An option for Utah’s struggling prep football teams: Go independent

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune West Jordan High School football takes the field as they host Riverton High School, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 in West Jordan.

Judge Memorial High School athletic director Scott Platz drove to the school principal’s house after the football team’s game against Summit Academy. It was an October night at around 9:30 p.m., and Platz had an idea: moving the football program to an independent schedule.

The Bulldogs had just lost to a Summit Academy team that finished 2019 with a losing record. Just two weeks earlier, Judge Memorial forfeited its game against Morgan. Both events had something in common.

The Bulldogs lost several of their veteran players to injury in the early portion of last season, forcing underclassmen to perform in their stead. But the problem was those young players did not have the physical tools their older, bigger opponents had every week.

“Every game we were getting guys hurt,” Platz said.

The situation became unsustainable, prompting Platz to go to his principal with the idea. He agreed that, for the safety of his players, the team should try becoming independent. Platz said that after head coach Will Hawes thought about it for half a day, he too was on board.

“It just led to basically player safety,” Hawes said. “That’s our main goal is make sure our kids are safe, to keep a good name with the sport of football so that we’re not … throwing kids to the wolves when they’re not ready.”

The school in November petitioned the UHSAA for independent status in 2020 and was approved by the association’s board of trustees.

The move to independence has quickly become a trend across the state. Three other schools — Cottonwood, Payson and Timpanogos — made their case in front of the UHSAA’s executive committee Wednesday and all were unanimously approved. They have to be approved by the board of trustees for the change to officially take effect, but with Judge Memorial’s approval, that is widely expected.

The other three schools cited similar reasons for seeking independence as Judge Memorial did. Their programs have low numbers, a long history of losing seasons, concerns about player safety, and students attending other area schools with more successful programs.

Going independent would mean the schools could not compete for region or state championships or be eligible for end-of-season awards. But it seems that is a price these schools are willing to pay to essentially save their football programs from possible dissolution.

In the last five seasons, Cottonwood is 4-46. It was shut out in nine of its 10 games in 2019. Athletic director Gregg Southwick said the last few years have led to some players deciding to attend other schools with better success in their football programs.

The trajectory of Cottonwood’s program, Southwick said, is unsustainable. That’s why he thinks independence could work.

“We all feel like we just need to go independent for a while to establish a program where we start to be competitive, give our kids the experience they need to understand the success that football can provide them and try to get a program built up where we can compete in the classification that we’re assigned to,” Southwick said. “We just can’t do that doing what we’re doing now.”

Payson athletic director Brian Argyle said during his school’s presentation there have been football players expressing that they would not play if they are just going to lose by 50 points. Principal Rashel Shepherd chimed in and said the team has a 4.2% winning percentage between 2013 and 2018.

Not only has there been a lack of success at Payson, there has also been a rash of serious injuries to its younger players having to compete against upperclassmen. Shepherd said many players have been hospitalized over the years and she believes that students from other sports might join football if they felt it was safe and could compete.

“We just want kids to feel success,” Argyle said. “And we want them to be happy.”

Argyle said he looked into the independent model a year ago. When he saw that Judge Memorial was granted its independence in a non-realignment year, he decided to really look at it, he said.

Argyle said he recently told Payson parents that if the football team didn’t go independent, it could to lose the program. Representatives from Timpanogos expressed the same sentiment.

Timpanogos has had four winning seasons and made the playoffs twice since the school opened in 1996, assistant principal Chas DeWitt said. He said during his presentation that the sub-varsity team’s season had to be canceled due to lack of players.

“We just would really like the opportunity to really start at ground zero,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt said he hopes his football program only needs one year to see enough progress. For Cottonwood, Southwick said, it’s a three-year plan.

But there’s a trepidation among all the schools that going independent won’t solve the problems at their schools regarding football despite overwhelming community and team support.

“We don’t know if this is going to help,” Argyle said.

All three schools that presented to the executive committee said Ogden going independent in 2015 and 2016 paved the way for the to start exploring the idea for their respective programs. The Tigers have since returned to region play and had success.

Monument Valley and Whitehorse high schools, located in southeastern Utah in the four corners area, are already independent in football, and Providence Hall spent its first-ever season with independent status because the school opened in 2019.

Football is not the only sport in which schools have independent status while other sports play UHSAA schedules. Wasatch Academy’s boys basketball team plays an independent schedule because of the school’s elite players on its roster.

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