Heading into a new season, it’s only natural for fans, coaches and players alike to speculate about who the best teams and best players will be.
The past two years in southern Utah, being the best hasn’t guaranteed success.
In 2012 and 2013, the No. 3 seed from Region 9/3AA South has gone on to win the state championship, not the region champion.
Two years ago, Hurricane and Desert Hills were co-region champs, but Dixie swooped in and captured the state title. A year later, Dixie ran the tables on a perfect 6-0 region campaign, but the Flyers bowed out in the 3AA semifinals with Desert Hills eventually winning the state title.
That’s just the nature of the beast in the uber-competitive southern region.
“We know week in and week out we have to play our A game,” said Desert Hills coach Carl Franke. “The six teams that go in the playoffs have an equal opportunity to find themselves at Rice-Eccles.”
So if the third seed is again charmed in 2014, who will it be?
The general consensus is that last year’s two title game participants, Desert Hills and Pine View, are the obvious front-runners. After that, one could make a case that Hurricane, Dixie, Cedar or Snow Canyon is the third-best team.
Hurricane surprisingly struggled last year, but first-year coach Steve Pearson is confident in a bounce-back year with quite a few starters back.
Dixie only has one full-time defensive starter returning from last year’s stout bunch, but it does return quarterback Ammon Takau and coach Blaine Monkres has a history of cranking out all-state caliber QBs in their second year.
Snow Canyon graduated a lot as well, but it could be the most athletic team in 3AA and is also mixing up the offense to capitalize on that athleticism.
And nobody can sleep on Cedar. Despite back-to-back disappointing seasons, coach Todd Peacock’s team returns eight starters on both sides of the ball and has the potential to be explosive offensively.
“It’s a group that’s been together for a long time. They just really like each other. They’re really together. They all have a common goal and cheer for each other,” said Peacock.
The mix of experience and inexperience is an interesting dynamic that will keep every Friday night intriguing — even with Payson, which figures to be more competitive in its second year lumped in with the southern Utah schools.
“I know everybody always says anybody can beat anybody, but down here it’s kind of the case,” said Monkres.
With that said, beating Desert Hills and Pine View will be extremely difficult.
Desert Hills rode a scintillating defense to last year’s title, and seven of those starters return. Franke’s team won’t be a one-trick pony this fall either. After protecting sophomore quarterback Nick Warmsley with a very vanilla offense last season, the reins are coming off and Warmsley has impressed at every seven-on-seven camp he’s attended.
“I don’t think teams are going to be able to load the box this year 'cause we’ve got too much talent on the offensive side of the ball. We’re faster and more athletic,” said Franke.
On the flip side, it will be difficult for anyone to outscore Pine View.
As a junior last year, quarterback Kody Wilstead threw for 4,390 yards and 36 touchdowns, and this summer verbally committed to BYU.
Even though Pine View needs to retool its offensive line, most of Wilstead’s offensive weapons are back and another monster season is possible. Wilstead would settle for winning.
“He’s at the point where he’s grown up, and understands that this is a team sport, and he loves his teammates and he wants what’s best with them,” said Pine View coach Ray Hosner.
In two meetings against Desert Hills last year, Wilstead threw one touchdown and six interceptions. The Thunder certainly had his number, and you can bet he’s got the Sept. 26 rematch circled on his calendar.
Then again, he might have every week circled with how Monkres summed up the 3AA South region.
“Everything’s so close-knit down here, it’s a big rivalry every week,” he said.
SATURDAY: 3AA NORTH PREVIEW
Deseret News projections for 3AA South football teams in 2014
(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)
1. DESERT HILLS: Defense carried Desert Hills to the 3AA state title last year, which could easily happen again in 2014. The offense, however, will pull a lot more weight this year. QB Nick Warmsley is poised for a big junior year both running and passing, which should open up running lanes for senior RB Bridger Cowdin. He faced eight men in the box almost every Friday night last year and still rushed with 1,107 yards and 13 TDs. Justice Alo and Boogie Sewell are returning starters who will anchor the offensive and defensive line. Linebacker Tucker Cowdin was second on the team with 105 tackles last year, one of seven defensive returning starters. 2013 RECORD: 11-2. PLAYOFFS: Beat Pine View in the 3AA championship.
2. PINE VIEW: The 3AA runner-up will be right in the thick of things again this year. Last year BYU commit Kody Wilstead passed for 4,390 yards and 36 touchdowns, and with Colton Miller and Bladen Hosner back, along with a healthy Blake Ence — who missed the final seven games of the season with a broken collarbone — the Panthers should enjoy another big season. The bigger concern is on the offensive line. Left tackle Harrison Goebel is the only returning starter from last year’s championship game. Defensively, only two starters are back from the title game, but coach Ray Hosner likes what he has to work with — speed. Pine View’s only starters are both returning on the defensive front, Gage Afatasi and Harrison Goebel. 2013 RECORD: 9-3. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Desert Hills in the 3AA championship.
3. DIXIE: A year after an impressive 6-0 march through 3AA South, there’s a ton of question marks for the Flyers. Defensively, only one full-time starter returns in safety Tre Miller. Jaden Harrison and Konner Aitken split time in the secondary, but the entire defensive front and linebacking corps will be brand new. That puts some pressure on the offense to move the ball, but with Ammon Takau returning at QB that might not be a problem. He threw for 2,641 yards and 27 TDs in 2013, and he’s got two O-line starters returning in Jaxon Davis and Blake Patterson. The Flyers lost their big-play receivers from last season, but Aitken and Harrison are quality slot receivers who will cause matchup problems every Friday night. 2013 RECORD: 9-3. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Desert Hills in the 3AA semifinals.
4. HURRICANE: Everything offensively will revolve around talented fullback Jeremiah Ieremia, but there are other weapons. Senior running backs JD Stanworth and Kole Richins are both back after racking up 351 yards and 298 yards, respectively, a year ago. Hurricane’s top receiving threat, Noah Elison, is back as well. Who will throw him the ball is up in the air as the coaching staff sorts through QB options. Defense was the weak link a year ago, allowing nearly five touchdowns per game, but three of Hurricane’s starting linebackers are back — Charlie Sefita, Ieremia and Kole Richins — and that experience could pay dividends this year as new defensive coordinator Chris Hurst revamps his squad. 2013 RECORD: 2-10. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Pine View in the 3AA quarterfinals.
5. CEDAR: The offense really struggled last season, but with eight returning starters there’s plenty to get excited about in 2014. O-line is the only spot with holes to fill as Dallen Jacoby and Koalman Kimber are the lone returning starters. Aside from that unit, there's an abundance of returnees, including QB Breckin Lewis and fullback Brock Oldroyd. If Oldroyd stays healthy the junior could have a fantastic season. Dallin Grover, Jeff Rogers and Austin Obering are solid returning offensive weapons also. Defensively, three of Cedar’s leading four tacklers return. The linebacking corps will be strong with Brooks, Lewis and Grover all returning. The emergence of Landon Barrick at linebacker this summer might allow Lewis to shift to safety so he stays a little fresher for his QB duties. 2013 RECORD: 5-7. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Dixie in the 3AA quarterfinals.
6. SNOW CANYON: The Warriors finished fourth in region last year, but with only three returning starters offensively there are some question marks. One area where the Warriors do have experience is QB with Jacob Frei. He started six games because of an injury last year, throwing for 738 yards and five TDs. The team’s second-leading receiver, tight end Chance Thorkelson, returns after recording 454 yards and two TDs. There are big holes to fill on the line and at running back. Defensively, Brady Sargent is back at linebacker after leading the Warriors with 113 tackles. Corner Back Richmond Anderson also return a year after recording four interceptions. 2013 RECORD: 7-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Juan Diego in the 3AA quarterfinals.
7. PAYSON: It didn’t win a region game last year, and finding four capable offensive linemen to fill in around returning starter Brian Hoschour will ultimately make or break Payson’s season. With a decent line, QB Easton Smith is ready for a breakout year with weapons all around. Preston Little is back after leading the team with 497 yards, while two-dimensional back Phil Perez also returns after racking up 611 yards of total offense last year. Dannel Brown is a returning deep threat for Payson, while tight end Dalton Baker is also capable of stretching defenses. Defensively, John Harmon returns after leading the team in tackles at linebacker, but he’s the lone returning starter. Payson should be strong in the secondary, but there are plenty of question marks in the trenches. 2013 RECORD: 1-9. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.