Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — East junior Sione Leaaetoa had a different perspective than most of his teammates on the Leopards' humbling shutout loss to Bountiful last season.
Leaaetoa wasn't on the team because of academics, so he stood and watched helplessly as East was steamrolled by one of its rivals. But those hard times are in Leaaetoa's rear-view mirror, and he helped the Leopards deliver some big-time payback Friday night.
The Leopards decimated Bountiful, 27-0, on a wet, slushy and grimy field on East's homecoming night, and their defense — anchored by Leaaetoa — was mostly to thank. East's defense scored two touchdowns, forced five turnovers and recorded two quarterback sacks in the victory.
It was a breakthrough win for 4A's top-ranked Leopards, who improved to 8-0 and clinched at least a share of the Region 6 championship. It ended a seven-game losing streak against Bountiful, and washed away what had tasted like a peanut butter and sardines sandwich in the mouths of the prideful Leopards after their 21-0 loss to the Braves last season.
"This is a good win," said East coach Brandon Matich. "I think our defense played great. When it's sloppy (field conditions), your expectation is your defense is going to play better. We expected our defense to step up tonight and make some plays."
Leaaetoa was the biggest playmaker of the night for the Leopards — and not just because he's listed at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds. He intercepted a pass after anticipating a throwback screen early in the third quarter, and returned it 5 yards for a touchdown. The score put East ahead 19-0, making it nearly impossible for Bountiful to mount a comeback in the wet and sloppy elements.
Leaaetoa later recovered a fumble and recorded 1½ quarterback sacks.
"He is a good boy," Matich said. "He's as athletic a kid as I've ever coached. He's come a long way. Last year he couldn't play because of academic issues. Now, he's doing well in the classroom and stepped up his game. He's fast, strong. Just a fun kid."
Add humble to the list. Despite reading the throwback screen like a book and displaying soft hands on his interception, Leaaetoa credited his teammates and position coach, Moe Langi, for his turning in a momentum-changing play.
"I couldn't really do it by myself," Leaaetoa said. "It was mostly my team out there, everyone just doing their job. That's the reason I got it."
East's offense and special teams also contributed. Quarterback Jason Cook got the Leopards a quick lead with a 70-yard touchdown pass to Mickey Taylor in the first quarter. A 51-yard punt return by John Fakahafua set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Cook in the fourth.
Bountiful's offense could never get going. The Braves had just two promising drives during the game, and both ended in turnovers. Senior Chase Barney scooped up a Braves fumble in the second quarter and returned it 84 yards for a touchdown.
The Leopards held Bountiful to just 130 yards, with only 16 of them coming in the second half. Matich praised defensive coaches Gary Bowers and Larry Eldracher for the schemes used against the Braves, and his players for executing them.
East can clinch the outright league title by beating rival Highland next week, which is another team the Leopards are looking to gain revenge on after a blowout loss late last season.
"These kids deserve everything they're getting," Matich said of his players. "I just hope we can keep it going."
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