There are so many horses in Region 6 that it might as well play at Churchill Downs.
It's heralded as the toughest region in the state in any classification, and quite frankly, it's hard arguing against that claim. It's the only region comprised of four programs with legitimate expectations of coveting state championship jewelry come November.
This isn't just Region 6 coaches puffing chests and making rooster calls, either. Several programs from opposing regions have used the success of the primarily Salt Lake City-based region as a measuring stick.
"People are looking at the region to the north of us, and that's a great region top to bottom," Olympus coach Aaron Whitehead said from Region 7. "Bountiful, Highland, East and I heard Woods Cross is absolutely going to be a nasty, nasty team. I don't know how we compare to that region."
The region has made regular appearances at Rice-Eccles Stadium with East, Highland and Bountiful all playing on "the turf" twice recently. In 2011, Region 6 accounted for nearly 36 percent of the first-team and second-team all-state selections for the classification.
"It's a tough region. There's some good football — some good power-running game football down here," said first-year Cyprus coach Scott Wooldridge. "I don't think there's an easy target in Region 6 at all. It's going to be a fight no matter how you look at it."
East is the odds-on favorite heading into the race for the Region 6 crown. The Leopards return many valuable contributors from a team that was seconds away from hoisting the 4A trophy.
"I think probably the team to beat to start with (has) got to be East," Bountiful coach Larry Wall said. "They return a lot of guys that played in that championship game and really had a chance to win it last year. They're always a big, physical football team.
Brandon Matich, now in his third season at the helm of the East program, knows that being ranked first in the preseason can quickly change in a region this deep and talented.
"Bountiful, you've got Larry Wall (who) is always going to (compete to) be a semifinalist or a finalist team," Matich said. "He just finds a way — doesn't matter the talent he has, if he's loaded or not — he just always (makes) good decisions ... phenomenal coach.
"Highland is always big and physical. Coach (Brody) Benson does a phenomenal job," Matich continued. "We've got three or four schools that can contend for a state title in one region. It's a tough, scary region."
The established big three of East, Highland and Bountiful are brand-name products. However, most of the attention in the offseason has surrounded a Woods Cross squad that is rumored as the most talented to have ever donned the Wildcats' logo.
"Woods Cross — I've heard this is the best team they've ever had up there. They've got that quarterback (Skyler) Farnes; (Sean) Barton — who is probably the best player in the state of Utah this year," Matich said. "Woods Cross has all the tough ones at their place. We have to go on the road at Woods Cross, at Bountiful and at Highland. So, our road is going to be tougher."
Region 6 projections
(Preseason rankings based on coaches' votes)
1. EAST: The Leopards are favorites to return to the state title game this season, something it's not accustomed to hearing. Despite returning many starters last year, it was predicted to finish third in region. This year, once again returning 15 starters — nine of which are gaining considerable attention as Division I prospects — is a different story. East will be circled on every single calendar as the team to beat. Accomplishing that is a different story for those facing the red and white. 2011 record: 12-2 PLAYOFFS: Lost to Logan, 18-11, in the championship.
2. BOUNTIFUL: The Braves have made two consecutive trips to the semifinals — coming up empty handed both times. The expectation this season is not only return to Rice-Eccles Stadium, but to advance further. Bountiful has the talent to do so, but it will shoulder-lean on its defense heavily. For Braves faithful, that comes as no surprise considering their staple has always been on the dark side. Senior linebacker Rylee Gautavai, a three-year starter, is one of the best 'backers in the state with 122 tackles last season. 2011 record: 8-5 PLAYOFFS: Lost to Logan, 59-30, in the semifinals.
3. HIGHLAND: The Rams were extremely talented last season, but like their region counterparts East and Bountiful, they failed to get past eventually state champion, Logan. This year, Highland has the ability to make a run similar to its championship campaign in 2010. It's relatively unbuttered at this point in time, but the offensive and defensively philosophies it incorporates tailors towards producing a quick learning curve. 2011 record: 7-3 PLAYOFFS: Lost to Logan, 28-13, in the quarterfinals.2 comments on this story
4. WOODS CROSS: This is the year that the Wildcats truly feel they'll win the first state title in school history, and by all means they have the talent to do so. Woods Cross brings back nine starters on defense and all but one skill player on offense. However, making a huge jump from having a losing record to vying for a championship is difficult. The 'Cats are breaking in a new offensive line with several hopeful transfers yet to be approved, which leaves an anxiety towards an offensive unit that could be special. If Woods Cross can battle through the trenches and make defensive stops in the fourth quarter, it can compete for the 4A crown. 2011 record: 4-6 PLAYOFFS: Lost to Timpview, 31-14, in the first round.
5. CLEARFIELD: The Falcons' motto throughout the new coaching transition has been return to excellence. In the 1990s, Clearfield continuously contended at a high level. The stepping stones have been laid out, and the strides are being made to change the culture of the program. But as they say, Rome wasn't built in a day. It's going to take time and the Falcons aren't there yet. 2011 record: 2-8 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.
6. CYPRUS: With a new zone-read offense, the Pirates should be more competitive this season. It's a better fit for a team that does have size and deceptive speed in certain areas. Quarterback Dennis Kamakana, after a baptism by fire his junior season, should be more comfortable under center for Cyprus. Look for the Pirates to break its 10-game losing streak, but once region play starts, they're simply outmatched and outnumbered. 2011 record: 0-9 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify