Note: West finished with a 4-6 overall record in 2013 and was fourth in Region 2 with a 2-3 record. It lost to Bingham 41-10 in the first round of the 5A playoffs.
SALT LAKE CITY — Known more for its costly penalties than its explosive running game or physical defense, West head football coach Keith Lopati wants to instill some discipline into his team in an effort to redefine the West High football program.
“We want to get past that perception that people have of West High football, where we aren’t disciplined and get penalties left and right,” Lopati said. “We have paid a lot of attention to that this year, but we‘ve also got a different mindset this year with a lot of new kids coming in, so that helps out quite a bit.”
With many of its core offensive and defensive players returning this year, West should have the necessary leadership to get the young guys up to speed in time for the new season.
However, with the departure of star defender Helaman Sagapolu (66 tackles, 13 1/2 sacks last year) among several other key players graduating, the Panthers will need a lot of their young guys to step up and fill those holes this season.
“I think we’ve progressed quite a bit in a lot of ways. We’ve got some young kids that are coming up that have shown up and are ready to play at a higher level,” Lopati said. “Our preparation going into the season has been really good, so I’m really excited about the opportunities that lie ahead of us.”
With names such as Landon Tapusua, Chandler Wiley, Spencer Hautau and Soakai Mounga all returning this year, West definitely still has some weapons to unleash.
Tapusua, whose 1,114 yards and six TDs led the Panthers last year, is set to carry West out of the backfield again this year, while senior QB Wiley is set to return under center.
“Obviously, (we expect Landon) to carry us offensively,” Lopati said of his star running back. “He’s such a great talent; he can take a lot of hits but still be productive. But he’s got to carry us offensively.”
Despite throwing just one touchdown and three interceptions last year, Lopati also expects his quarterback to step up and make things happen this season.
“He is one of our biggest stars on the offensive side of the ball, so he’s got to make things happen for us,” Lopati said of his QB. “Last year, he wasn’t really prepared for that, but this year, I know he is. So I am expecting a lot of big things from both a passing and running standpoint out of Chandler.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers lost their top pass rusher and defensive leader in Sagapolu, leaving a difficult hole to replace.
Lopati knows how lucky he was to have a player such as Sagapolu on his squad, but with the extremely deep and talented defensive unit West has, Lopati remains confident in his defense.
“We’ve got a bunch of great defensive kids that can just flat-out play defense. So right now, that’s definitely our strength,” Lopati said. “So it’s going to be tough to make up the numbers that Helaman made for us last year, but we’ve got a lot of great kids that should fill in those holes nicely.”
Lopati has seen his team’s numbers increase drastically in the last couple of years, and with so much experience returning all over the field, the Panthers' offensive and defensive lines remain one of West’s top threats.
“Our numbers have increased tremendously in the last couple of years, so now we are starting to keep a lot of our kids, and other schools are going to have to compete to take our kids, so I am pretty excited about that,” Lopati said. “We’ve got a few surprises in that sense, where kids kind of matured and filled out a little bit, so now we’ve just got to go through the preseason, get ‘em battle-tested and prepared for region and into the playoffs. I am really excited about our D-line and O-line.”
West Panthers at a glance
Coach: Highland Rams alum Keith Lopati is entering his third year as the head coach of the Panthers, and has amassed a 6-14 record heading into the 2014 season. He also graduated from the University of Hawaii.
(Five returning starters)
The Panthers will be led by star running back Landon Tapusua (110 carries, 1,114 yards and six TDs in 2013) and senior quarterback Chandler Wiley (22-80, 363 yards, three INTs and one TD in 2013).
Obviously, Wiley’s 27.5 percent completion percentage and dismal INT-TD ratio last season are major concerns for West. However, the growth Lopati has seen from Wiley seems to have eased his mind a little bit.
“I think we are going to be a run-first offense regardless, but I think Chandler has done a great job preparing himself coming into his senior year — meeting with Dustin Smith and going through his quarterback camps,” Lopati said.
Alongside one of the biggest O-lines in its classification, West should be expected to pound the ball again this year — especially running its triple-option offense — and duplicate the same success it has seen running the ball in recent years.
“Our goals are to be able to compete,” Lopati said of the upcoming season. “We want to be able to compete on every down and every minute we are on the field, and we want to do it with great effort and while taking care of each other.”
(Four returning starters)
Despite returning only four starters, West remains confident its defense will be one of its strong points this season.
The departure of its defensive anchor in Sagapolu, however, will be extremely difficult to replace with the younger players on its roster.
The Panthers are extremely deep and talented on the defensive side of the ball, and with the maturation of many of the younger players, West has the means to be very scary on the defensive end.
West’s powerful defensive line should be one of the biggest and best in Region 2 and the state, despite being quite young and untested.
Many of the Panthers’ question marks remain on the defensive side, and their younger players will be tested early on in the season. If West’s younger players can step up and fill those holes, the Panthers should be quite successful on the defensive side of the ball.
Coaches’ preseason Region 2 straw poll: Third
Deseret News prediction: Second
Bottom line: West returns many of its main contributors from last season, and despite losing its defensive anchor in Sagapolu, the Panthers look sound on both sides of the ball.
West has seen a drastic increase in its numbers in the last couple of seasons, and with experience returning on both sides of the ball, it should have the necessary leadership and skill set to step it up a level this season.
Despite many of its key skill players being young and untested, West should have a dominant running game alongside its powerful O-line and a quality defensive unit. With the right leadership and play-calling, the Panthers should see quite a bit of success on the field this year.
West will definitely improve from last year and compete in a talented Region 2. If the Panthers’ younger players can seriously step up and make an impact on the field, West’s success could be unlimited.
It is set to be yet another intense and competitive year in 5A football, however, and West doesn’t quite have the developed weapons it needs to seriously contend for a 5A state title this season.
Nonetheless, West is finally showing a successful return of depth to its roster and is right on the border of being a contender this year and in many years to come.
West coaching history
2012-current — Keith Lopati (6-14)
2009-11 — Justin Spencer (18-16)
2005-08 — Randy Schreiter (15-28)
2002-04 — Don Holtry (4-25)
1998-2001 — Sam Aloia (13-26)
1985-97 — Don Holtry (90-46)
1967-84 — Gean Plaga (147-47-3)
1959-66 — Don Jesperson (28-40-1)
1956-58 — Glen Tuckett (14-11)
1946-55 — Jimmy Vranes (44-36-8)
1943-45 — Paul Packard (0-20)
1942 — Parley "Paddy" Davis (1-3-2)
1938-41 — Pat Ryan (10-12-3)
1920-37 — Roy E. McIntyre (63-40-7)
1919 — Homer P. Christensen (5-2-1)
1911-18 — Henry G. "Heinie" Richardson (31-15)
1910 — Joe Busse (4-2)
1903-09 — David H. Callahan (28-12-3)
1902 — Mr. Boyle (6-1-2)
1898-1901 — David H. Callahan (15-2-1)
1893-97 — team captain (15-7-1)
Deseret News First Team All-Staters the past 10 years
To view second team and honorable mention All-Staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.
Ryan Love is a full-time student at the University of Utah studying communications, and has been a part-time sportswriter and scoreboarder for the Deseret News since Oct. 2012.
Follow him on Twitter @RLove7724