High school football: West Panthers 2012 preview

Published: Thursday, Aug. 9 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

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Note: West finished with an overall record of 6-6 in 2011 and was 5-5 in Region 2 in 2011. It lost to Syracuse, 10-0, in the 5A quarterfinals.

SALT LAKE CITY — The two dozen tents scattered around the outside of the West High football field are not an indication of a problem or an emergency.

The urban camp site is, instead, Keith Lopati's idea of team bonding.

"It's been an awesome experience," said Lopati, who took over West's football program after a year as the Panthers' defensive coordinator and organized a three-day camp out for the team. "These kids come from so many social and economic backgrounds that a lot of teammates pass each other in the hallway but don't know each other on a personal level."

What better way to get to know the lineman expected to block for you than to sleep next to him for three days?

"I'm trying to restore some of the pride of West High," Lopati said. "It's slowly diminished over the last few years, and we've lost a little piece of what this community was about. We want to bring that back."

His players said the three-day camp out on campus was a step in the right direction.

"We just felt like one big family," said senior defensive tackle Mafi Mounga. "It really felt like home. Just being here (for the camp out and workouts) was a great experience."

Lopati said one parent stopped him after watching the boys swim at the Northwest Recreation Center Tuesday night and thanked him.

"She said they were so grateful for this opportunity," he said. "It was heart felt and it touched me. They're finally getting the opportunity they deserve."

Lopati learned how to instill confidence and pride in young men from a legendary high school coach. He played for Roger Dupaix at Skyline, the state's winningest football coach who retired last winter in order to serve an LDS mission with his wife.

"I like the pieces we have," Lopati said. "The kids have talent; they have the right attitude, and we're working hard."

Senior quarterback Alex Espinoza said much has changed in the few months since Lopati took over. He and his teammates said the new coaching staff expects a lot more out of them and holds them accountable for everything they do — on and off the field.

"It's a lot more exciting," he said. "We're really disciplined. With the new coaches, the pride is building up. We're bringing back the tradition West has had."

Added Tyler Ferrell, a senior defensive end and tight end, "It's exciting, one of the best things that could have happened to us. (Lopati) is bringing so much discipline back to the program. ...We have the same basic skill set as last year, but the team is more disciplined."

Brandon Slade, a senior defensive tackle, and Sunday Owda, a junior wide receiver, said the biggest difference is that the coaches care. That has translated into more effort from the players.

"These coaches motivate you to come to practice," Owda said. "They want you to experience a championship. They want us to have that and in order to have that you have to work hard."

The coaches expect more from the players, and the players believe that will mean more success on the field.

"Even though they're new coaches, we're still expecting big things," Espinoza said.

And for many players, the high expectations extend to activities off the football field. Bobby Masina said his parents made him quit football after the first game last year because "the vibe wasn't very good." He considered transferring to another school, but then Lopati was hired.

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