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Prep football: Utah's Diamond (Ranch) in the rough

Published August 23, 2014 11:39 am

Prep football • Southern Utah-based boarding school uses football to teach life lessons.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Hurricane • Since Diamond Ranch Academy is a unique school, football coaches Rob and Ricky Dias decided it needed a distinctive stadium to reflect that difference.

The yellow and black diamondback logo that stretches across the artificial turf field located on a bluff near Sand Hollow Reservoir with the Pine Valley Mountains visible in the background gives the modern stadium a look that USA Today called "the most unique field in America."

One of Utah's only turf baseball fields is located adjacent to the football field at the self-described "therapeutic boarding school for toubled teens."

"We decided that we are a unique school, so let's make our field unique like nothing anybody has ever seen," said Rob Dias, the head football coach and a former player at nearby Dixie State.

Parents send teens from all over the United States to Diamond Ranch Academy, which plays in Utah's 1A classification and houses about 150 students. According to The Daily Beast, one of its more famous residents was Paris Jackson, daughter of the late Michael Jackson. Dias said tuition at the facility, which includes a strong arts program and an equestrian center, is $6,500 a month.

According to the coach, sports teams help teens who might be falling behind in school, who have become lost in the crowd, who are struggling with family life or who have dabbled in drugs or alcohol.

"Our main concern is that they are emotionally healthy," said Dias. "Sports is a secondary priority."

However, he added, "sport is huge for us because of the things it teaches. We learn how to work as a family unit and develop the camaraderie that it builds in you. We use sports to really teach those important life lessons, that you have to find a way to win, you have a job that your are doing and you are finding for relationships. … The discipline and structure is vital. You also have to learn to be humble enough to be teachable and then fix your mistakes."

Noah Courtney, a 6-foot-7 quarterback from Charlotte. N.C., said playing on the football team has helped him off the field. He said that he had trouble with motivation in all areas of his life.

"Football impacts everything," he said. "Since I started football here, my commitment to everything has become better."

While it might seem as though Diamond Ranch could replicate the success Wasatch Academy (another Utah boarding school) has had with its basketball program, fielding a football team is a challenge. Students come and go. This season, Dias has only one returning starter.

"Everyone else is brand new," he said. "At least half of my group has never put pads on in a high school game. We are starting from scratch. We teach fundamentals and implement an offense and defense. We have to teach these guys to trust one another, play with one another and be competitive."

But just looking at athletes such as Courtney, California linebacker Trevor Alvarez, Boise wide receiver Ryan Gardiner, and Minnesota defensive end Stephen Hoffman leaves the impression that the Diamondbacks could be very good.

The team did win a region championship in 2012 and enters this season ranked third in the state behind traditional 1A powers Duchesne and Rich.

Courtney said putting together a team has been difficult.

"We come from different parts of the country," he said. "We have people coming in who have never played football before. But we spend time in the gym together, making ourselves better, building each other up and keeping our heads on right. I am teaching the guys who haven't been on the field."

Hoffman said that while it is difficult when players come from different parts of the country, there are some good players.

"You get the best talent wherever you can get it," he said. "That's what makes a team."

Gardiner said being away from home is difficult, but being able to play football helps him.

"It makes things 100 times better," said the receiver. "It's the best feeling in the world. It helps you get away from everything."

He added that since there are no distractions at the school, they can work to not only be good football players but good people in general.

"All of us are trying to get scholarships to colleges," said Hoffman. "We are working consistently on football, weights, school and sleep every single day. That makes us where we want to be and shows us where we want to go."

The facilities don't hurt. The football field, with its distinctive snakeskin logo, ranks among the most spectacular in Utah. Dias said the school sends a live stream television feed out during every game so families from out of state can watch their sons play every game.

This isn't to say that the boarding school, which uses six different treatment programs on its 55-acre campus, does not have its detractors.

A group that calls itself "Diamond Ranch Academy Survivors" created a website (http://www.drasurvivors.com) to detail issues with some of those programs and problems some students and parents had with the school. The website's homepage is blunt in its criticism, stating: "Our message is clear: Diamond Ranch Academy is NOT a legitimate treatment facility and their methods are unethical, illegal and abusive."

Diamond Ranch Academy has responded with its own website (http://www.therealdrasurvivors.com) to counter the allegations.

But as far as Dias is concerned, the school in general and football program specifically help those who come to Hurricane to attend the academy.

"We have had quite a few guys that came here with horrible grades and no chance of scholarships," said the coach with the friendly disposition. "In the past two years, we have sent an average of two of our athletes on full-ride scholarships to other schools. Our goal is to have our students get good grades and move on to be successful in college. That's what we pride ourselves on. … We want them to come here, get them in shape, have stronger relationships with their families, and get them full-ride offers."

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton