder outscored the Broncos 45-12 from that point to hand San Juan a season-opening loss, one that would be a help to the Broncos for the remainder of the season.
Following the setback, fifth-year Bronco Head Coach Barkley Christensen said, “We’re going to look back and thank Desert Hills at the end of the season because iron sharpens iron.
“They have already made us a better team [by exposing some weaknesses]. They’ve made me a better coach and the players better players.” Prophetic words indeed.
In the home opener in week two San Juan welcomed eventual state semifinal opponent, Summit Academy to Blanding on August 20.
Though the Bears’ Devin Watson was one of the best quarterbacks the Broncos faced this year, San Juan was able to keep him in check and take command in the second half, picking up their first win of the season, 48-29.
Their second straight home game on August 27, an easy 34-3 win over Bayfield, CO led into their second road trip and one of the more interesting games of the year.
On September 3 San Juan headed to Milford to take on one of the toughest teams in 1A. The teams traded blows all night in an exciting offensive shootout that involved some peculiar officiating, a bit of a skirmish, and a player ejection.
The Broncos outlasted the scrappy Tigers for their third win in a row 62-41 and in the following three weeks strung together blowout wins over Canyon View, South Sevier, and Millard to improve to 6-1.
Week 8, October 1, San Juan hit the road again to take on the 2-5 Delta Rabbits. The game started very similarly to the previous three – maybe even more impressively.
The Broncos racked up 135 yards of offense in the first quarter and led 21-0 just 21 seconds into the second frame on three unanswered touchdowns. They were on pace for over 500 yards of offense and 84 points.
But senior receiver Ladd Ivins left the game with injury in the second quarter, and from that point San Juan had a fight on their hands.
Delta rallied to tie the score at halftime, then take the lead in the third quarter. But the 2021 San Juan Broncos simply would not be denied.
Countless times this season when facing tough circumstances, they rebounded – usually immediately – to battle back and force those circumstances to conform to their will.
They ultimately won that duel in Delta of course, and it was another lesson that they could put in their hats that would make them better players and young men, and eventually lead them to a state title.
Following the comeback win in Delta, the Broncos were set for their much-anticipated matchup with the two-time defending champion Beaver Beavers in Beaver (just trying to see how many times I can say “beaver” in one sentence).
Everyone knew it would be an outstanding game and possibly a preview of the state championship a month later. And of course a 34-game win streak was on the line.
October 8 was a cold, wet night in Beaver, perfect for a defensive battle in a mud bowl. It didn’t disappoint. It’s well-known history now that San Juan did snap that 34-game winning streak, shutting out the Beavers 8-0.
When they came back home the following Friday, October 15, they closed out the regular season with their ninth-straight win, 67-0 over rival Grand County.
That set them up for a bye in the first round of the state tournament and a matchup with 4-7 Millard in the quarterfinals, who they trounced 39-7 in their final home game of the season.
The last two games of the year are now etched in the minds of Bronco players, coaches, parents, and fans – a very convincing 60-35 beatdown of Summit Academy in the state semifinals at SUU October 29 and the solid state-title-winning performance at Weber State this past Saturday to take down the two-time defending champs…again.
It was an amazing year, to be sure. This San Juan team possessed a never-say-die attitude that was unrivaled. They played injured for most of the year. They would not accept defeat, no matter the circumstance. They lived and died with a next-man-up mentality.
A different player stepped up each time this team was on the field. They were never truly shorthanded because they were brothers and they were there for each other all season long – prepared and committed to pick each other up along the way.
And I should mention, by the way, that the coaching staff are all geniuses – or at least clairvoyant. Everything they drew up, they made happen.
And Barkley Christensen, winning his first state title at 27 years of age? Impressive. It’s possible he’s the youngest coach to win a state championship in Utah history, but I can’t confirm that.
Quarterback Jace Palmer was relentless this year. His ability to run the offense while on the field was indispensable. He completed 212 of his 337 passing attempts for 3,020 yards and 41 touchdowns (tied for 30th in the nation).
He was also the Broncos’ second-leading rusher, with 565 yards and ten touchdowns. His main passing target this season was of course Ladd Ivins, who finishes the year with 1,373 yards on 96 catches and 15 TDs.
Cooper Black caught 52 Palmer passes for 838 yards and 12 touchdowns. Junior Jerzy Nieves was next in line with 29 receptions for 415 yards and six TDs.
Other receivers who contributed to the Broncos’ offense this season included Jensen Grover (155 yds, 2 TDs), Landon Black (152 yds, 3 TDs), and Bronson Snyder (84 yds, 2 TDs).
Junior Collin Baker caught one touchdown pass from Palmer this year (the TD that gave San Juan back their lead after they trailed in Delta).
One of the most consistent weapons for the Bronco offense was, not surprisingly, big running back Jensen Grover. Though his numbers aren’t mind-boggling, he was steady game in and game out.
Grover finishes the year with 1,353 yards rushing on 214 carries. He scored 17 touchdowns on the ground, so combined with his two receiving TDs, he led the team with 19. He also accounted for a team-high 114 points, just edging out Ladd Ivins who scored 108.
Landon Black was always ready when called upon to come into a game and get positive run yards. He collected 236 yards on 45 carries with four touchdowns.
Defensively Magnum Nielson led the way with 137 tackles on the season. Jensen Grover got 98 stops, Ladd Ivins had 94, Bronson Snyder made 85 tackles, and Tyler Bayles got 74.
Snyder was in Bronco opponents’ backfields all season long messing up opposing quarterbacks’ nights. He had an impressive 22 sacks on the season, which was tied for 15th nationwide.
Bayles was right behind with 16 sacks, Chance Hoggard had four, and Callen Burke and Magnum Nielson both had three apiece.
In the secondary, Jerzy Nieves and Collin Baker led San Juan with four interceptions apiece and one pick-six apiece. Collin Black and Ladd Ivins both got three picks apiece, Garrett Young had two, and Magnum Nielson got one.
Zach Conway and Nielson both recovered two fumbles on the season. Ivins, Snyder, and Landon Black got a fumble recovery each. Snyder and Conway both recovered one fumble for a touchdown apiece.
San Juan was truly “stacked” this year as they say. Those 20 seniors are going to disappear off the Bronco roster this coming spring, and coaches will begin grooming a largely new generation to take over the tradition of San Juan High School football.
Coach Christensen is excited about it. While still on the field at Weber State after the championship was won he pointed out that this season will obviously be very good for the program.
The young players now see what’s possible. They believe. They’re ready to come in and receive the baton in stride as it’s passed on by the graduating class.
I don’t know how it’s going to go for the next couple years, but I know this: it’s going to be fun to watch.