SYRACUSE — The posse just got a little bit stronger.
Down four starters for their Nov. 8 state 5-A semifinal showdown versus Region 4 co-champion Bingham, the undefeated Titans are back to nearly full strength for today’s 5-A championship game against once-beaten Jordan.
Region 1 champion Syracuse High (12-0 overall) tangles with the Region 3 champion Beetdiggers (11-1) at Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Slot receiver/cornerback Jake Garver, wideout/free safety Koa Mo’o and running back/strong safety Kavika Fonua each practiced this week in preparation for the Titans biggest game this season.
Garver and Koa Mo’o each suffered a concussion during the Nov. 2 quarterfinal-round game with Alta. Fonua sprained his left ankle Nov. 6 in practice and was unable to play versus the Miners.
Still out is senior quarterback/kicker Brock Anderson, who underwent surgery on Nov. 8 for a torn Achilles tendon in his right foot.
“It’s a mental boost getting those three starters back, and they bring a lot of leadership,” said Syracuse coach Russ Jones. “I wish we had our ‘Q’ back. Brock has been at practice each day helping out. Just having him there has been good to keep confidence in our quarterbacks.”
Today’s game is the first meeting between Jordan and the Titans.
The Beetdiggers are on a six-game winning streak — 11 consecutive victories against Utah schools — and 50-30 in the state playoffs with 42 appearances. Jordan is 11-4 in championship game appearances, last playing for a 5-A title in 1998.
Syracuse is 8-4 in the playoffs with five appearances in the school’s six-year history. The Titans’ 12 wins are the most ever, surpassing a 10-3 record in 2008.
“Jordan is really good with big, physical linemen and about the same size as Bingham,” said Jones, who is 45-23 at Syracuse since 2007 and 70-50 in 11 seasons. “Jordan is the best team we’ve played so far. Their execution is really good on both sides of the ball.”
The Beetdiggers are a spread team and run a 4-2-5 defense.
“We have to play tough and keep our penalties to a minimum,” Jones said. “No big surprises, lay it on the line with what we have. Jordan is an in-your-face defense and drops back into cover 3.”
Sophomore quarterback Kole Tracy will get the start for the Titans.
“I feel confident in Kole,” Jones said. “He has had to consume a lot of information; it has to be overwhelming. I think we’ll give Jordan everything they can handle. I have confidence in our kids.”
This is Syracuse’s first championship game appearance.
“If we win, it will be the greatest year you’ve ever had as a coach. We’ll find out in 48 hours,” Jones said. “We have great kids who have studied the game, love the game and have common sense. My staff has been unreal. The time they put in, the effort and energy coaching-wise.”
The Titans’ field was still snow-covered Monday, so practice was shifted to Clearfield’s new Sports Turf field on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Today was our best practice of the week,” Jones said Wednesday. “You can tell the kids are getting excited. We’ll just have a walk-through on Thursday. We’ll give it our best shot and hope we can represent Region 1 to our highest ability and bring home the state title.”
Tracy, who completed 10 of 19 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns with one interception against Bingham, admitted to being more settled this week.
“I think I’ll be taking all the snaps Friday,” he said. “Jordan plays a different defense than what I’m used to seeing. They have a deep safety and switch from man to zone. I have to be quicker on my reads and go with what the defense gives me. I have more receivers to throw to this week, and everybody is ready to go.
“Hopefully, I won’t be as nervous. It’s a big game and the nerves are there a little bit,” said the 16-year-old Tracy. “For me, it’s no different playing a team with a good quarterback.”
Beetdiggers sophomore quarterback Austin Kafentzis leads the state with 4,270 total net yards and is responsible for 49 touchdowns this season, the ninth-most all-time in Utah high school football history.
“I’m not trying to upstage him. I’m more concerned about getting the win,” Tracy said. “As long as we do what we’re supposed to do, it should work out. It helped us by practicing at Clearfield, getting used to the turf.
“I came away with excitement after we beat Bingham (21-16),” he said. “We get to play one more week in the biggest game of our lives and what everybody works for. I always listened to what the coaches told Brock, just to see how they worked with him and what to expect.”
Syracuse needs to run the ball better today. Against the Miners, the run game produced a meager 18 yards on 31 carries.
“We need to come out and play hard,” Tracy said. “It’s the seniors’ last game and everybody has to go 110 percent. It may be an in-between game, high scoring or low scoring. I think it will be somewhere in the middle.”
Jordan averages 46.67 points per game, scoring at least five touchdowns in every game this year. The Titans allow only 9.17 points with four shutouts, yielding more than two touchdowns just once.
“Not being the favorite brings us closer together,” Tracy said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to shock the world when nobody believes in you. We believe in ourselves. We have to play as hard as we can, stop them on defense and score some points. Don’t take any plays off.”
Junior middle linebacker Wyatt German has a team-high 107 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks and two interceptions. He and down lineman Caden Call combined on a fourth-and-2 stop at the 14-yard line with 46 seconds remaining, preserving the semifinal-round victory over Bingham.
“I was never more happy after that. It got me to where I needed to be, playing the biggest game of my life this week,” German, 16, said. “Jordan is a good team and well-balanced. I think they are a running team, and if we stop the run we’ll be in good shape. We haven’t given up a lot of yards, and for the most part we have kept teams in check.
“Jordan is the best team we’ve played,” he said. “They know what they want to do, so we each have to do our job and nobody else’s. Play your heart out and leave it all on the field. This week I’ll be more on run support and we have good DBs.
“We’re glad to have Jake, Koa and Kavika back,” German said. “We’re a good team without them and we’re even better with them. We play every team the same and nobody is different for us. I would rather be the underdog rather than the favorite and fly under the radar. Since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to win it all and be at the top.”