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Note: Granger finished with a 6-4 overall record and was fifth in Region 2 with a 2-3 record in 2011. It did not qualify for the 5A playoffs.
WEST VALLEY CITY — According to the players who've worn the Granger uniform the last few years, the program has struggled, not because it lacked talent, but because it lacked leadership.
That changed when coach Alex Gerke took over last year and the team proved that something was different as it started the season 4-0.
"Granger has always had the talent," said senior linebacker Vino Leha'uli. "We just didn't have the coaches to take us there. We wanted to win; we just didn't know how to do it. These coaches are getting us there."
It seems it would be problematic that Gerke opted to take a college job just before the season started, but the players said they got lucky when former Cottonwood head coach Cecil Thomas was willing to leave coaching at Weber State to take over the Lancer program.
The players said Thomas has picked up where Gerke left off and it feels very similar.
The biggest difference, they said, is that there is discipline and accountability.
"We just thought no one cared until he came and made a difference," Marshall Auvaa, a junior outside linebacker, said of Gerke. "Now the program is making us better young men — no more violence and just keeping us in the classroom, getting better grades."
T. J. Pututau, a junior, said the coaches' leadership will help them show the rest of the state what Granger is capable of accomplishing.
"They care, and they brought this team together," Pututau said.
Thomas said he felt the players were open to his leadership when he took over a few weeks ago.
"They were very receptive," he said. "The transition was really good. They are familiar with me because I recruited this school for Weber. ... I feel good about where we're at." Thomas believes that Granger is much better than the preseason predictions might indicate.
"It's wide open for us," he said. "I like our chances. If we keep believing in ourselves, keep playing with swagger and get some wins under our belts, this thing could be dangerous."
He said Granger is a program on the verge of a breakthrough. They have the talent, and apparently the coaches have helped the players find the desire.
"I think we're going to continue to keep moving forward," said Thomas. "In my mind, we should be a playoff team. We've still got to pull it together, but these are great kids; they've worked hard from Day 1."
He said the most important thing Gerke did was change the expectations inside and around the program.
The players said the discipline has extended from their fitness level to their study habits.
"We're putting in the work every day," said Khyiris Luavai, a junior tight end. "We've actually started hanging out as a brotherhood. Everyone has an opportunity; no one is singled out."
Senior offensive guard Feleti Mulitalo said it isn't just that the coaches care — it's that they know how to teach the players the game.
"We have a coach coming in who knows what he's doing," he said. "We've learned to work hard, but also taking lessons in our life — things like not showing up late, not missing practice and always working hard."
"I still feel like we're underestimated," added Mulitalo. "But this year could change that."
"We're going to make a name for ourselves," said Luavai.
Thomas and his players said making the playoffs is an important next step.