We like to see our kids not get complacent and to stay hungry, and I think that’s part of the culture we’ve built. —East head coach Brandon Matich
Last year East capped an undefeated season with its second consecutive 4A state title.
Taylorsville, on the other hand, managed to win its first playoff game in 16 years in the 5A ranks.
And then there is Copper Hills, a 5A team that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season in decades.
All three of these teams join Herriman, West Jordan and Riverton in the newly created 6A Region 3.
And while it may seem that programs like East, Taylorsville and Copper Hills have little in common, but when it comes to managing the pressure of raised expectations, they actually do.
East jumps up two classifications to compete against the state’s largest schools with back-to-back state titles and a national ranking.
“It’s been an eight year process where you try to build this culture,” head coach Brandon Matich said of the pressure the Leopards feel to continue their winning ways. “(Former players) put the pieces in place to where we are today. We like to see our kids not get complacent and to stay hungry, and I think that’s part of the culture we’ve built.”
Expectations can’t get much higher for the Leopards, but instead of seeing it as a burden they have to manage, both players and coaches said they embrace it.
“I think they respond better under pressure,” Matich said. “I feel more pressure. As coaches, we don’t want these kids to become satisfied.”
East returns nearly all of last year’s undefeated team, including quarterback Ben Ford, most of the offensive line, and all or part of every defensive position group, including linebacker Viliami Tausinga.
The biggest question mark is running backs, and the Leopards will join most teams in the region in trying to move the ball by committee as they have a handful of running backs vying for carries.
Herriman leaves what coaches not-so-affectionately referred to as the SEC of high school football (Region 3) to join the new region where East is a heavy favorite, but the Mustangs aren’t far behind. Chosen as the No. 2 team in the pre-season poll, the Mustangs are looking for redemption after feeling like they under achieved last fall.
They missed the playoffs after losing a play-in game to American Fork, which meant ending the year after their 2015 state title with at .500 record.
“They’re completely unsatisfied with what happened last year,” said head coach Dustin Pearce. “(The new region) hasn’t affected what we do or how we scheme. This is the first year I feel like we have some guys who can catch the football and run routes and understand the concept of not just throwing five wides and then a vertical.”
The team’s offense is led by senior linemen David Fotu and Braxton Pearce, both of whom started on the 2015 state championship team, as well as junior quarterback Blake Freeland, who’s already committed to BYU.
Herriman returns 18 players with varsity experience, and while they may throw more than in the past because of the talent at wide receiver, they’ll still rely on a solid ground game led by running backs Maeakafa Leakehe and Tavish Darger.
Meanwhile, Taylorsville’s upset of Davis last season has created raised expectations for the Warriors, a school that is among the smallest in the new class. That success has created raised expectations among the Warriors’ players, coaches and community members.
The difference for Tayorsville is that they return only a handful of the players who helped the Warriors win that first playoff game against Davis.
“I do feel pressure,” said first-year head coach Pala Vaitu’u, who took over the program after working as an assistant for several years. “It’s a good thing. It makes most of them work. We tell them, ‘You guys didn’t win anything. That was last year’s team.’ We have a lot of good guys and the expectations has been raised.”
The Warriors return junior quarterback Dane Leituala, who averaged a jaw-dropping 410 yards per game. He plays like a linebacker, but prefers to throw with 305 of those yards coming in the air.
Riverton and Copper Hills have similar situations starting with new head coaches. The Silverwolves finished the season with a single win at the end of the year in a meaningless non-region contest, while the Grizzlies didn’t earn a single victory in the 2016 campaign.
Blake Monkres, whose won state titles at Morgan and Dixie and taken Fremont to the finals, took over Riverton’s program, which will operate with an entirely new coaching staff. He said he’s still getting to know his team, and may not understand completely what they’re capable of until that first contest.
“Camp was the first time I saw them in pads, and I thought they did a good job,” he said. “All of the kids have been working really hard since January, and they’ve done everything we’ve asked.”
He’ll rely on seniors Tanner Veron, a defensive lineman, and Hayden Wade, safety, to lead his defense, while the team has two quarterbacks competing for time. Senior Nathaniel Davidson and sophomore Cannon Coggins may both see time at quarterback in Monkres spread offense.
Monkres sees East and Herriman as the top dogs, with the rest of the region battling for those final two playoff spots.
“Right now, I think we can compete with all of those schools,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a dog fight between those four to see who gets those (playoff) slots.”
Corey Dodds, who helped Utah go undefeated in 2014 and win the 2015 Fiesta Bowl under Urban Meyer as a linebacker, was hired as the Grizzlies head coach after serving as an assistant.
The team returns a core of talent and experience, but it will be Dodds’ leadership that determines if the team can finally enjoy a winning season.
The Grizzlies will rely on sophomore quarterback Kana’ipono “Pono” Kahala-Giron, as well as a group of running backs, offensively. Defensively, the team will be lead by linebacker Sage Udy, tackle Alex Gibson and strong safety Justice Salisbury.
West Jordan made the playoffs with an 8-2 record, but then lost a heart-breaker in the first round when they traveled to Syracuse. While coaches picked the Jaguars to finish third, the Deseret News projected them at No. 4, behind Riverton.
Entering his third year, head coach Mike Meifu faces his own pressure as the team tries to improve on the best record since Meifu played in 2005 and the Jaguars made the 5A semifinals.
“It is our culture and what we’re teaching and coaching,” he said of the team’s success. The Jaguars face a tough test as they replace all but one of their offensive linemen.
And like the other coaches in the region, Meifu wants his team to feel the weight of raised expectations as he feels it will not only motivate them but fuel their competitive fire.