Bonneville High football players — and every other team in the state for that matter — just wanted to have a season, no matter who, what, where or when.
For awhile, the prospects weren’t good.
The Lakers lost four weeks of summer practice due to two separate COVID-19 quarantines and had around 10 players not come out for the team this year due to COVID-19, thinning out an already low-turnout program.
But once they hit the field, good things happened.
“To overcome the adversity of this type of a year really is special to me, that they were able to focus and do extra work and compete at a level to beat some really good teams,” Bonneville head coach Jantz Afuvai said.
Bonneville’s football team wasn’t highly thought of, eliciting preseason Region 5 coaches poll votes of third place, fourth place and sixth (last) place despite taking second place in 2019.
In the middle of the season, the Lakers lost two pivotal starters — Jordan Citte and Aaron Johnson — to season-ending injuries, this after losing a starting lineman to transfer.
All they did was score 34 points in Week 1, average 29.9 points per game, throw for 261.8 yards per game, run the table in Region 5 and go 8-2 overall.
Afuvai is the 2020 Standard-Examiner All-Area Football Coach of the Year.
For Bonneville to get through the year at all, the coaches had to toe the line each day, and that’s not including COVID-19.
“We had to change up a lot of contact drills, for sure,” Afuvai said.
Practices were much different in 2020: more film study, less contact, more mental preparation, less physical risk to a small roster.
Afuvai was worried about the team’s preparation ahead of the season-opener at Hunter, that is until the Lakers scored two first-quarter touchdowns, two more in the third and won 34-23.
“That’s when we really knew that we were gonna have something special here because of the way they prepared. There wasn’t a whole lot of horsing around,” Afuvai said.
At the time, the ‘something special’ Afuvai talked about didn’t equate to ‘region championship good.’ Not until Sept. 18, at least, when the Lakers beat a physical Bountiful team 24-14 at home, did Afuvai start thinking that.
The Lakers still had to survive against Woods Cross in Week 7 (they did, 24-17), then defending region champ Farmington (26-15), then a winner-take-all meeting with Box Elder.
All the hallmarks of a championship were present after the Lakers torched the Bees 42-14: stifling defense, high-octane offense, dumping a jug of ice water on Afuvai and then posing for photos on the field logo.
Afuvai said it was cool — no pun intended — getting the ceremonial championship ice shower and guessed that no one would have ever been brave enough to do that when Thom Budge was coaching.
“It’s amazing. It’s so much fun to have a season like this. We’re still going, too. I’m glad we got to help the coaches out with how much they’ve done with us,” quarterback Kamen Best said after the Box Elder game.
The 8-2 mark with a region championship was the latest step up a ladder the team has been climbing since the end of 2016, when Bonneville limped to a 1-8 record.
Since then, the progression has been gradual each year, just without huge results: 4-7 in 2017, 5-5 in 2018, 6-5 in 2019 with a playoff win before finally, the payoff in 2020.
Naturally, one would’ve expected Bonneville to improve this year upon a 6-5 mark just based on recent trends, but it wasn’t so simple.
The Lakers had a lot of new starters in the fold, plus questions of how certain players would play after being injured last year, plus the aforementioned four weeks of lost summer practice and less turnout.
“We didn’t have very many sophomores at all, I think we had 10-12 overall so that’s really where it hurt us,” he said.
Again, as soon as they raced to a 34-6 lead at Hunter, eyes started opening. Particularly, the offense was at the forefront of the Lakers’ success this year.
How it went most of the time was Best would throw short routes to a group of experienced receivers and running backs, who then turned the short passes into moderate and big gains.
Best threw for 2,618 yards and seven receivers had 10-plus receptions, led by Reiss Graybeal’s 48 catches for 696 yards.
Defensively, only one Region 5 team broke the 20-point barrier against the Lakers, who were strong in that category up front and in the secondary.
Afuvai, the team’s defensive coordinator, says Bonneville runs what’s called a “check” defense, where the coaches put a few or several defensive coverages in the game plan. The players themselves are the ones who pick the coverages play to play.
“You gotta have the trust (in your players), but I think that was fostered and developed in the offseason ... what we did have was good experience from the year prior. A lot of these guys played Friday nights as juniors,” Afuvai said.
The team had two experienced, smart players at free safety (Bosten Baur) and middle linebacker (Adrian Medel) to organize the defense, making it easier to run “check” at a high level.
The thing that didn’t go the Lakers’ way was the playoff game, a resounding 29-9 home loss to No. 14 Alta. He thought the team’s preparation was great, but it didn’t look like the same Bonneville team that had gone 8-1 in the regular season.
Speaking of a sour taste, a couple days after the playoff game, Afuvai’s sense of taste and smell changed. He had contracted COVID-19.
Coincidentally, he’s the only Bonneville High staff member who’s pictured wearing a facemask on the school’s staff directory.
Afuvai got a really “horrid” version of COVID-19, he said, but didn’t end up at the hospital. Hopefully, he said, COVID-19 will subside enough where things can approach going back to normal.
That might mean the Lakers get a full summer of practice, camps and scrimmages in, but if this year’s group showed anything, it showed that it doesn’t matter what type of hand Bonneville is dealt.