San Juan Football team opens 2023 season looking to #LeaveAL3GACY

by Rhett Sifford
Sports Editor
If the expectations for the San Juan High School football team were high in 2022, they’re higher as the team gets set to kick off the 2023 campaign.
If the target on the Broncos’ backs was big in 2022, it’s even bigger in 2023. Every team will be gunning to stop San Juan’s state-leading 25-game winning streak at some point this year.
Coaches, players, and fans are very eager to get the season started, looking for their third straight state championship
Their wait is officially over. The Broncos will open the 2023 football season this Friday, August 11 against the 2022 1A State Champion Layton Christian Eagles.
There have been some changes in 2A football. Gone is San Juan’s biggest challenger of the past two seasons, Beaver.
In moves Layton Christian from 1A and the Broncos will get a very early look at Eagles team that has experienced a great deal of upheaval in their 19-year history.
What do the Broncos have left to accomplish? They won the 2A Utah State Championship in 2021 when they were favored to do so.
Then, after losing 20 players to graduation, they pulled off a repeat title in 2022 when they weren’t favored to do so.
Now they’re favored again as they return most of their team to start the 2023 season. It will be very much a pick-up-exactly-where-they-left-off situation to start the year.
What do the Broncos have left to accomplish? Quite a lot, they would say. The team would tell you that it’s time to begin leaving a serious legacy with a third straight 2A Utah State Championship.
In fact, they put it in a hashtag to boldly declare their confidence and determination: #LeaveAL3GACY.
This past week, in preparation for the opening kickoff of the season, I had a conversation with Barkley Christensen who’s entering his seventh year as head coach of the San Juan Broncos.
As always, his passion for the game of football and his love for his players shines through as he talks. I’m including our conversation nearly in its entirety here.
Rhett Sifford: Coach it’s awesome to talk with you again. I feel like we just left this field not too long ago. I feel like we’re picking up exactly where we left off, literally for you guys because the team doesn’t change much.
Barkley Christensen: Yeah, and that’s a luxury for us but at the same time it still is a different team. Those kids are a year older now and there are some positions that we are replacing. So it is nice because it is a lot of the same kids, but at the same time it’s still a completely different team.
RS: From year to year and even during the year, it’s amazing how fast high school kids change and how teams that you see this coming week will not be the same at the end of the season.
BC: Hundred percent, and that’s what we’ve told our kids in these position battles. This week-one game, our team will be completely different by the playoffs.
So kids that may be a little bit further down on the depth chart or kids that are starting that means nothing come week one because what matters is when we get into the playoffs, the quarterfinals, obviously the semis, and state.
So it’s weird just how things change and progress throughout the year and how kids step up. That’s the fun part about it though, so I’m excited to get rolling.
RS: You say you’re excited. What other feelings do you have right now as you get ready to go?
BC: Excited but anxious. We have a countdown. I have one of those chains that we break off, those paper chains, and I’m super anxious. You’d think after two state championships, this is my seventh year doing this, those feelings still don’t go away.
RS: Is it the same thing for the boys right now?
BC: Yeah, especially when they start working out in June. Every year you would think they would know what to expect, but you get two or three months [into it] and you get tired of hitting each other. So they are excited, anxious, and super ecstatic.
RS: I know we’ve already seen a lot of the pieces, but like you say things are different starting out this year. Just tell me about this team.
BC: I think this team is coming in with a lot of experience, which we didn’t have last year, which brings a lot more confidence. But at the same time, that can bring some complacency when you’ve seen success and you’ve tasted success. These kids really didn’t coming into 2022 because we had graduated so many seniors. So that’s one thing we’re really trying to preach is that you can’t settle.
It would be so easy to settle and just to coast by. I won’t say this team is doing that but that’s the battle we are fighting, if any. This team is fun. They can run and pass just like they could last year [but our receivers don’t have a lot of] experience outside of Anthony Done. But they can play on the perimeter.
The defense has changed a little bit. We have a little bit more speed out on the field so that’s going to be fun to watch. We’re hoping to pressure quarterbacks more than we were able to last year. DB play, we’re a little bit young but those guys are stepping up as well. So I think you are going to see a lot faster defense, a little bit of change in the scheme.
Offensively, same scheme, you’ve got Parker [Snyder] and Zack [Conway]. The lineman are pretty much the same but we’ll have one replacement. You’ll see a lot of the same offense; we’re not going to change that when we’re averaging 49 points a game.
RS: With Snyder having more experience this year, are you throwing any more at him, adding anything or is it really the bread and butter that we saw last year?
BC: See that’s the challenge for me as a coach because I want to add and add and add. But as a head coach and offensive coordinator, my philosophy that I always stick to is an old Bruce Lee quote, “I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times.”
So it’s fun to add because they’re capable of it, but we want to be really good at what we are really good at. The more you add, even as talented and capable as they are, they still lose that bread and butter talent and we don’t want to stretch them thin. So I have to remind myself of that constantly.
RS: And really what you guys are starts all year long, it starts right after the last day, last year, it starts in the weight room, it starts on the practice field, it’s all the hard hours. We’ve talked about this now for several years.
Nothing changes with you guys. Teams, coaches can throw whatever they want out of their playbook, trick plays, etc. but it all really comes down to that line play, winning the battles in the trenches, and you guys have always been good at that.
BC: Yeah, and we have really talented linemen and a really good offensive line coach who has established that. Our kids all understand that. We’re only going to go as far as the line and we try to keep it simple for them and they are really good at what they do.
RS: What do you expect as far as how your region stacks up? Kind of a fun new region, you’re going to get a region rematch with the team that took you to the wire last year in the semifinals, Emery. That’ll be fun. You never really know much about Layton Christian. So much changes with them from year to year, state champs in the 1A ranks.
BC: Yeah, that first game with Layton Christian, the little bit we do know is they’ve got a couple transfers in from bigger schools who can play. I don’t think they have as many kids coming from the islands and around the world, but they have talent.
We’re the guinea pigs because everybody else will be able to see what they have on film after week one. We’re just guessing based on some camp film we have right now. Our region will be fun, some similar teams like Moab, South Sevier, Delta, but then there are some fun ones like Emery where we get to go against the spread and that’s going to be a fun team to play.
RS: Well, we knew it last year and we definitely know it this year that the target is clearly on you guys’ backs. I’ve heard about the legacy hashtag going on. How do you avoid, for lack of a better word, jinxing yourself, how do you maintain that humility and that down-to-earth attitude as you approach the year?
BC: Yeah, we’ve taken on the #LeaveAL3GACY, obviously referring to the three-peat. We wear that on our shirts when we go to 7-on-7s and some coaches have made the comment, “That’s pretty bold.” You know, as a coach it is what it is. I have my own philosophy of things but you gotta let kids be kids, and if that’s their confidence level, that’s their confidence level.
I always tell them, “Be this close to cocky.” Be as close as you can. Don’t cross that line, but you gotta be confident. And if you don’t have a vision, what are you doing? There’s no sense in hiding it, I mean, it’s out there, and if you don’t do it, then, yeah, you burn the shirts and you couldn’t back it up. But fully plan on doing it.
RS: So how do you approach this first game? Do you know exactly how to approach it against Layton Christian? What exactly are you looking to do against them?
BC: They’ve had the same coach for a couple years now. Coaches are creatures of habit, myself included, so we know what they’ll be doing. But it’s just going to be their personnel and we do have film on them.
We’ve seen some different things on them and we have a good idea of what to expect. Week one is always week one and you never know for sure. So we’re just coming into it like every other week one and we’re just going to start swinging from the get go.
RS: I’d be silly to not say that your goal is obviously a third state championship in a row. What other goals do you have for this team this season?
BC: It all starts at the top. Our vision is a third state championship but obviously breaking that down into steps. The kids have set individual goals for what they want the offense to do every single game, how many yards they want for the season and things.
Same with the defense, but at the end of the day the main goal which we’ll break down game by game is compete every single game that we play. And that starts out in practice. These are the most competitive practices I’ve ever been a part of. Luckily we haven’t had too many injuries coming from them, but we’re already playing games every week.
We have 90 kids, our scout team, offense and defense, they bring it because they’re trying to earn positions too. It’s fun, it’s competitive.
RS: Have you had any players surprise you, maybe step up where you didn’t expect?
BC: Yeah, on the offensive line, that one guard position, Cooper Palmer who’s a junior, Easton Langston, a senior, and then a sophomore, Cash Palmer. Those three have all impressed me. We thought we had a clear-cut winner and then as you do more practices, more guys keep stepping up.
Our young receivers – and I’m going outside the realm of the obvious: Parker, Zack, Taylor [Black], Taeg [Palmer] – the newcomers, Brigham Nielson has looked good at wide receiver. Tyler Pehrson at wide receiver. Keaton Ivins, he’s coming back as well; he’s looked really good this camp.
Javin Montella is a kid I think you’ll be calling his name a lot. He had a great summer, he’s earned a position, he’s going to play a lot at receiver this year. He was one I didn’t know going into the summer.
Defensively, Branton Bethea. He’ll be a junior safety, he’s another one who’s just had a really good summer, led our team in interceptions all 7-on-7, so he’s kind of earned a spot there. Brody Bilbao at a corner, another junior. Those are all just kind of brand new names you may have never heard or called so I’m expecting you will be calling them a lot.
RS: There’s always a lot of turnover in high school football. It’s rare to have a team that largely returns back like you guys this year. You talk about building that legacy, you talk about your program being built. I’ve heard you say it – winning builds excitement. I hear you talk about 90 kids out and that’s exciting to have that kind of depth.
BC: And I love it because I’m super passionate about the sport of football. I advocate for it and I keep thinking that football is under attack. I’ve even heard of school districts around the country dropping football altogether and it’s sad because you can see the life lessons these kids learn from it. You can see the community involvement that it brings and the closeness of the community and the high school.
It’s a game to some, but to me and some of these kids it’s a lot more than that. It’s helped a lot and saved a lot of kids through tough things and it’s helped build them into men. You know, that’s one fourth of our school playing football and that’s awesome because that’s the goal. It’s not just about the star players on the field, either. Its about learning these life lessons every single day and building them into men and hopefully they can take that into post-high school.
RS: I guess this year the community is a little bit minimized with only three home games. Talk a little bit about that schedule.
BC: It’s tough. Nobody will come here and the excuse is geography. But when we went 4 and 7, I had no problem building a five-game home schedule. People wanted to play us, people would reach out to me. Not one team reached out to me; I had to reach out. Our pre-season schedule outside of Bayfield, CO are four private schools.
Teams don’t want to play private schools either, so there’s kind of a common denominator. We have to match up with the teams nobody else wants to play and then the region schedule is what it is.
RS: It will still be a fun season. It’s going to be exciting. It’s football and you’ve always wanted a challenge.
BC: Yeah, we do and that’s what these kids need. We saw some really good teams at summer camp. We played Snow Canyon and their coach said this was one of the best games they had played in.
They hoped they had challenged us because we may not get that this season. I think we will. We definitely don’t want to overlook any teams. Emery about shut us up last year. But this will be fun; we’ll get to go enjoy Salt Lake for a month out of the preseason.
RS: I’ll be up there with you. We’re going to be tourists. Anything else you’d like to say?
BC: Just thanks to everybody who has supported us whether financially, physically, just supporting us coming to games. Shoutout to you guys for doing what you guys do in covering us.
I have so many people just so thankful for what you guys do that they are able to listen and watch, so Picture It Palmer as well. So just thank you to everybody who supports us, that big community effort. This wouldn’t happen without the town of Blanding supporting us.
The Broncos’ first opponent of the season, Layton Christian, was pretty impressive in 1A play in 2022. The Eagles averaged over 30 points of offense per game while allowing only 10.7.
They were 10-3 overall and, of course, won the 1A state title. But, they return no starters from that 2022 offense and just three on defense.
Though they lost numerous pieces of their championship team, Layton Christian is enjoying a little bit of stability in the coaching department. Ray Stowers, an Iolani High School (Hawaii) and University of Utah graduate, is beginning his third year with the team.
He says the Eagles are “a young team looking to make our mark this year. We are excited and looking forward to the challenge in 2A.”
The Eagles will host the Broncos on neutral ground this Friday, August 11. There are no lights at the Layton Christian football field and the coaching staff wanted to give their players a chance to experience “Friday Night Lights.”
So the game will be played at the Spence Eccles Sports Complex in Ogden. Redrock 92 Radio and will be there to open the 2023-2024 broadcast season. Join us for the pregame at 6:30 p.m. with the opening kick set for 7.
Many thanks to Jill Pearson for transcribing the audio interview with Coach Christensen that appears in this story.

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