What I see is a lot of parity within our region and competition within our region. It’s going to be pretty good. But no matter where you fall, Region 3 is going to be waiting for you in the playoffs — whether you’re first or fourth. —West coach Keith Lopati
All of the football teams in Region 2 have one thing in common: They all hope to make the 2013 season the year they move from the periphery of prep sports to center stage.
Whether it’s a return to greatness or establishing something special for the first time in decades, the teams of Region 2 know most people are overlooking them individually and as a group.
“What I see is a lot of parity within our region and competition within our region,” said West head coach Keith Lopati. “It’s going to be pretty good. But no matter where you fall, Region 3 is going to be waiting for you in the playoffs — whether you’re first or fourth.”
While some teams are trying to simply make the playoffs, the region’s top three preseason teams — Hunter, Granger and Cottonwood — believe they can contend for a state title.
“I think we have the tools to do it if we can take care of business and continue to mature as a football team,” said Granger head coach Cecil Thomas. “We have a tough preseason, which we want. If you’re going to be the best, we’ve got to beat the best.”
Hunter won the region title last year, but lost in the first round of the playoffs. The players took their disappointment and channeled it into a productive offseason.
“They’ve had that sense of unfinished business,” said Hunter head coach Scott Henderson. “That next week after the playoffs, they were in the weight room. And now that work is paying off.”
For Granger, expectations couldn’t be higher as everyone acknowledges the Lancers' talent, especially on their offensive and defensive lines. They’ve had some off-field trouble, which will likely result in the loss of nine players, most of whom didn’t start.
Despite the problems, Thomas said the players are focused and expectations are high.
“For me, it’s just making sure we get better each week, keep progressing and take no steps backward,” Thomas said.
Cottonwood was in the mix of top teams for a number of years, but last year’s turmoil was too much for even the most talented to overcome. In just a few months, the team lost its third head coach in three years, its offensive coordinator and an assistant coach who was killed in a car accident. That and some district changes made it very difficult for the players to focus on football.
“It was a very delicate situation, and I don’t think I handled it too well,” said Cottonwood coach Greg Croshaw, who was interviewed with the school’s principal, only to be hired the next day by a new principal. “I was treading more lightly than I normally do. I tried to adapt to what the kids were doing instead of changing to what I waned to do. ... I think that was a huge mistake.”
But both coach and players are confident that with the chaos behind them, the Colts will be relevant this season.
“I hope we’re known for coming out as an underdog, and I hope they understand after we play them, that we don’t just play to play,” said Howard Pututau, a senior tight end.
For the teams voted to finish fourth, fifth and sixth in Region 2, this season is about turning a corner. For West it’s about returning the program to a storied tradition, while for Taylorsville and Hillcrest, the hope is that this year’s teams can finally find football success for schools and communities weary of mediocrity.
Hillcrest had to start 13 sophomores last year, which made the season painful at times. It makes this year, on the other hand, quite promising. Head coach Casey Miller has focused recently on changing the mentality that takes a team from hoping they can win to believing they will win.
“We have to stop hoping not to lose, and start believing we’re going to win,” he said. We have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and start taking advantage of the opportunities we have.”
Taylorsville’s offseason work has created pride and confidence in the Warriors' players.
“I’m excited about the new region,” said head coach Rod Wells. “It’s going to be competitive. I think the playoffs are everybody’s goal. It hadn’t been done in so long, the kids needed to believe it’s possible.”
Which is why they worked so hard all winter.
“You can wish all you want, but if you don’t do anything about it, it’s not going to happen,” he said.
At West, Lopati has tried to create something special so the talented athletes who live in the school’s boundaries will stay home — rather than choosing to play for other schools. This year the Panthers have depth that they haven’t had in years.
“That will be a strong point in regards to our program, especially with our linemen,” Lopati said.
With a lot of inexperience, Lopati said he’s had to try some non-traditional methods to teach his players leadership and unity.
“There is a lot we’ve done to help prepare our kids,” he said. “And on the 23rd, we’ll see how far that takes us.”
Deseret News projections for Region 2 football teams in 2013
(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)
1. HUNTER: Scott Henderson has returned the Wolverines’ pride and tradition in just a year and a half. His history with the school and commitment to the players have earned him the trust and respect of his players. They hope to repeat as region champions, a feat that is within their grasp, despite losing a lot of talent to graduation. The team will be led by senior quarterback and defensive back Stone Togiai and his brother, junior tight end Noah Togiai, as well as linemen Sione Lapuaho, Tevita Tauteloi and Bishop Le’i. Running back Nathan Uhi, a senior, will lead a deep group of running backs for the team.
2. GRANGER: The Lancers will be led by a very talented group of athletes. Utah commit Kenyon Frison will anchor the group that includes senior Hyrum Tapusoa. Fullback Marshal Auva’a and tailback Kylon Pierre give the team speed on the ground, while wide receiver Magdi Hakim and tight end Davion Jones will certainly be playmakers in the passing game. Granger has size, speed and depth, and if there was ever a year for the Lancers to accomplish something big, this would be it. The recent revelation that nine players had been suspended from the team due to criminal allegations is more devastating for the teens than the team, which has the depth to survive the loss of those individual players.
3. COTTONWOOD: After losing three coaches in a matter of months, including one killed in a car accident, the Colts suffered just too many blows to recover last year despite their talented individual players. This year’s team is hopeful that with another crop of talented players and a new region, they can get back to being in the mix of teams that could win a state title. The Colts have to replace one of the state’s best quarterbacks, but coach Greg Croshaw is confident he has the man. Junior Tevita Gerber, a talented baseball player, will give the team athleticism at that position. He will have help from sophomore running back Vita Havili and fullback T. J. Fehoko, as well as senior tight end Howard Pututau and receiver Charles Hosea.
4. TAYLORSVILLE: When Coach Rod Wells moved from Garland to Taylorsville to take over the Warrior football program, he knew just two people. With deeper roots and new defensive coaches (two of defending state champ Jordan’s coaches), both Wells and the players are feeling optimistic about the upcoming season’s possibilities, despite winning just a single game last year. Led by senior quarterback and linebacker Alex Lehauli, the Warriors are working harder in the offseason than ever. Senior wide receiver Emilio Salvador is a college-caliber player whose speed will make him dangerous. Senior safety Dominik Toluono, and linemen Dallin Huntington and Leroy Ripley will anchor the defensive effort.
5. WEST: With just two wins last year, the Panthers have a lot to prove in head coach Keith Lopati’s second season. West had a number of players return to their boundary school after playing at other schools last year. Among those is A.J. Lolohea, who will likely be the team’s starting quarterback, and a defensive end. Senior linemen Newton Mau’ai and Earvin Peni will lead the battle up front, while senior running back Isi Pupua will certainly make a name for himself this season.
6. HILLCREST: The Huskies move up to 5A for the first time in two years, and the players see it as both a challenge and an opportunity. Senior quarterback Tanner Thompson is a talented athlete who has the ability and the intelligence to do some good things for the team. Lineman Cade Roemmich, running back Dillon Nordhoff, wide receiver Keaton Dallimore and safety Cameron Jenson will all play key roles for the team this season. The biggest change for the Huskies will be that with the addition of freshmen to the high school, the team now has the depth to allow players to focus on either offense or defense, so there will be very few players competing on both sides of the ball.