People I think are starting to take notice of what these kids are doing here — the work they’re putting in — and that’s a great thing. They’ve earned it. —Salem Hills coach Joel Higginson

Note: Salem Hills finished with an 8-4 overall record in 2013 and was fourth in Region 8 with a 3-3 record. It lost to Woods Cross 21-7 in the 4A quarterfinals.

SALEM HILLS — Salem Hills won’t be sneaking up on anyone this coming year, and that’s both good and bad, according to coach Joel Higginson.

Higginson, who is now in his third year, coached the Skyhawks to a playoff berth and a first-round win over Orem last season. Those accomplishments have players holding their heads a bit higher, and the Skyhawks are more excited for an upcoming season than they’ve ever been.

“What we did last year was huge for this program, and for the community supporting what we do,” Higginson said. “People I think are starting to take notice of what these kids are doing here — the work they’re putting in — and that’s a great thing. They’ve earned it.”

Of course, being recognized as a rising program also has some negative aspects.

“Teams won’t be overlooking us now,” Higginson explained. “Last year I think we were able to sneak up on some teams and surprise them with what we do and how we play. I don’t think that will happen much now, but that’s OK.”

Fans are expecting more, but more more importantly, so are the players and coaches.

"People expect us to win a lot of games, and I love that," said Higginson. "When people expect you to do something, then you do it. We expect a lot and I love having that pressure because I think it brings out the best."

Buoying the team's optimism is returning many contributors and starters off last year's team.

"More than just return a lot, but the guys who returned really put in the work in the offseason," Higginson said. "I think we were motivated getting a taste of what we can do last year and it shows."

Part of the reason players are motivated is due to Higginson himself, who presents an enthusiastic and positive influence on all of them.

"Coach Higginson is an incredible coach, but he's also a great friend I can talk to about anything," said lineman Connor Hunt. "There's a lot of trust with him and I think every player feels that."

As for the players expected to contribute heavily to the team's success, one has to start with quarterback and linebacker Porter Gustin.

Gustin burst onto the recruiting scene in the offseason in spectacular fashion and for good reason.

"He's a phenomenal athlete, but also a great leader for us," Higginson said. "His understanding of the game is so high, so when you put that with his athleticism, it leads to great things. So yeah, we're going to depend on him a ton this season."

Other expected contributors on the offensive side include receivers Nate Wilson and Cooper Smith, and fullback Jaxon Bauden. On the offensive line Connor Hunt leads the way for what looks like a promising group.

"We lost some guys, but have a lot of guys ready to step up," Hunt said. "It all starts with Porter, who is going to be a great quarterback again this year."

On defense the Skyhawks return nine players and feel confident as a result.

"Defense will be a strength of us this year," Higginson said. "We return nine starters, but nine guys who are clearly better than a year ago. Guys took the offseason serious and it's going to show."

Overall, Salem Hills hopes to compete for the Region 8 crown, which goes through two-time defending state champion Timpview.

"Everything obviously goes through Timpview, but I think we'll have more confidence going into that game," Higginson said. "Knocking off a team like Timpview would be a big feat, but I like the mentality and I think we'll be more confident showing up against great teams like Timpview."

Salem Hills Skyhawks at a glance

Coach: Joel Higginson starred at receiver for Spanish Fork and then for Utah State at the collegiate level. He was an assistant coach at both Spanish Fork and Salem Hills before taking his current post of head coach.

Offense (6 returning starters; Spread offense)

Salem Hills likes to throw and will do so again this season with perhaps a bit more rushing involved.

"We'll try and mix it up and keep teams off-balance," Higginson said. "When you have a guy like Porter (Gustin) at quarterback, and with everything he does, you can do that a bit more."

Defense (9 returning starters; 4-3 defense)

The defense returns almost everyone from a year ago, and includes standout playmakers such as Gustin at linebacker, Jaxon Bauden and Tim Fleming along the defensive line, and Jordan Taylor in the secondary.

"We love where we're at defensively entering the season and feel we can do a lot of things there to match up with the great offenses in Region 8," Higginston said.

Coach’s preseason Region 8 straw poll: Second

Deseret News Region 8 prediction: Second

Bottom line: Salem Hills certainly appears the team most likely to challenge Timpview for the Region 8 crown entering the season. With better experience and depth, along with a player like Gustin, the Skyhawks should again find themselves on top of Region 8 and could very well come away with the region championship.

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Salem Hills coaching history

2012-current — Joel Higginson (11-11)

2008-2011 — Monte Morgan (11-30)

Deseret News First Team all-staters the past 10 years

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To view second team and honorable mention all-staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.

Email: bgurney@desnews.com

Twitter: @BrandonCGurney