Jason Olson, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The state's oldest and most-played rivalry is back on — and the timing couldn't be better.
Following a ridiculous one-year break, West and East will play each other again in football tonight. It will be the 110th meeting on the gridiron between the Panthers and Leopards and, in a rare twist, both teams are good at the same time.
"We're excited — we're so excited," said West coach Justin Spencer, who adds that his players have been educated about how big the rivalry is. "It's going to be one of the most special things they're ever going to do, and they're going to remember it for the rest of the lives."
Spencer and East coach Brandon Matich don't need any reminders of the rivalry's importance. Spencer played at West and was involved in some memorable contests against East. Matich's grandfather, Grant Martin, coached at East for 23 years and was consistently successful.
"I think it's huge," Matich said of what's the 22nd most-played rivalry in the nation. "I think it's exciting. I grew up around it. I know what it means, and I know the passion behind this rivalry. It's a big deal, and I hope it's a big deal to our kids."
Both Spencer and Matich said the rivalry was hurt when it wasn't played last season. It went on hiatus for a year because of scheduling conflicts when West moved up to 5A and out of East's region in 4A. The players are looking forward to reacquainting with their city rivals.
"Everyone is pumped up to play," said East lineman Vaha Vainuku. "The atmosphere is going to be energetic."
It should be for two quality teams. Both clubs are 2-0, with East steamrolling Pine View and West Jordan. West made an improbable fourth-quarter rally to beat Juan Diego, then hammered Tooele last week.
East has averaged 45 points in two games and is led by dynamic quarterback Tanner Curtis. Behind a solid offensive line, Curtis has rushed for 348 yards and is averaging 12.4 yards per carry. He is complemented in the backfield by Liti Molisi, who has rushed for 248 yards.
"We have our hands full — we know that," Spencer said. "They're good. They're exactly what I've always heard. They're big, strong. They remind me a lot of Hunter, and we're trying to build on that. We beat Hunter last year, and we need to have that same mentality that we had against them."
"They've got two really good running backs," Matich said. "We had a hard time playing defense last week against West Jordan. We haven't played a really solid running team yet. They (Vaisagano and Takenaka) are as good as we'll see all year as far as runners go. If we can play defense against them, we can battle."
East has owned the rivalry with West in recent years, winning eight straight games in the series. The Panthers, who qualified for the state playoffs last season, missed out on a golden opportunity to beat East last year, when the Leopards suffered through a dreadful 1-8 season.
After two games, the two teams look to be fairly even, and the Panthers are confident they can prevail at Gean Plaga Stadium.
"I think we're just as good as they are," said West quarterback Chance Abrath.
The Panthers would love to end their losing streak against the Leopards.
"How sweet would it be to come out on top?" Spencer said. "How sweet would it be to create the memory of this and break the cycle where East has abused West for years?"
MORE RIVALRY GAMES: East-West was the state's longest uninterrupted rivalry before last season. That distinction now goes to Bear River-Box Elder. The Bears and Bees will battle for the 90th time in the Golden Spike game tonight.
Other rivalry games include Layton-Northridge, Granger-Kearns, Bonneville-Roy, Wasatch-Morgan, Beaver-Milford and San Juan-Monticello.
BATTLE OF THE BIRDS: Two of the big-name football programs in the state square off in Provo tonight when Timpview hosts Alta. The T-Birds have been impressive in two wins, while the Hawks are 0-2 after losing to Bingham and Cottonwood. Alta will play with urgency tonight to try and avoid being 0-3 for the first time since 1992. Timpview will be just as fired up. The T-Birds suffered a rare loss last year when they were defeated by Alta, 31-15. Timpview hasn't lost since, winning 12 straight games.