Two weeks into the soccer season and it's already shaping up to be an exciting year.
In 5A the preseason No. 1 as voted by the coaches lost on the opening day of the season while the preseason No. 1 in 2A has a new coach but doesn’t seem to be missing a beat.
Alta, last year’s 5A champ, has been realigned into 4A and will add extreme quality to a classification that is already top-heavy with teams like Skyline, East and Provo.
For all the teams, topping last season's late drama will be tough. In 5A, rivals Alta and Brighton dueled in another epic title match at Rio Tinto Stadium. The 4A and 2A title games both went to a shootout while rivals Dixie and Pine View met in the 3A final.
Here’s a class-by-class preview about what to expect over the next two months.
As George Costanza famously said in an episode of "Seinfeld" after telling a funny joke, “Alright, that’s good for me,” as he quickly left the room.
That’s essentially what Alta’s boys soccer team did after winning last year’s 5A state title. The Hawks left on a high note as they’re now competing in 4A.
The departure of the perennial contenders guarantees a new champ will be crowned this spring, and there is no shortage of contenders. As many as six or seven teams have a realistic shot at the 5A title, led by last year’s runner-up Brighton.
Led by center back Andrew Petersen, the only returning Deseret News first team all-stater, Brighton is already unbeaten (4-0-1) this spring and looking strong.
“We are excited for another year of Bengal Soccer. We have always had great kids in the program and this year is no exception. The kids are working hard and we are just excited to get out there and compete,” said coach Tom Cushing.
Layton was pegged as the preseason No. 1 by 5A’s coaches after making a semifinal appearance in 2015, but it dropped its opening game against Fremont. The Lancers have since won three straight, and coach Rick Talamantez is excited about this season.
“Even though we lost about nine seniors this last year, I believe this year's team can be just as competitive as last year's,” he said. “We’re looking to defend last year's region championship title and make another appearance in the state tournament.”
The Lancers will compete in Region 2 this year, and even though there are some unfamiliar foes, they’re very familiar with top-notch programs like Viewmont and Davis.
The Darts and their eight returning starters could be a sleeper team in 5A throughout the season.
Lone Peak is the front-runner in Region 4 led by new coach Mark Graham, who moved over from Mountain View after nearly a decade as the Bruins head coach.
Lone Peak won the Region 4 title last year with a 9-3 record but was one-and-done in the 5A playoffs. Graham is optimistic about a more successful season.
“The Knights have experienced, accomplished, premier-level players at every position and coming off the bench. The quality of keeper play and center back play will be key indicators of how far the Knights will be able to go this year,” he said.
Other teams who figure to be in the mix for region titles and deep runs in the playoffs are Fremont and Mountain Crest in Region 1, Bingham and Copper Hills in Region 3 and Pleasant Grove and Herriman in Region 4.
With defending 5A champ Alta dropping into 4A this season, two programs have bull’s-eyes on their backs heading into 2016. Two-time 4A champ Skyline and Alta, although both have plenty of question marks this season.
Skyline graduated all three of its Deseret News first team all-staters last year, and every other major contributor as well. The inexperience is rearing its ugly head this preseason as the Eagles are 0-5 against quality competition.
Alta, meanwhile, graduated nine significant contributors from last season but is 2-1-1 this preseason.
Alta coach Lee Mitchell has been coaching long enough to know when he has a quality squad, and he’s got one this year.
“I believe that we will be in the hunt for our region and have a shot at competing for state. To do this we will need to work hard and come together as a team,” said Mitchell, who added that the new classification definitely changes the landscape for the Hawks.
Last year’s 4A runner-up East will be a very dangerous team in Region 5.
Matt Barker was a first team all-stater as a sophomore last season after notching 14 goals. Fellow all-stater Hugo Olivera is back for his senior season after leading the Leopards in assists.
Losing in a shootout in the final was a heartbreaking ending last season, but East has the quality to avenge it.
“We lost several key players from our runner-up team last year including our goalkeeper and a key defender, but we feel good about the group coming in this year,” said East coach Rudy Schenk. “Some players with minimal or no varsity experience will need to step up and learn on the fly. We feel good about the depth we have this year and are looking forward to seeing what this team can do.”
Other teams who figure to be in the mix for region titles and then deep playoff runs are Bountiful in Region 5, Murray in Region 6, Provo and Timpview in Region 7 and then Salem Hills and Maple Mountain in Region 8.
Uintah could be a sleeper team in Region 8 as well.
The Dixie Flyers have won three of the past four 3A titles, and with last year’s playoff hero Tyler Bennett returning along with all-state keeper Ethan Poulton, stretching that streak to four of five is a very real possibility.
After graduating 14 seniors, there are questions to be answered for the Flyers, but coach Burt Meyers is confident his young, talented team will figure things out.
En route to last year’s title Dixie topped Juan Diego in overtime in the 3A semifinals, but the Soaring Eagle are chomping at the bit for redemption.
“There are nine seniors on the team and all of them have significant varsity experience. With younger players maturing, this is the deepest team Juan Diego has fielded,” said coach Scott Platz. “We are excited about the upcoming year and feel very strongly that we will be competing for region and state titles.”
Juan Diego holding midfielder Brandon Sands was a first team all-stater last year, and he’s the engine in the middle of the field for the Soaring Eagle.
Juan Diego will get plenty of competition in its own region from Logan, which finished second in Region 5 in 4A last year. The Grizzlies are 3-1-1 this preseason with a draw against Dixie.
Stansbury has won back-to-back region titles and is the frontrunner again in Region 10, even though rival Grantsville could deny a three-peat.
Carbon and Canyon View are the teams to beat in Region 12, while a host of teams will give Dixie a run for its money in Region 9.
Snow Canyon, Desert Hills and last year’s 3A runner-up Pine View are all quality, dangerous teams down south.
“We graduated a great group of seniors that led us to the state final in 2015. We look forward to seeing the younger kids take advantage of the opportunity to play a more extensive role this year. In spite of our youth, we remain committed to playing at a high level,” said Pine View coach Sam Johnston.
Pine View will rely heavily on the play of returning all-state midfielder Michael Cardenas, who notched seven goals and six assists as a junior last year.
After guiding American Leadership to two titles in the past three years, coach Steven Solen moved to North Sanpete and handed over the reigns of the program to Steve Pemberton.
ALA beat Waterford in a shootout last season, and Pemberton will have his hands full getting the Eagles back there again in 2016 after graduating the bulk of last year’s contributors.
“American Leadership Academy has a rather large standard to live up to. If the state can have a repeat champion depends entirely upon whether younger players can step into their predecessor's positions and keep the standard at that high level,” said Pemberton.
With midfielder Xavier Medina returning after a banner all-state season with 14 goals and 18 assists, ALA has a strong core to build around.
Runner-up Waterford is off to a surprisingly slow start after dropping two 2A North region games already. There are still plenty of games to turn things around, but in a region with South Summit, Layton Christian, Rowland Hall and Maeser Prep, there are very few gimme wins.
“After losing six starting seniors from last year, we look to find new continuity amongst our team. Our team culture has bred good leadership, and we will look to be competitive in our region this year,” said Waterford coach George Shirley.
Sean Keough scored 19 goals last year for the Ravens, and there’s no reason not to expect another banner year.
Waterford is one of five quality teams in 2A North, which appears to be the strongest in 2A this season.
Wendover is the frontrunner in 2A West, while Manti, Wasatch Academy and Gunnison will duke it out for the 2A Central title.
Millard and Delta will battle ALA for the 2A South title.
Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org