Note: East finished with a 5-8 overall record in 2012 and was fourth in Region 6 with a 2-3 record. It lost 32-14 to Timpview in the 4A semifinals.
SALT LAKE CITY — The controversy that engulfed East's football team at the end of the 2012 season belonged on a daytime soap opera.
It went something like this:
The Leopards had an 8-0 record, then an ineligible player participated after failing to submit the proper paperwork, followed by the resignation of the athletic director and the forfeiture of seven games, including four region contests. Suddenly, the top-ranked 4A program was eliminated from postseason contention.
In cliffhanger fashion, the UHSAA reassessed the school with a $6,000 fine, suspended coach Brandon Matich for three games, stripped the team of a region title and put it on probation for three years. But the UHSAA allowed the program to enter the playoffs as the fourth seed from Region 6. The Leopards battled through a 4A play-in game before ultimately falling to eventual champion Timpview in the semifinals.
"Days of Our Lives" anyone?
East's heartache subsided during the ensuing months. Heading into the 2013 season Matich explained that “an element of it will always stick with us,” but if the program isn’t able to ameliorate the situation, it’ll never be successful again.
“If we continue to harbor those emotions we won’t be very good,” he said. “I think the biggest thing that we try and take from it is: We’re learning that there were mistakes made, and we have to deal with adversity. What we went through — the emotion and the pain — my whole program, families and everything, you can’t duplicate that.”
Within the locker room the Leopards have put the controversy behind them. However, many spectators and opposing teams still carry animosity toward the program — as evidenced by four coaches leaving East off voting ballets in the preseason.
“Our kids feel that. Look, people are cruel. People for whatever reason in sports will find a way to hate you and take things out on the wrong people,” Matich said. “First and foremost we didn’t cheat — people can say what they want — we didn’t cheat. It was not an intentional thing that was done, but people want to grasp on to something and make us into the Oakland Raiders of the state of Utah high school football, which is fine. People can hate us all they want, but that’s their problem — we’re moving on.”
When asked whether being the Raiders made him John Madden, Matich quipped, “Man, I don’t want to be Madden. You couldn’t think of a more fit coach?”
Many things have changed as the calendar pages have continued to turn, yet one thing remained constant. East, which has won 16 state championships, has not ordered rings since 1996. The Leopards want nothing more than to change that.
“In high school football, as in any level of the sport, but especially in high school — there’s a lot of things that got to take place,” Matich said when asked what needs to be accomplished to fulfill the lofty goal. “You got to stay healthy; you got to get lucky; you got to get a good draw in the playoffs; (and) we got to come together as a team.
“I feel like this team reminds me of my team two years ago in terms of cohesiveness. They’re really, really close and enjoy being around each other. I think that could grow into something huge in terms of football.”
East Leopards at a glance
Coach: Brandon Matich enters his fourth season donning the headset on the East sideline. After reinvigorating a moribund program he’s complied a 25-13 record. In eight previous seasons he’s garnished a 64-31 record. He is a graduate of Brighton High and the University of Utah.
(7 returning starters; triple option)
High-scoring, explosive teams are commonly associated with up-tempo, five-wide, air-raid offensive schemes. East is an exception to the stereotype. The Leopards averaged nearly 38 points per game last year operating out of the triple-option attack.
With seven returning starters the likelihood of production increasing this season is extremely high.
Quarterback Isaac Valles returns for his second year voicing the huddle. “Last year he was a little unsure. He really came out of the shoe struggling,” Matich said. “He obviously grew a lot of confidence and got really good toward the end of the year. This year he’s coming in and just knows he’s the guy. He’s taking the team by the reins. ... I think the sky is the limit for him.”
Valles has several weapons at his disposal, including Wisconsin commit Ula Tolutau, who added 15 pounds to his frame in the offseason.
“Ula knows that people are gunning for him,” Matich explained. “He’s ready for that. Ula is talented, and he’ll get his.”
Matich explained that teams can’t solely place Tolutau in their crosshairs with the threat of Valles; Malakai Solovi, who ran for 132 yards and one touchdown against Fremont while Tolutau served a one-game suspension; and Preston Curtis.
“We call him joystick,” Matich said of Curtis. “I mean quite honestly he might be the best athlete I’ve ever coached. He’s a Division I talent in not your prototypical Division I body. Hopefully someone will throw him a bone in terms of getting a scholarship because he’s so talented.”
The Leopards once again are massive up front with Dwayne Finau, Tennessee Suesue, Sione Mafua, Sione Tuikolovatu and the only one with an easily pronounced name, left tackle Mike Key.
The offense will remain slanted heavily toward the ground game, but East will open the passing playbook with Utah commit Joe Tukuafu, David Huntsman and Tua Laupata as available targets.
(6 returning starters)
East is swarmed with next-level talent on defense this season with Arizona State commit Korey Rush, Stanford commit Christian Folau and Tukuafu all strapping up.
The unit isn’t limited to the three headliners, however. Matich tabbed Hausia Sekona as a potential playmaker on the opposite end of Rush up front.
Two additional starters from last season return in corner Preston Burnett, who Matich referred to as the “fastest kid on the team,” and Jake Baptiste, who is returning from a lisfranc fracture he suffered three-quarters into last year.
The secondary experienced a huge gut punch with the loss of Zach Swenson and Niel Robins to graduation. Matt Webb and Lorenzo Manu are expected to fill the void.
“This is the first time he’s played free, which is a little frightening because that’s a big-time position to play,” Matich said of Manu. “He’s picking up on the schemes fast, but he’s athletic enough to make up for his mental deficiencies early on with the scheme. He’s going to be great.”
Coaches preseason Region 6 straw poll: First
Deseret News Region 6 prediction: First
Bottom line: Leaving East off postseason ballets doesn’t change anything. The Leopards are clearly one of the two best teams in the 4A classification this season. Nonetheless, with Alta, Kahuku (Hawaii), Jordan and Mountain Crest in addition to a brutal Region 6 slate, East doesn’t have any room for error. It certainly has the personnel to win every game on its schedule, and contend for the state championship.
East coaching history
2010-Current — Brandon Matich (25-13)
2009 — Sean Knox (1-8)
2008 — Larry Eldracher (8-3)
2003-2007 — Aaron Whitehead (39-21)
2001-2002 — Jim Hamblin (6-13)
1993-2000 — Chris "Keeko" Georgelas (48-33)
1992 — John Holladay (2-6)
1989-1991 — Mike Kernodle (4-24)
1986-1988 — David Jenson (4-25)
1985 — Jerry Haslam (1-8)
1981-1984 — Jay Vesterfelt (7-30)
1978-1980 — Dale Simons (13-21)
1956-1977 — Grant Martin (140-63)
1950-1955 — Floyd C. "Tally" Stevens (47-8)
1926-1949 — McKinley "Mickey" Oswald (104-47)
1922-1925 — Leroy E. Warthman (27-3)
1918-1921 — G. Ottinger Romney (31-1)
1914-1917 — Tommy Fitzpatrick (21-11)
Deseret News First Team all-staters the past 10 years
2012 — PJ Nu’usa
2012 — Merrill Taliauli, OL
2012 — Korey Rush, DL
2012 — Zach Swenson, DB
2011 — Jason Cook, QB
2011 — Liti Molisi, RB8 comments on this story
2011 — Tevita Hafoka, OL
2011 — Vaha Vainuku
2011 — Sione Lea'aetoa
2011 — Sione Makoni, DB
2010 — Tanner Curtis, QB
2010 — Vahu Vainuku, OL
2010 — Ofa Hautau, DL
2007 — Sam Fulton, DL
2006 — Jake Cook, RB
2006 — John Tauteoli, LB
2006 — Sean Swenson, DB
2005 — Jake Cook, RB
2004 — Sefo Mailua, DL
2003 — Asi Tuakoi, RB
2003 — Malele iva, OL
2003 — Inoke Hafoka, LB
To view second team and honorable mention all-staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.