In less than three months, San Juan High School will embark on an exciting voyage into uncharted territory. Beginning this fall, Bronco athletes will lace up their cleats and head out onto soccer fields for the first time ever in varsity competition.
For both the girls and boys teams, it has been two hard-fought years in the making. They recently completed two successful trial seasons at the junior varsity level and got the green light from the school district to advance to the varsity ranks.
Head Coach Jay Jones said when the addition of soccer teams was approved a couple of years ago, response was amazing. He said there has been strong support from the school, community, and parents, and that more than 20 players joined each team for both seasons.
It’s not easy to build a program from the ground up, but the Bronco soccer teams have grown by leaps and bounds since they began with the girls in the fall of 2017 – and that’s not just an inside opinion.
Jones reports that all of San Juan High’s opposing coaches are impressed with how quickly the teams have grown, from minimal soccer experience to becoming competitive as they head into varsity play.
“The kids have really made awesome progress,” he said. “It didn’t take too long to get them up to speed on things.” Matchups that resulted in blowouts in season one were tighter and more hard-fought in 2018-2019.
Still, wins have been tough to come by. Through their first two years, the teams combined for eight victories (six for the girls), 21 losses, and one tie.
But according to Coach Jones, it’s not all about winning. “My philosophy as a coach is that we’re doing it for the kids and their growth,” he explained. “I try to make it something where they can push themselves. If you’re improving, sooner or later those wins will start coming.
“If [winning is] your focus, you’re not going to be happy along the way. But if you focus on personal improvement and getting better a step at a time, that makes a big difference.
“I really like seeing the kids progress and have the ability to work hard through adversity and learn,” he continued. “It’s been fun to see the kids come into this knowing that it was going to be a more difficult start since we haven’t had this sport in the past.
“Sometimes if you’re losing a lot when you’re building a program, it can get discouraging. But they’ve had good attitudes, played really hard, and haven’t gotten discouraged,” he said. “I’ve just been really impressed with the students.”
It’s not just on-field adversity SJHS soccer players have grown through. They learned to work together to raise funds, which they combined with start-up money from the school district to purchase equipment and goals for their field.
And for the first two years of the program, the teams didn’t even have a field they could call home, so they faced many miles on the road. At least that won’t be part of the adversity in the coming season.
“This fall, we will use the middle school field,” Jones explained, “so we’ll be working during the summer to get that ready for the girls.”
He said the teams are allowed to have 14 to 16 games on their respective schedules. Starting this year, they will split time at home and on the road, so hometown folks will finally get an opportunity to see the teams play.
SJHS soccer will join the rest of the school’s varsity activities in a tough 3A Region 12. They will need to remain earnest about committed conditioning if they want to compete at the 3A varsity level.
Coach Jones said that’s exactly what they’re doing headed into the summer. “The kids know what they need to do to get to the varsity level,” he explained. “Although they may be nervous, they are committed to getting there.
“We’ve told them that playing sports helps us have fun and learn skills at the same time. We want to work hard and develop, but at the end of the day you just play your very best and if you come out on top, all the better.”
Players can take some encouragement from the fact that a lot of people are behind them, and not just locally. San Juan High School soccer is making noise 300 miles north of Blanding in Salt Lake City.
“When we first started,” Jones said, “one of the parents had a contact with the Major League Soccer team Real Salt Lake (RSL). He reached out to see if they could offer any assistance.”
Since then, RSL has been very generous to the San Juan High School soccer teams. They provided jerseys and hoodies and invited both teams to attend games in Salt Lake City.
In April 2017, RSL hosted the SJHS girls at the first ever professional women’s soccer game in Utah (The Utah Royals of the National Women’s Soccer League). The boys enjoyed a 3-0 RSL win at Rio Tinto Stadium on May 18.
RSL representatives recently visited with local community and health leaders to explore how RSL might help the community from both a sports and a health care standpoint.
The team is also donating $1,500 to the SJHS soccer program to help with supplies and equipment and they are considering a future community project in the Blanding area to further support the effort.
In an exciting surprise, when RSL representatives delivered the jerseys and hoodies to San Juan High this year, RSL captain Kyle Beckerman spent time talking with the SJHS soccer players on FaceTime.
Coach Jones said that heading up a high school soccer program has been a learning experience and having help has been a blessing. His assistant coaches, Anthony Lott (boys) and Jennifer Gilson (girls), have been a big part of the program from the start and they will continue to be going forward.
Jones said he also has received nothing but support and understanding from the community and from parents. Many area businesses made donations to help the soccer program become a reality.
“I can’t think them enough for their willingness to let [Blanding kids] have this opportunity.”
As the San Juan High School soccer teams gear up for varsity action, Jones said it’s important to keep some things in mind.
“One thing I tell the kids is that you make time for what matters most,” he said. “I tell them education is number one. This is just something you can do to be able to learn things you may not learn in a classroom setting as far as working with others in a hard situation and resolving conflict.”
The guidance must be working. The San Juan High School boys team earned the highest team GPA in the state in 3A soccer this season.
Jones said that involvement in sports helps kids learn “how to deal with conflict in a good way with sportsmanship because you have to use that when you’re in the workforce after high school.
“Sports also provide the students a chance to learn time management skills and making time for the things that matter.
“The biggest thing I want people to know,” he said, “is that the kids are awesome. Our community is just a great community. I’ve grown a lot as far as understanding how to coach, and that was another thing for me – to better myself so I can help others also.”
The San Juan High School soccer teams have passed their first test. They’re ready for bigger and better things and it’s going to be fun to watch them continue to grow and improve in the coming years.