Note: American Fork finished with a 6-4 overall record in 2013 and was fourth in Region 4 with a 3-3 record. It did not qualify for the 5A playoffs.
AMERICAN FORK — Being labeled a "tough team" in your region — but not a favorite — can get pretty old.
Just ask American Fork football coach Aaron Behm.
For years his teams have battled hard in a very competitive Region 4, only to come up just short of the playoffs on most occasions. Last season saw the Cavemen defeat top teams, such as Herriman and Riverton, before just missing the playoffs by narrowly losing to Lehi and Pleasant Grove at the end of the season.
“Being a tough team only gets you so far. If wins aren’t assigned to playing tough, then you aren’t where you want to be,” Behm said. “This year we’re looking to change things and take that next step.”
Taking the next step started last season, according to senior linebacker Nick Bernardo, who feels the team surpassed expectations.
"I think we turned some heads last season and beat some teams people didn't expect us to," Bernardo said. "People now are probably expecting us to beat a lot of those teams again and some others and that's great. We're ready to meet those expectations."
Doing as much won’t be easy in a typically stacked Region 4, but with some good talent returning on both sides of the football, Behm is optimistic about his team’s chances.
Leading the way for the Cavemen is a promising group of playmakers and linemen on the offensive side of the ball.
"We have a lot of guys returning, especially on the offense," said Behm. "A lot of the guys have been starting since they were sophomores, so now that they're seniors we're expecting big things."
"Tanner started close to half the season as a sophomore, so we think he'll continue playing well and improving," Behm said. "Heaps had around 70 catches for us last year, so having him back is huge. And Lopini is as good as any running back you'll find. So yeah, there's a lot to be excited about on offense."
"Both those guys will be on our left side and will definitely be our strength," Behm said. "Other than those two we're pretty inexperienced, but feel real good about some of the guys stepping up."
Empey and Dailey will be expected to play both ways as the most experienced defensive linemen in American Fork's 3-4 front.
Linebacker will feature Bernardo and Brennan Cox.
"We like our linebackers and it's always good to have experienced guys back there," Behm said. "We're a little inexperienced in our secondary expect for Ben Cummings at safety."
Overall, Behm and his players believe American Fork can meet raised expectations despite playing in a typically tough Region 4.
"There's not weeks off in this region," Behm said. "We were right there last year, but couldn't get over that hump. This year it's all our motivation and that's a good thing. Players are hungry for more and we're excited to achieve more than what we've done here before."
American Fork Cavemen at a glance
Coach: Aaron Behm is 17-23 through four years coaching at American Fork. He's a graduate of Grant Community High in Illinois.
Offense (5 returning starters; Spread offense)
Don't let American Fork's spread formation fool you. The team ran the ball often last season and will do so again this year.
"We know we need to get Lopini Katoa the football, whether it's passing to him in the flat or handing it off. He's a great playmaker and we'll rely on him heavily," Behm said. "I think we have some linemen who can really open some holes, so while we plan on being balanced we will rely a lot on our top running back."
Defense (3 returning starters; 3-4 defense)
"Nick is a leader for us and a great playmaker and Brennan is a tough and experienced player as well," Behm said. "Those guys will be counted on to make a lot of plays."
Coaches preseason Region 4 straw poll: Third
Deseret News Region 4 prediction: Fifth
Bottom line: Last year's success should prove big for the Cavemen entering this season. While Region 4 looks tough again, American Fork is one of the more experienced teams and should subsequently get over the hump, make the playoffs and possibly advance to Rice-Eccles Stadium.
American Fork coaching history
2010-current — Aaron Behm (17-24)
1983-2009 — Davis Knight (151-122)
1982 — Unknown (8-4)
1971-1981 — Don Mower (77-33)
1969-1970 — Tom Crittenden (11-7)
1960-1968 — Don Mower (62-22)
1941-1959 — Leo Nelson (81-56)
1929-1940 — Grant "Rags" Ingersoll (39-25)
1927-1928 — Unknown (0-8)
1908 — Mr. Wade and Mr. Pitt (1-0)
Deseret News First Team all-staters the past 10 years
2010 — Ryker Mathews, OL
2007 — Justin Jensen, DL
2007 — Robert Lusk, LB
2007 — Jake Murphy, DB
2005 — Mike Muehlmann, TE
2005 — McKay Frandsen, LB
To view second team and honorable mention all-staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.