GARLAND — High school football teams everywhere go through their normal cycles, changing every season between being older, younger or a good mix of both.
Entering his 20th season as Bear River High football head coach, Chris Wise said one rainy day this June that he’s coached plenty of young teams in the past.
But to give one an idea of just how inexperienced the Bears are entering the 2021 season, one can certainly look at the fact that there are four starters returning on offense and three returning on defense.
Or, if one wants the stark example, the team rushing statistics from 2020 show 1,870 of the team’s 1,887 rushing yards were gained by seniors who have now graduated.
Three juniors and a sophomore accounted for the other 17 yards. That amounts to 0.9% of last year’s team total.
“We gotta kind of rebuild. We had a big senior class and a (lot of) great leadership last year that — it kind of created a void and we need some kids to step into it. Over the course of the summer we’re starting to see some kids rise to the top,” Wise said.
This is the situation the Bears face in 2021, and saying things like “uphill battle” or “behind the eight ball” might be understating their situation.
They return less than a handful of starters on each side of the ball, they’re young and BR is getting used to a different offensive identity based on the personnel it has (more passing, less running is expected).
Learning the basics has been paramount.
“I think what we’re really focusing on offensively is having a base set of what we want to do and for our preseason, we are going to get extremely good at that base stuff. Defensively, it’s the same thing,” Wise said. “(Defensive coordinator) Jared (Lish) does an outstanding job of finding what our base needs to be, putting talent where it belongs and then really focusing on simple things.”
Not only is the team dealing with an inexperience factor, but the school is getting a new artificial turf field that’s not expected to be finished by the time of its first scheduled home game Aug. 20 against Clearfield.
That means of their 10 games, the Bears are on the road for seven.
The first five games are on the road at 3A runner-up Morgan, versus 6A Clearfield either at CHS or at a neutral site, at Madison (Idaho), at revenge-seeking Box Elder, and at defending 4A champion Sky View to open Region 11.
The first varsity home game is schedule for Sept. 17 against Logan; the first sub-varsity home game is scheduled for Sept. 23, two days after the start of autumn.
“You really gotta focus on the mental aspects of it because the talent’s there, the ability’s there; the experience is not there, so we have to make sure when things go wrong we’re reacting correctly to those things that go bad,” Wise said.
The Region 11 schedule on BR’s plate is as tough as it’s ever been, compounded by a high likelihood that the 4A state title is going through Cache Valley again.
Realistically, a winning season may be a good goal to set.
“It’s a Bear River football team so we’re not very big, but the thing you can always count on with Bear River kids is they’re going to give you 100%,” Wise said.
Through spring and summer, coaches and seniors have seen some good things happen.
Wise said some underclassmen are taking up vocal leadership roles, hoping to fill the void left by the all-encompassing 2020 senior class. There also appears to be some talent and athleticism in the junior and sophomore classes in lieu of pure size.
“So far, (the underclassmen) seem pretty dedicated and definitely excited. Their energy’s up so that’s a positive thing,” said Kaeson Burn, a senior linebacker and fullback.
Bear River does have a few key returners that other teams will have to plan for.
Burn was an impact player on defense as the second-leading tackler last season with 60 total stops to go with two sacks, four fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.
Garrison Marble, another senior, is a return specialist/defensive back/receiver/Swiss Army Knife who led the team last year with 266 total return yards and two total return touchdowns, four interceptions on defense and 306 receiving yards.
Ryker Jeppsen, quarterback, logged 261 passing yards across four of the first five games in 2020 filling in for an injured Josh Payne.
Apart from those three, plus lineman Jesse Navejas, experience is hard to find.
“The speed and the talent’s gonna have to be there, so we’re just trying to get them to step up and be ready for it,” Burn said.
The turf field, funded 60% by the school/community and 40% by the Box Elder School District, is new.
A couple assistant coaches are new as well, but the playcallers are still the same.
The 4A classification, of which Bear River’s a part, has 13 teams instead of 22 as a result of the latest UHSAA realignment.
On the offensive line, senior Jesse Navejas is the only returning full-time starter from 2020.
“Jesse’s a Bear River offensive lineman. I think he’s like 180 pounds, 6-foot-1 maybe,” Wise said.
FACTS AND FIGURES
2020 season: 5-6, 1-4 in Region 11. The first three region losses last year came by a combined 12 points including a controversial call at the end of the Ridgeline game (34-27). BR upset Green Canyon 32-28 on the road in the second round of the playoffs before losing 49-7 at Pine View in the quarterfinals.
2021 strength of schedule: 51-54 (.486). The first four games should be tough but interesting with a wide range of opponents, from 3A runner-up Morgan, to Clearfield, to Box Elder. With the exception of Morgan, Bear River’s opponents have an advantage in enrollment.
Players to watch: Kaeson Burn (LB/FB), Garrison Marble (DB/KR/WR), Ryker Jeppsen (QB), Alec Callister (WR/DB)
Returning starters: 4 offense, 3 defense
Strength/weakness: Resilient attitude/Lack of experience
In 2020, Bear River’s seniors accounted for 99% of the team’s rushing yards (1,870 out of 1,887) and 63.2% of receiving yards (778 out of 1,231).
In the Golden Spike Game, Bear River will be looking for back-to-back wins over Box Elder for the first time since 1993-94. BR trails in the series 71-27-2, but the Bears do have one edge in the series and that’s in games that are decided by one score or less: BR leads in that category 16-15-2.
The Bears meet Layton and Madison (ID) for the first time in school history, according to prep football historian George Felt.
Bear River is 16-12 in the playoffs under Wise, according to Felt.
BR’s all-time record against its non-region opponents: 27-71-2 against Box Elder, 13-15 against Morgan since 1946, 1-3 against Clearfield, 0-0 against both Layton and Madison (ID), according to Felt.
BR’s all-time record against region opponents: 31-53-3 against Logan since 1925, 19-20-1 against Sky View since 1964, 10-11 against Mountain Crest, 2-3 against both Green Canyon and Ridgeline, according to Felt.
All games 7 p.m.
Aug. 13: at Morgan
Aug. 20: vs. Clearfield (location TBD)
Sat., Aug. 28: at Madison, ID; Rocky Mountain Rumble
Sept. 3: at Box Elder; 101st Golden Spike Game
* Sept. 10: at Sky View
* Sept. 17: Logan
* Sept. 24: at Green Canyon
* Oct. 1: at Ridgeline
* Oct. 8: Mountain Crest
Wed., Oct. 13: Layton
* - Denotes Region 11 game