EPHRAIM, Utah — On an absolutely gorgeous late spring day in Sanpete County last week, Snow College’s football team zipped through a spirited practice on the artificial turf at 2,500-seat Badger Stadium.
Catchphrases such as effort, discipline, team-first, honor and position-mastery filled the pristine, 78-degree air beneath Ephraim Canyon.
Had former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, one of Snow’s most famous alums, returned to give the players a pep talk before arguably the most important athletic contest in school history?
Nope, but it sure sounded like it.
The second-ranked and undefeated Badgers will meet No. 1 Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College (7-0) in the junior college national championship game Saturday in Little Rock, Arkansas, after having gone 8-0 this spring in a truncated season that began in March.
It is not totally by design that half the Badgers’ coaching staff — including head coach Zac Erekson — played for or were recruited by Mendenhall 90 minutes away at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo — but that fact is obvious midway through practice.
“We’re Bronco’s boys, in a way. Bronco was a huge part of our upbringing and has played a major role in developing our coaching philosophy,” Erekson said. “That’s funny, because for me, I am nothing like Bronco personality-wise. We are kind of polar opposites of each other.”
Defensive coordinator Jan Jorgensen, linebackers coach Butch Pau’u and defensive backs coach Tanner Jacobson also played at BYU. Two coaches — receivers and special teams coach Kenzie Kerns and offensive line coach Madison Atwell — came from Western Kentucky, while running backs coach Ono Tafisi is a Highland High product who played at Snow and Adams State, and defensive line coach AJ Pataiali’i is a Hunter High product who played at Snow and then Utah State.
“In the coaching business, you hire people that you know,” said Jorgensen, the former Carbon High and BYU star who has built the best junior college defense in the country in two seasons in Ephraim. “Me being a BYU guy, that’s where a lot of my connections were and where the people I really know and trust are. That’s just how it ended up.”
Jacobson was a graduate assistant last season at BYU before joining the staff in Ephraim after the bowl game, meaning he’s been involved in coaching 19 wins the past nine months. Is there another football coach in America who can say that? Pau’u, of course, was known as a ferocious hitter at BYU before injuries derailed a promising career.
Obviously, the eight men have something special going on in Ephraim, as does the school’s entire athletic program, directed by men’s basketball coach Robert Nielson.
“You wear a lot of hats down here,” Nielson said a few years ago, chuckling.
This spring, Snow’s women’s volleyball team — coached by Jeff Reynolds, also the school’s athletic communication director — went 26-3 and made it to the national championship match, while its men’s and women’s soccer teams (both are coached by Charles Long) earned at-large bids into their respective NJCAA championship tournaments in Wichita, Kansas (men) and Evans, Georgia (women).
“The entire community, our administration, our school president (Bradley J. Cook) and our AD (Nielson) have been unbelievable,” Erekson said. “What Tom Holmoe did to get BYU to 11 games during COVID as a major college independent, Rob and President Cook helped us do as a junior college independent. Everybody down here has been phenomenal.”
Indeed, no major college football team in the country handled better and benefited more from the COVID-19 pandemic last fall than BYU.
Snow receiver Taylor Larsen, who played his high school football for Skyline High in Salt Lake City.
Snow running back Seth Kaelin, who played his high school football for Skyline High in Salt Lake City.
Snow college head football coach Zac Erekson
Snow college assistant football coach Tanner Jacobson
Snow college assistant football coach Jan Jorgensen
Snow college assistant football coach Butch Pau’u
BYU linebacker Butch Pau’u forces a fumble during a game against Utah on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. Pau’u is now an assistant football coach at Snow College.
Nick Wagner, Deseret News
BYU defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen celebrates his sack of Utah quarterback Brian Johnson in Provo, Utah, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2007. Jorgensen is now an assistant football coach at Snow College.
August Miller, Deseret News
BYU’s Tanner Jacobson pursues a West Virginia ball carrier on Sept. 24, 2016 at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. Jacobson is now an assistant football coach at Snow College.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU
Similarly, no junior college football team in the land has gained more from the changes brought on by the virus than Snow.
“If it wasn’t for COVID, I don’t think we would be here,” Erekson said, warming up to one of his favorite topics. “We wouldn’t be in this situation at all.”
Coincidentally, Mendenhall was a standout defensive back on the last Snow football team to win a national championship, in 1985. Former BYU coaches Gary Crowton and Paul Tidwell were on that coaching staff under head coach Walt Criner.
How they got here
Snow College has always had a winning tradition in football, but the rise of this particular team actually began two years ago, when the school doubled down on its commitment to the sport when its conference, the Western States Football League, announced it was going out of business because eight schools in Arizona had dropped football.
“Snow College football is far too important to this community and this school to let die,” Nielson told The Salt Lake Tribune in June 2019.
Nielson and new coach Andrew Mitchell, who had replaced Dixie State-bound coach Paul Peterson, built an eight-game schedule from scratch and the suddenly independent Badgers went 5-3 in the fall of 2019, traveling as far as Florida to play games.
Former Snow and BYU football player Eric Bergeson and his wife chipped in a sizable donation to build the $5.8 million Eric and Chandra Bergeson Athletic Center beyond the south end zone of Badger Stadium — it includes a weight room, football offices, a study hall and a fitness center for the campus and community — to give the program a shot in the arm.
“There is not another junior college football program that has the facilities that we have, with the possible exception of Iowa Western,” Jorgensen said. “Kids can feel that and enjoy that. It is a big-time program. So I think it does help in recruiting, all that.”
Mitchell hired Jorgensen away from Orange Coast Community College in California to run the defense, and Erekson away from Skyline High in Salt Lake City to run the offense. In August 2019, after defensive line coach Lei Talamaivao left a week before the season started for Idaho State, Jorgensen called Pau’u, “who was out doing summer sales but dropped everything and came out here.”
Junior college football players don’t stay at school year-round like most of their four-year counterparts do, but a few days after players arrived in Ephraim last July, the NJCAA announced it was postponing the season. Erekson expected most players to leave, but only a few did.
“We have been on campus all fall,” he said. “We were able to have 18 practices in the fall, and we got to play a scrimmage against Air Force Prep in the fall, which I think have been huge benefits for us.”
Snow won that scrimmage 47-3 and the coaches knew something special was brewing if they could keep the band together.
They almost did. Mitchell resigned last November to take a support-staff position at TCU and Erekson was appointed head coach.
“That continuity allowed us to weed out some of the cancerous parts of the team that we didn’t need, that were here in the fall, that by the time we got to January we were able to say, ‘OK, it doesn’t matter how good you are, the bad that you bring is not worth the good. So, thanks, but no thanks,’” Erekson said.
Erekson, who coached in Texas for eight years before coaching at Skyline for three, and his staff have produced a team that had five wins of 40 or more points during the season, and three of 50 or more points. Snow’s average margin of victory is 37.6 points.
Since opening the season with a 31-30 win over then-No. 2 Iowa Western in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on March 27 — the Badgers needed a touchdown pass with 17 seconds remaining to pull it out — Snow has not won a game by fewer than 20 points.
They have traveled to Iowa three times — one trip required a 24-hour bus ride — and to Pennsylvania once, where they hammered Lackawanna College 27-7 in Scranton.
“It has been fun to watch it build week to week where we have gained more trust in our players and they have gained more trust in us as coaches, and it has been such a fun season,” Erekson said. “There has been some adversity. This championship game will be the first time — knock on wood — that we are at full strength with our roster since the opener. We can finally put our best 11 on the field in this game.”
Starters have missed games due to COVID-19 protocols, injuries and other issues.
Jorgensen said at first it was “strange,” playing a football season in the spring, but once the Badgers got rolling it felt like just another campaign.
“I think the strangest thing is knowing in your mind that in a couple of months you have to flip it all around and do it all over again,” he said. “That’s the strangest thing of all. But once you get going, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is.”
A lot of talented players, with decisions to make
What kind of players does Snow College get? Coaches estimate that 60% of their roster any given year is made up of players from Utah high schools, and 40% are out-of-staters. Erekson said they have 75 scholarships to hand out and 35 are allotted annually for instate products. Of the 30 or so walk-ons on the team, approximately 80% are from Utah.
Defensive tackle Max Christensen is a typical Badger. After an all-state career at Smithfield’s Sky View High, he signed with Nevada of the Mountain West Conference before going on a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But while he was serving, Nevada had a coaching change and the new staff informed him they were pulling his scholarship.
So Christensen, brother of BYU kick returner and cornerback Caleb Christensen, walked on at Snow and eventually earned a scholarship. A sophomore, Max Christensen can return this fall and take advantage of the “extra year” being granted by the NJCAA — just like the NCAA is doing — or move on to a four-year school.
“I have a few Division II and NAIA offers,” he said.
Other Badgers are being heavily recruited by Division I schools such as BYU, Utah State, Virginia Tech and UAB.
Receiver Tejhuan Palmer, from Milwaukee, has committed to UAB. Right tackle Bob Schick has committed to Virginia Tech. Offensive lineman Cormack Boyer committed to Weber State last week, and offensive lineman Cade Parrish has more than 10 D-I offers.
Defensively, cornerback Kieonte Scott, from San Diego, has offers from BYU and several Pac-12 schools and is probably the most sought-after player on the team. Scott will be back at Snow this fall, however, because he needs to get his associate degree first.
Defensive linemen Shad Pulsipher, from Dixie High, and Robert Fuentes, from San Antonio, have multiple offers. Returned missionary Noah Kema, a linebacker from Kansas, has an offer from Missouri State but will likely return to Snow this fall.
“We’ve got a talented, talented team,” Erekson said. Four-year college football recruiters know where Snow College is, for sure.”
Jorgensen said Snow’s defensive personnel has always been similar to BYU’s.
“Snow has always been a place with a really good front seven — defensive linemen, linebackers,” he said. “But kind of like BYU, we have struggled to get guys on the back end.”
BYU’s all-time sacks leader said he put a big emphasis on recruiting athletes “who could come in and cover people,” and getting those guys like Scott, safety Xavier Delong and cornerback Bujon Boyd “has been the biggest difference, on our side of the ball, at least, in getting our defense to where it is right now.”
The other starting safety is another Snow speciality — a small-town Utah kid who was overlooked by the bigger instate schools — former Morgan High star Austin Francis.
“This is the most resilient junior college football team I have ever been around in terms of dealing with adversity and everything this team has gone through from the season getting changed and all the COVID stuff,” Jorgensen said. “This has been a very resilient team that doesn’t crumble when things get bad.”
Atwell, one of the two coaches with ties to WKU, said having so many guys stick around last fall when the season was postponed is paying dividends, and helped build unity.
“This team has taken ownership,” he said. “They have really bought into the culture, as a group, as a whole team. … They care about one another. They are not playing just for themselves, but they are playing for each other.”
‘You have to come up with your own fun’
Christensen, the Cache Valley native, said moving to Ephraim (population: 7,102) required a “cultural adjustment, even for me.”
Sanpete County, though growing, doesn’t have a shopping mall, big-time concerts to attend, or the like. At times, coaches have struggled to keep players — especially from large metropolitan areas — from getting homesick or just plain bored with the country lifestyle.
“You have to come up with your own fun,” said Christensen, who is African American. “You go jump in the trucks, go up into the mountains, go jump in a lake, or just kinda hang out with the buddies, go on dates and keep yourself occupied.
“Even though I was coming from Logan, the first time I saw them shut down the roads and start running sheep down the middle of the streets, I was stunned. I was kind of like, ‘Where am I?’”
Coaches have to make big sacrifices, too. Some, such as Jacobson, Atwell and Kerns, supplement their meager paychecks by teaching classes on campus. Jorgensen and Tafisi, the running backs coach, are the coaches who live in town, and Tafisi lives in the student dorms.
“We have really good significant others,” Jorgensen said. “A lot of these coaches have very understanding women in their lives.”
That would include Jacobson, the former BYU defensive back who stayed in the program for a couple years after he exhausted his eligibility and helped Kalani Sitake and his staff.
Jacobson lives 20 miles away in Fountain Green with his wife, Beth, and that’s the shortest commute, unbelievably. With a BYU degree in hand, Jacobson could be doing something in the business world, like his brother, former BYU receiver McKay Jacobson. But he “caught the coaching bug,” and can’t give it up.
“And my wife pushed me a lot and said, ‘There is just something different about you when you are involved in football, and coaching, specifically.’ So she has always pushed me to do it.
“Obviously, I could probably make more money doing other things, as everyone else could,” Jacobson continued. “ I think we are all in it because we love football. We love what it has given us. We love the relationships it has given us with past teammates, past coaches. I wake up every single day excited to come to work.”
Some assistant coaches live in Salt Lake City. Pau’u, the former BYU linebacker, lives in Provo, so the Wasatch Front coaches meet in Santaquin and carpool to Ephraim on a daily basis.
Then there’s Erekson, the head coach. He lives in Mapleton, and makes the 55-minute drive to Ephraim every day. Erekson’s wife, Juli, a former standout on the BYU women’s golf team, became the head women’s golf coach at Utah Valley University last month, succeeding the great Sue Nyhus.
“From President Cook all the way down, every person involved in this program has made personal sacrifices to make it what it is,” Erekson said.
Can they win it all?
The Badgers are scheduled to board a charter flight Wednesday in Provo and make the flight to Little Rock, where they will face an undefeated Hutchinson team (7-0) that has also steamrolled most of its opponents.
Snow last went undefeated in 2008, and this is its fourth undefeated regular-season since winning the national title in 1985. Hutchinson is undefeated for the third time in school history, but the Blue Dragons will be gunning for their first NJCAA national football championship.
“Hutchinson is No. 1 for a reason,” Max Christensen said. “We definitely respect these guys. This is going to be the best team we play all year. But we are going to be the best team they have played all year. … For us, it is all about confidence. We never go in scared, but we always go in respecting the other team as well.”
Hutchinson, the Jayhawk Conference champions, has never faced Snow College in football. The Blue Dragons outscored their opponents 334-80 this season. The game will be televised by the CBS Sports Network.
“It will come down to the game plans and the execution of those game plans, because both teams are really, really good,” Erekson said. “And what I have noticed most on tape about Hutch is they don’t make mistakes. They are very assignment-sound. They don’t make mistakes defensively. … It is setting up to be a phenomenal football game.”