San Juan Broncos beat South Summit, establish L3GACY with third straight state championship
by Rhett Sifford
Three short months ago the San Juan High School football team opened the 2023 season looking to accomplish something no 2A team ever had in the state of Utah – win a third straight state championship.
On Saturday, November 11 the Broncos realized that dream with a 43-28 victory over South Summit in the 2A Utah State Championship Game at Southern Utah University in Cedar City.
In the process, they also fulfilled their very ambitious slogan that was coined long before the season started, to establish a L3GACY with a three-peat.
The win, though not as dominating as San Juan fans had come to expect, capped a very convincing season in which San Juan outscored their opponents by an average of 46 points per game.
The atypical result this past Saturday can largely be chalked up to the very tough, athletic defense the Wildcats fielded – far and away the best the Broncos had seen all year.
Two things happened in Cedar City that had not happened yet this season: San Juan had to fight a little harder to establish a first-half lead, and the starters remained on the field for an entire four-quarter game.
After their opening drive failed to generate points – a major rarity this season – the Bronco offense needed a little help from their defense.
They got it when Anthony Done stripped the ball away from South Summit wide receiver Stratton Stevens on the Wildcats’ very first play from scrimmage.
San Juan was in the end zone two plays later with an effortless 28-yard touchdown run by Zack Conway. Tripp Palmer added the extra point and the Broncos were up 7-0 just 2:44 into the game.
The Anthony Done show continued on the Wildcats’ second possession. The San Juan senior blew up their first two plays with open-field tackles before snagging his second takeaway of the game with an interception on third down.
The Bronco offense was unable to capitalize on the turnover, but their defensive play was dictating the tone early, and that was key to their ultimate victory.
San Juan scored their second touchdown 2:33 into the second quarter when quarterback Parker Snyder snuck in from one yard out, capping a 12-play, 60-yard drive.
When South Summit jumped offside on the PAT the Broncos elected to go for two. Conway ran the ball in for a successful conversion, increasing the lead to 15-0.
The Wildcats finally broke through the San Juan defense to answer on their sixth possession with an impressive 81-yard drive finished off by a four-yard pass from Bracken Lassche to Mitchell Gempeler, trimming the lead to 15-7.
The Broncos put together their own very impressive 80-yard scoring drive on the ensuing possession, capped by a one-yard touchdown run by Conway. It gave San Juan a two-score lead once again.
But the series of events that occurred in the following 1:53 set the tone for the second half and ultimately went a long way toward deciding the game.
With South Summit driving steadily toward the San Juan red zone, Parker Snyder stepped up to intercept a Lassche pass at his own 25, returning it 70 yards to the five yard line with only one second remaining in the half.
With ice in his veins and no time left on the clock, Snyder then stood in the pocket and hit a wide open Jake Ivins with a five-yard TD strike on a perfectly-executed slant from the left side.
After struggling to establish the type of lead they had been used to all season, San Juan suddenly found themselves up 29-7 at halftime.
It was very important, because the Wildcats took possession to start the third quarter and drove the ball 65 yards in 4:02, cutting the deficit to 29-14 on a four-yard touchdown run by Trey Stembridge.
But the Broncos answered with an efficient four-play, 43-yard drive that took only 1:10. From the South Summit 20 Snyder once again found Ivins at the three.
As Ivins made the catch and spun to the goal line he was hit from behind, dislodging the ball. Fortunately he recovered the fumble in the end zone for his second touchdown of the game, increasing the San Juan lead to 36-14.
South Summit scored just a minute into the fourth quarter to make it interesting again, but the Broncos answered just over six minutes later to put a strangle hold on the game.
On first down at the San Juan 47 Conway burst into the open field right up the middle, showcasing his speed in an impressive 53-yard touchdown run, stretching the Bronco lead to three scores once again.
South Summit added one final score with 1:58 left to play, but a San Juan recovery on the onside kick attempt ensured the Broncos could use the victory formation to put the finishing touches on their third straight 2A Utah State championship.
It was an impressive team effort that involved overcoming a very good challenger in South Summit. Following the victory there were plenty of emotions to go around.
For most of the starters, it was the final time they’ll suit up in the blue and gold for a football game. “I just can’t stop crying,” said senior tight end and linebacker Trace Bennett.
“It’s such an emotional ride. Coming from my sophomore year, seeing what the seniors and juniors before me could do and what it felt like, I wanted that emotion and that feeling every year. I love these seniors and I love these coaches, and it was awesome playing with them.”
Head Coach Barkley Christensen said the third championship was without a doubt just as sweet, and even sweeter, than the first. “I’m so happy for these kids. That’s what makes it so great,” he stated.
“[The players] were gutting it out,” he continued. “We were tired. But every time they put our backs against the ropes we responded and scored in a big way.”
Christensen has said all year that the 2023 squad was the hungriest, most competitive group he’s ever coached. He also pointed out that it wasn’t the Broncos’ most stellar offensive effort of the season.
It’s a good thing their defense was good. After the win defensive coordinator Bobby Bowring said, “I couldn’t be more proud of our guys. We stepped up when we needed to and got a lot of big turnovers that first half that kept the ball rolling in our court.”
“We weren’t used to our offense stalling a couple times like it did so I was real proud of those boys, how they rallied and came together. They made plays when we needed them, so it was awesome.”
Bowring pointed out how incredibly the defensive line played in their biggest test of the season. “They rose to the challenge and we got pressure when we needed it.
“They shut the run game down early which kind of made [South Summit] one-dimensional, and that just let our secondary do their thing. They were rushing throws all night, getting big sacks, so credit to those front four guys.”
Senior running back Zack Conway said the feeling after winning a third straight championship was unreal, but he remained humble in the victory.
“I couldn’t have done it without every single one of those linemen,” he said. “It was only half me. The other half – every single one of those guys had to block their [butts] off.”
That humble attitude was a big part of what brought the Broncos so much success this year, and in the preceding years. It’s an understanding that permeates the San Juan football program.
For the most part, the players who engage in the “dirty work” don’t publicly receive credit for their ongoing battle in the trenches where games and state championships are won.
It’s the star players who get all the accolades. And senior quarterback Parker Snyder was just that for San Juan this year. In the championship game he completed 20 of his 30 pass attempts for 208 yards and two touchdowns.
He also carried the ball 18 times for 79 yards and a rushing touchdown. He ends the season 205 for 277 for an amazing 74 percent completion rate. His 3,170 passing yards rank ninth among Utah quarterbacks.
Snyder’s 42 passing touchdowns this season are the fifth-most in the state. And he ends his career with 6,989 total passing yards and 89 touchdowns.
It goes without saying that senior running back Zack Conway was also instrumental in the win. He churned out 173 hard-earned yards against South Summit on 23 carries and punched in three huge touchdowns.
Though the 4A-6A state championship games are still to be played, his 30 rushing TDs this season are currently the most in the state. His 1,553 rushing yards rank fifth in the state.
Conway finishes his high school career with 3,309 rushing yards and 53 touchdowns. Oh, and he also collected 1,116 receiving yards along the way with 12 more TDs.
Not surprisingly, junior Jake Ivins was Snyder’s favorite target in the title game. Ivins made ten catches for 97 yards and scored two key touchdowns.
Though senior Keaton Ivins didn’t get into the end zone, he did make four catches for 62 yards, helping to set San Juan up in good position to score points. Brigham Nielson also made five big catches for 44 yards in the win.
Jake Ivins was the team’s leading receiver this season with 62 catches for 889 yards and 12 touchdowns. Brigham Nielson made 41 catches for 640 yards and six touchdowns.
Impressively, Zack Conway was third yardage-wise among San Juan receivers this season with 28 catches, 523 yards, and five touchdowns.
Javin Montella caught 19 passes for 380 yards and eight TDs. Keaton Ivins, who was injured in the first game of the season and was huge once he returned midway through, had 18 receptions for 319 yards and two touchdowns.
Anthony Done also missed a lot of time this season due to injury, but still caught 23 passes for 263 yards and four touchdowns. As previously mentioned, he was a big part of the Broncos’ first-half defense in the state championship game.
Trace Bennett made ten catches this season for 136 yards and three touchdowns. And Tyler Pehrson had six receptions for 45 yards and a couple TDs.
Jake Ivins made nine tackles in the title game to lead the team. Trace Bennett was right behind with eight. JD Palmer and Parker Snyder made seven stops apiece, and Branten Bethea got six.
Ivins led the team this season with 103 tackles, Bennett had 89, Palmer collected 82, Jordon Duke got 74, Jaiten Knight made 55 stops, and Jagger Nieves had 43.
Taylor “Yummy” Black made two big sacks in the championship game. Jaiten Knight registered 1.5 sacks – not too shabby for a backup quarterback. Anthony Done had one sack in the win.
Knight led the team with 7.5 sacks this season. Conway collected 5.5, Black had four, JD Palmer got 3.5, and Jake Ivins had 2.5.
San Juan finished the year with a very impressive 39 takeaways, an average of 3.3 per game, while turning the ball over just nine times.
The Broncos amassed 18 interceptions (Brigham Nielson led with seven) and 21 fumble recoveries (Jake Ivins led with five).
With his third state championship as head coach, Barkley Christensen joins an elite group of seven other coaches who have accomplished that feat or better.
He ends his seventh year at the helm with a 63-19 record. And he is now second among Utah coaches all-time for most consecutive victories.
Speaking of most consecutive victories, the Broncos of course end the year 12-0 with a 37-game winning streak, now the third-longest in Utah history behind Duchesne and Corner Canyon’s record 48 in a row each.
There is still a lot of football to be played around the nation, but the San Juan winning streak currently ranks eighth among the active streaks in the US.
What else can you say about this amazing season of football at San Juan High School? In all my years of covering sports in southeastern Utah I have never seen a more dominant performance as the Broncos’ this year.
I doubt I’ll ever see one again, either. Nothing was going to stand in the way of a third straight state title for this team. They refused to settle for anything less than their destiny.
And in all truth, despite the less-than-perfect offensive production and extra effort required in the championship game, the result was never really in doubt.
Congratulations to the San Juan coaches, players, parents, fans, and everyone else involved or connected on an absolutely outstanding 2023 season – one that, for the third straight year, will never be forgotten.