A year ago at this time, 1A boys basketball coaches were starting to come to the realization they were all playing for second place. Wasatch Academy was just too good, which it proved in a dominating performance at the state tournament.
This year the 1A landscape is much more up in the air, particularly with Wasatch Academy making the jump to 2A.
Sure, the traditional favorites out of Region 16 and 20 still exist, but heading into the new year there are no undefeated teams remaining in 1A.
The last of the unbeatens fell before the Christmas break when No. 2 Piute knocked off unbeaten and No. 1 Bryce Valley. The region rivals have since flip-flopped in the rankings, and based on the parity at the top of 1A this year, those rankings could flip flop every week.
"There are probably six or seven teams with a legitimate shot at a state title this year," said Duchesne coach Stan Young, whose team is definitely among the contenders.
That competitiveness will make for an exciting season around the state, something Panguitch coach Clint Barney said was lacking a bit last year because of Wasatch Academy's dominance.
"During the winter it's the lifeblood of the community, it's what every community member lives for. Who's playing Wednesday night, where are you playing? Who's playing Friday night, where are you playing? It's what keeps the community going during the long winter months," said Barney. "I think a year ago with how tough Wasatch Academy was, I think it diminished that."
So far this year, Piute, Bryce Valley, Panguitch and Duchesne appear to be the top teams in 1A. In the second tier are teams like Layton Christian, Monticello, Green River, Valley, Tabiona, Manila and Liahona, any of who might emerge as contenders as the year rolls on.
Layton Christian, which is back in 1A after a four-year stint in 2A, is the biggest enigma of the entire classification. The Eagles haven't played a 1A team yet this year, but every coach expects them to be a factor.
"We haven't seen them in four or five years, and everybody is a little bit weary of how good they might be," said Barney.
Right now though, everybody knows how good Piute is. Already this year the T-Birds have beat Bryce Valley, Duchesne and Monticello, and they've done it with balance as four difference players are averaging in double figures, led by Ty Jessen's 13.6 ppg.
"We've always stressed good team play. I've always told them I don't care who scores," said coach Steve Hoagland.
Despite beating Bryce Valley, Hoagland still believes the Mustangs are the top team in 1A with their size and array of shooters.
Led by Jake Pearson (16.6 ppg), Braxton Syrett (12.9 ppg) and Eddie Dunham (12.3 ppg), Bryce Valley coach Eric Jessen believes this year's team is the most talented in his 12 years as a coach. He said his players came out and played with too much emotion in the Piute game, but knows there are plenty of chances to redeem the loss.
Panguitch is led in scoring by sophomore Tyce Barney at 20.6 ppg, but coach Barney believes the play of senior guards Tom Adams and MaKade Christensen have been the backbone of that production.
"In one part I'm really excited about how we played, but on the flip side of that I don't think we've yet to play the heavy hitters, and we still have to prove we can play with them when the time comes," said Barney.
Duchesne is arguably the most athletic team in the state, but coach Young says they're still transitioning from football to basketball.
"We come out of football late enough that the shooting takes a while to catch up to some of the finer points of the game," said Young.
He's hopeful his players shooting touch will finally round into form in January and February.
Note: Projections were picked by Deseret News staff, with input from coaches.
1. Layton Christian
3. St. Joseph
4. West Ridge
6. Mt. Vernon
2. Green River
4. Monument Valley
6. Navajo Mountain
1. Bryce Valley
7. Diamond Ranch
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