A few decades ago, Utah County's high school football teams were finding little or no success when they traveled north of Lehi to play games.
Each year, a team or two would roll through region play locally and appear to be among the state's best, only to fall victim to an early upset in the state tournament — normally getting knocked out by a team from Salt Lake Valley. From 1972 to 1981, no team from Utah County won a state football title in any classification. Seldom did a Utah County team even advance past the quarterfinals.
From 1982 to 2004, however, 13 state football championship trophies have been brought home to a school in Utah County. Many high school coaches feel the creation in 1979 of a valley ninth-grade football league, called the Cougar Conference, is a big reason the local teams have been more competitive on the state level for the past two decades.
"The Cougar Conference has made a big change in the competitiveness of high school football around here and has helped upgrade every single program," American Fork High coach Davis Knight said.
The league was created mainly by the football leaders from each community in the valley, as a developmental league for the high school teams. The theory is that having ninth-graders compete against other ninth-graders in the valley, instead of just competing in city youth leagues with seventh- and eighth-graders, prepares them better for high school ball.
Salt Lake Valley was accomplishing this with its youth league called the Ute Conference. Utah Valley's coaches figured they needed a similar league if they wanted to compete against the Salt Lake schools. Kids beginning their sophomore year in Utah Valley are now no longer a year behind in football experience.
"I think you can see for yourself the difference it has made," said Richard Thorpe, league founder and president since the league's inception 26 years ago.
The league has a second purpose — to get the bigger and stronger ninth-graders off the same field as the seventh- and eight-graders. Before the Cougar Conference was created kids from all three grades were in the same city youth leagues, with many of the younger kids getting injured by the older kids. Now, the ninth-graders have their own league where they're are competing with others of comparable size, strength and talent.
"Having seventh-graders playing against aggressive ninth-graders was not a good thing. We needed to get them separated," Thorpe said.
In its first year, the league had six teams. A team or two joined the crusade for the first few years and now the league is composed of 12 teams — one representing every valley high school but Provo, with Lone Peak having two teams.
"Other schools started realizing that their ninth-graders were going to be behind if they didn't join us," Thorpe said.
The league's 12 teams are in two divisions and basically play the same regular-season schedule as their companion high school teams. Games are normally held on Saturday afternoons and evenings. Throughout the valley, there are more than 400 teens participating in the league. Following this year's seven-game schedule, there will be a four-team playoff and then a league championship game. Several prominent college and professional players, like Bryan Rowley, Scott Mitchell and Chad Lewis, got their start in the Cougar Conference.
"Over the years we've had some of the best football players ever to come out of Utah County go through our league," Thorpe said.
The league was originally designed with the idea that each team would be under the auspices of the high schools. Some are, but others are still under the direction of the city's recreation department for a variety of reasons.
Despite the quirks and inconsistencies from team to team, however, most high school coaches still believe the league is accomplishing what it was designed to do — give kids a taste of inter-city football prior to their sophomore year.
"It has added a lot to the overall personality of football in this valley," Knight said. "We're very fortunate that we have it."
Cougar Conference freshman football
Timpanogos at Mtn. View, 10 a.m.
Orem at Lehi, 4 p.m.
Timpview at Lone Peak 4A, 4 p.m.
Springville at Payson, 7 p.m.
Spanish Fork at Pleasant Grove, 7 p.m.
American Fork at Lone Peak 5A, 7 p.m.
Timpanogos at American Fork, 10 a.m.
Payson at Timpview, 2 p.m.
Springville at Lehi, 3:30 p.m.
Mtn. View at Pl. Grove, 3:30 p.m.
Spanish Fork at Lone Peak 5A, 5:30 p.m.
Lone Peak 4A at Orem, 7:30 p.m.
Pleasant Grove at Timpanogos, 7:30 p.m.
Lone Peak 4A at Payson, 4 p.m.
Timpview at Lehi, 4 p.m.
American Fork at Spanish Fork, 7 p.m.
Lone Peak 5A at Mtn. View, 7 p.m.
Orem at Springville, 7:30 p.m.
Payson at Orem, 10 a.m.
Mtn. View at American Fork, 10 a.m.
Spanish Fork at Timpanogos, 2 p.m.
Lone Peak 5A at Pleasant Grove, 3:30 p.m.
Lehi at Lone Peak 4A, 3:30 p.m.
Timpview at Springville, 7:30 p.m.
Pleasant Grove at American Fork, 10 a.m.
Orem at Timpview, 2 p.m.
Lehi at Payson, 4 p.m.
Mtn. View at Spanish Fork, 4 p.m.
Springville at Lone Peak 4A, 4 p.m.
Timpanogos at Lone Peak 5A, 7 p.m.
League championship game
Cougar Conference champions
American Fork — 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996
Lehi — 1999
Lone Peak, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003
Orem — 1979, 1980, 1981, 1987, 1994
Payson — 1983, 1986
Pleasant Grove — 1984, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1998
Spanish Fork — 1980
Springville — 1982, 1988, 1995
Timpanogos — 2004