Ben Brewer, Deseret News
SYRACUSE — A year ago at this time, Syracuse High's football team was savoring a lopsided first-round playoff victory over Viewmont which helped vault the Titans to an eventual berth in the school's first-ever state finals appearance.
A year later, the Titans find themselves preparing to face a much more challenging first-round assignment against Region 4 co-champion Lone Peak on Friday afternoon on the Titans' home turf.
And even though Syracuse has lost just once all year, head coach Russ Jones senses that his squad is far from content with what it has accomplished thus far this season.
“Our kids sense that at 8-1, although it's a pretty good year, they're not satisfied yet," Jones said. "We need a signature win and we haven't had that yet, but we're hoping it’s gonna come up here soon.
“These kids don’t really celebrate after these games we've won. They want to wait and see if we can get down the road deeper into the playoffs. They're not really satisfied with that 8-1 record. They want more and they expect more out of themselves. Our coaches push them to give 100 percent at every practice and every game, and the state playoffs are the payoff for all that effort.
“Our kids are really up for Friday's game; they're excited about playing at home and they're excited about playing Lone Peak," he said. "We know we’ve got one heckuva tough opponent coming up here. We've seen 'em on film and they look real solid. They've got a really good defense — their linebackers, defensive line and secondary are a pretty good group. And their quarterback (Baron Gajkowski) is really a tough, hard-nosed kid who runs and throws the ball well, too. He slings it around."
Gajkowski has run for 1,181 yards and 17 touchdowns, and he has also thrown the ball for 1,652 yards and 10 more TDs. His favorite receivers are Dylan Murdock, with 34 catches for 649 yards and eight touchdowns, and Tanner Shiede, who has 38 receptions for 486 yards and two TDs.
Syracuse will counter with an offense which features quarterback Kole Tracy, who has thrown for 12 touchdowns, and running back Kavika Fonua, who has rushed for 12 TDs of his own. The Titans' top receivers are Deondre Watson and Daunte Atkinson.
Defense, though, is the Titans' real calling card. They have allowed just 12.5 points per game, second in the 5A ranks to only Davis, their Region 1 foe and the only team to beat Syracuse so far this season.
“They’ve been awesome again, they really have," coach Jones said of his defense. "I think our 'D' is a big key to (Friday's game), and sometimes the way they go is the way we go.
"Our offense has just got to step up. Our kids have to realize this is a different level and they’ve got to rise to the occasion. We need somebody to step up — now it’s a matter of just who’s gonna do it?
“We've got to be tough nosed with them," he said of the Knights, who swept the state championship two years ago. "We've got to play heads up and get after it. They’re just a dang good team. They tied for first in that region, and all four of those teams (that tied for the title) are tough as heck. That's sort of a strange deal, but I can see how all four of them beat each other because they've all got their strengths and weaknesses."