August Miller, Deseret Morning News
Hunter running back Muka Atiga rushes downfield against American Fork in the Cavemen's 5A state playoffs victory last month.

WEST VALLEY CITY — The Hunter football team's first game of the 2007 season was a loss. So were the second and third games — and while we're counting, the same result happened in the fourth and fifth weeks, too.

For a while, the Wolverines kind of resembled the Miami Dolphins of Class 5A.

Fortunately for Hunter, the Wolverines didn't wait until Week 14 to win a game — and not only did they turn their season around in time to make the playoffs, but they also did some damage in the postseason. They beat Jordan, ranked No. 1 much of the season, in the first round.

"We were a little disappointed with our slow start," said Hunter coach Wes Wilcken. "But we definitely feel the kids maintained a lot of pride in the program (with the stronger finish)."

After taking some lumps early on, the Wolverines hit their stride in Region 3 play to finish second behind Bingham. A big key was that their big offensive line jelled, opening big holes for running back Muka Atiga. That helped the talented Hunter senior set some new standards of excellence at "Tailback High."

"Muka Atiga basically rewrote the (record) book," Wilcken said.

Atiga rushed for 1,841 yards en route to becoming the all-time leading rusher at the tradition-rich program. His big year left him just three yards shy of the school's single-season rushing record set by Tauni Vakapuna in their 2003 5A title season.

Atiga also claimed the school's single-game rushing record with 292 yards against Kearns this fall. On top of that, he broke one-time Mr. Football David Fiefia's single-season and career carries records along with the career total yards mark. The second-team all-stater averaged 6.41 yards per carry and 167 yards per game.

And his coach believes he's an even better person than football player. He has a 3.75 GPA and is being pursued by several colleges, including Utah State and Snow College.

"Muka Atiga's the type of kid you want your daughter to marry," Wilcken said. "He's honest, straightforward ... eveything a coach could want in an individual."

Tight end Harold Moleni, who's likely headed to play at Utah State, was another offensive standout.

Dom Perry was Hunter's defensive sparkplug, topping the team's defensive point chart for tackles, pass deflections, etc. The 5-10, 165-pound free safety, who might end up at Weber State or Snow, was named second-team all-state after helping the Wolverines' defense hold Region 3 opponents to just 15.3 points.

"For such a little guy, he was huge for us," Wilcken said.

Another highlight was Jake Snedon. The linebacker has a perfect 4.0 GPA and earned Academic All-State honors. The linebacker also wrestles and plays baseball.

On the other hand, Wilcken lamented the loss of starters JT Tauilili, Vini Purcell and Juan Donis, who missed playing time due to injuries.

Though Hunter fought its way into the 5A quarterfinals, a fight that ended that game early will be one of the sour memories from the 2007 campaign. After American Fork broke open a game that had been close for three-plus quarters, a brawl erupted on the field. Some coaches, players and fans got involved, prompting officials to give the Cavemen a 41-19 victory with two minutes remaining.

Arrests and suspensions were made. Williams Shawn Asiata, Matt's 19-year-old brother who isn't affiliated with Hunter's team but was there as a supporter, was charged with a class B misdemeanor of assault for allegedly kicking a downed player in the head. An unidentified 17-year-old juvenile was also charged with assault on a police officer and disorderly conduct.

Four returning Hunter players will have to sit out the first two games next season as punishment.

The situation still eats at Wilcken, who said he'll hand out stiffer punishments and really stress the importance of self-control in heated situations in the future.

"Nobody ever wants to see that happen in any sport or any game on any level. Our kids just need to understand it probably really doesn't matter really whose fault it is. The fact is, you can't react and respond in that fashion," Wilcken said. "Our kids feel really badly, like they let their coaches, family and school down a little bit. They'll try harder to restrain themselves in the heat of the battle like that."

Despite what he fears the public's perception might be of Hunter, Wilcken takes pride in his players' "hidden success." For instance, all but one player who's gone through his program for the full three years has earned a diploma. And in his 10 years at Hunter, the school has also helped 40 student-athletes earn scholarships at Jucos and four-year colleges.

E-mail: [email protected]