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The City Journals

After two near-.500 seasons, Cottonwood football needs more players to complete its comeback

Dec 17, 2021 11:49AM ● By Brian Shaw

After two 4-5 seasons, the Colts are looking to level up with more players. (Photo courtesy Casey Miller)

By Brian Shaw | [email protected]

Two 4-5 seasons, their best finishes in back to back years in more than a decade have the Cottonwood Colts football team thinking ahead to even bigger things in what will be year four under head coach Casey Miller. 

But, as the coach stressed, Cottonwood is still in dire need of one thing in particular as it will begin its third season, and possibly its last, as a football independent: more kids. 

“We don't have enough players to really get a good practice during the [season during] the week,” Miller said. “Kids who are linemen have had to play wide receiver or running back at a skill position, so we get used to slower kids than we face in games at practice.” 

The necessity to have to play players both ways has also had other adverse effects on the program: simulated practices, fewer healthy bodies and more turnovers and penalties. 

“We can't afford injuries so we do very little full contact at practice to help keep kids [healthy],” Miller said. “In games, things are faster and harder than we are used to so kids make more mistakes.”

The Colts finished the past season with about 30 healthy players, added Miller, the former Hillcrest High coach who has been coaching at Cottonwood in some football capacity for seven years. He spent several years as a Colts offensive coordinator under former coach Bart Bowen, and then Miller took over the top job after Bowen left to take a head coaching position at Logan High School. 

But when Bowen was at Cottonwood, he had the same issues as Miller in getting players to come out for the football team. Numbers were low for Bowen’s teams as well, to the point that after a 1-9 season, and after completely rebuilding the program’s inventory, the roster numbers to a degree and team standards said he’d had enough, according to Miller. 

“He ended up burning himself out and decided that his sanity depended on being somewhere that was not in as bad of shape as Cottonwood,” said Miller, who then said players in the program begged him to apply for the vacant head coaching job, and added they went so far as to ask the Cottonwood administration to hire the Colts’ then-offensive coordinator. 

Like Bowen, Miller was handed the thankless task out of the gate of trying to motivate the 17 kids he did have on his varsity roster to finish games. As a member of a brutal Region 6 that included Highland, Skyline and Brighton, this was a tall order for Miller in his first year as head coach: all were blowout losses.  

“We went 0-10, got shut out nine times, and only scored 13 against West on a fluke KOR [kickoff return] where they over-ran a squib-kick, and then we scored on their third or fourth string late in the game,” Miller said. 

In Cottonwood’s first year under Miller almost every region game the Colts played in had a running clock by the third quarter, so he asked Cottonwood athletic director Greg Southwick to petition the Utah High School Athletics Activities Association, or UHSAA, to move the Colts football program to independent status. 

After reviewing Cottonwood’s body of work in football over several years the move to independence was granted two years ago by Utah’s high school sports governing body, and so the Cottonwood program under the new coach Miller was given a lifeline when it was near its death. 

“Instead of having to play Corner Canyon, Olympus, Brighton, we were able to schedule more 2A and 3A schools to level the playing field,” said Miller, who added that scheduling JV teams from larger schools also helped hone the Colts’ competitive nature in his second season as they began their climb back up the ladder. 

For a program that had a tradition of winning in the 1990s and 2000s but has never won a state title, nobody in the program including Miller wanted to see Cottonwood football cease its operations for the first time in school history. 

Data collection 

As a football independent, the Cottonwood football program is by no means out of the woods yet, but there have been signs of a resurgence under Miller. As an independent, the Colts have begun to show that they can again compete for four quarters against high school programs in Utah. A narrow loss to 2A power Summit Academy coupled with a signature win over 5A rival Murray this past season have given Miller and Southwick cause for hope. 

But in order to make a successful move from independent status back to Class 5A membership and complete the cycle back to football prominence, this Cottonwood program still has work to do in several areas, noted Miller. 

“We still have a long way to go if we are going to be put back in a region after next season,” he said. “We would be an average 2A program as it sits now.” 

To that end, Miller said he has devised several strategies to attract junior-high aged players. 

First, the Cottonwood Ute Conference little league program restarted three years ago after an absence, and sixth to eighth graders will begin to infuse more life into the Colts football program, Miller predicts. Seeds of that have already begun sprouting into the freshman/sophomore team. But the growth in this area is minimal: Cottonwood still doesn’t have enough players to field a JV team—something Miller said that almost every 5A program has. 

Second is a tool Miller has already implemented the past two summers: a weeklong, college-style football camp. Because the majority of potential players in the Cottonwood area cannot afford to attend summer camps on college campuses, Miller—who coached at the NAIA college level at Benedictine and was a quarterback there as well as at Cyprus High where he was a Region 5 MVP—has brought this much-needed college camp experience to these kids. 

Miller estimates that these summer camps alone could bring in at least 10, if not more, kids from the seventh and eighth grades in the next two years. But this is a slow play that could take years to bear any fruit. 

The third and final strategy was to have Miller, and his coaches and players, start walking through Cottonwood’s hallways and talk to kids who might want to give football a try. If it sounds easy enough, it actually isn’t according to Miller who said this strategy usually yields between three to five new players every year.

These are kids who, before having gone to this camp, had either never played football or were kids who were students at Cottonwood’s renowned accelerated AMES school who weren’t already on some other high school’s team—Miller said several play at Kearns and Bingham, and started on their little league youth teams. Or they were kids who had played soccer or another school-sanctioned sport before trying some American football for a change.   

Because kids are also on social media frequently these days, Miller and his staff also put out messages on Twitter and Snapchat reminding kids about things going on in the football program. But there’s only so much the Cottonwood coach and his staff can do.  

Drawing conclusions 

Year three will likely be the last for the Colts as a football independent, Miller believes. With all of Cottonwood’s other athletic programs now participating in Class 5A’s Region 7—enjoying success it hasn’t had in many years—Miller is still a bit resistant having his team travel as far as 300 miles round-trip for one game to Uintah in Vernal, for example. 

That said, his Colts have taken road trips as far as Carbon in Price this past year—losing in a 41-34 barnburner classic—so in Miller’s view his team is capable of competing week in and week out on the road as well as at home. Their record in away games during Miller’s tenure has shown this to be true, however, the Colts just aren’t at a 5A level because of the low number of players that are currently on the roster, he said. 

“When we do face a 2A or 3A school [Carbon is in 3A] and the numbers are even, you can feel a different vibe,” he said. In order for that to change, Miller said the Colts need more bodies on the field. 

“For varsity [in 2021] we had between 30 and 35 [players] depending on injury. We dressed five sophomores,” Miller said. “We also had 13 seniors this year which is most since I got here…but most schools have 20-plus if they are 5A.” If you were to count up all of Cottonwood’s players on the varsity and freshman/sophomore teams, the Colts would have 60 total bodies available—if the school were to be called back up to 5A right now. 

And so to keep up with the Cedar Valleys, Stansburys and Hillcrests in the new Class 5A Region 7, this Cottonwood football program buttressed by an open enrollment policy that already draws students from all corners of the valley must find a way to find more players. The program already reaches out into the school’s accelerated programs in engineering, drama and the sciences—Miller is a biology teacher by trade. These strategies have unearthed some diamonds in the rough, including kids who never played the sport. 

“We had two of those [13] seniors who didn't play [football] until this year, so really we had 11 [experienced players],” Miller said. “Today in class we were watching our first draft of the team’s highlight video and my students all were saying things like, ‘Where is the rest of our team?’ or ‘Is that all the people we have?’—because of how few players they see on the sideline.” 

That said, Logan had 24 seniors under Bowen this past year, said Miller. At Cottonwood, the kids are getting accustomed to not having as many kids as the teams they face, added Miller, but he would like find at least 10 to 15 more players for next year.

Twenty more players would make the Colts even more competitive right now, Miller said, but if Miller wants to put Cottonwood back at the level of a 5A or 6A program he needs to double his numbers to 120. 

The final message the Cottonwood head coach wants to send to prospective players, and their parents, is that the program is doing things the right way. A 3.17 first-term team GPA, a focus on academics over athletics—the team doesn’t hold practices from October to the end of the school year—and a team on the rise are all reasons Miller believes prospective students should choose Cottonwood Colts football after two near-.500 seasons. 

“We have a great staff that really love the kids,” he said. “We know football and have a fun atmosphere in the program. We are looking for kids who want to work hard and get early playing time on the varsity level.”

For more information about Cottonwood’s football program, contact coach Miller at: https://mrmiller-science.weebly.com/football.html.