That’s all it took for Skyridge High School, which opened in Lehi in the fall of 2016, to make it to a state title game.
With a second-half comeback against Corner Canyon in Thursday’s state semifinal, Skyridge claimed what only four other second-year schools have in state history: a berth to the state finals. The last schools to do so were Fremont and Snow Canyon in 1995. No school has won a state championship before its third year.
“It feels amazing,” said wide receiver Nate Upham, who made the one-handed game-winning touchdown catch. “A second-year school?”
The Falcons became the youngest program to reach a state tile game in 22 years with an unconventional approach to building a new program. The Skyridge coaches focused on the senior leadership, going against much of the advice coach Jon Lehman gleaned from coaches who had been in program-building situations before.
“Let’s develop our leadership right now,” Lehman said about his coaching staff’s mindset, “and really pour into those guys and put the responsibility on them to help build the culture of our expectations and the way that we do things.”
Most other coaches told him to focus on the freshmen and sophomores, the future leaders of the program. After all, Skyridge would graduate 18 seniors at the end of the first year, including staring quarterback Connor Meinzer, rushing leader Brendan Roper and receiving leader Wyatt Parkinson.
But the Falcons coaching staff did it their way.
“Those guys did a great job of just buying in and catching onto that vision,” Lehman said about last year’s seniors. “And so it really helped us establish a culture that was more stable than maybe some of the younger programs that I’d seen before.”
Skyridge stuck with the senior leadership theme this season. The seniors attend monthly leadership training where they discuss the practical uses of the team’s core values traits, including being passionate, grateful and fearless.
Their discussion on fearlessness, in which they talked about their long-term and short-term fears, especially impressed Lehman.
“The willingness for our guys to be real with each other and be vulnerable and talk about the things that they’re scared of most is really hard for a bunch of adolescent teenage men,” Lehman said.
Yet they did it, and they supported each other through it.
“Those are special moments for me as a coach,” Lehman said.
Lehman has watched his gamble progressively pay off over the past two years. At a team camp at Snow College last year, he observed seniors walking underclassmen through the details of schemes and techniques. He said he saw players competing for positions without animosity throughout the season.
The coaching staff’s investment in the seniors spread throughout the group. Skyridge lost just one game during the regular season on its way to Friday’s state championship game.
The Falcons claimed the third postseason victory in dramatic fashion. First-year varsity quarterback Jayden Clemons launched back-to-back deep passes to Upham, a 45-yard pass followed by a 23-yard pass, to take a one-point lead with 1:02 left in the game.
The junior transfer began the year fighting for the starting spot, and he led his team to the state championship Thursday afternoon.
“It’s all about the process,” he said. “Nothing happens without the process, and you have to work every day, every minute, every second, in anything if you want to get better in life.”
Skyridge will play Lehi for the Class 5A state championship and in-town bragging rights at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
SECOND-YEAR STATE FINALISTS
These are the five schools in Utah prep history to reach the football state championship game in the school’s second year.
1920 • Logan High
1969 • Layton High
1995 • Fremont High
1995 • Snow Canyon High
2017 • Skyridge High
FRIDAY’S STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES
at Rice-Eccles Stadium, University of Utah
Mountain Crest vs. Orem, 11 a.m.
Skyridge vs. Lehi, 6:30 p.m.
Bingham vs. East, 2:30 p.m.