GRANTSVILLE With 18 starters are back for the Grantsville Cowboys this year, it's easy to see why coach Tony Cloward is so confident and optimistic about the upcoming season.
"We put all our eggs in one basket for this year. We've been preparing for this year, so hopefully it pans out for us," said Cloward, now in his fourth year at his alma mater.
Despite playing in what should be a much-improved Region 11 this year, the Cowboys appear to be good enough on offense and defense to make a run at the league title.
It all starts with experience.
Defensively, Grantsville struggled quite a bit last year.
"The youth really killed us defensively. I think we ran too complex of a scheme. Being inexperienced, it was like they were guessing their responsibility all the time. This year we return them all, so we should be equally as good as we're going to be offensively," said Cloward.
Austin Gumucio, the leading tackler a year ago, will anchor what should be a solid linebacking core. He'll be joined by Riley Bowman and cousins Kort and Ky Fonger. Max Bleazard, a starter since his sophomore year, is the heart of the defensive line at tackle.
The strength of the team should still be on offense, and it's because of the offseason development of Forrest Stephenson, who backed up Logan Paulich last year.
"He might be as good if not better than Paulich," said Cloward. "I may go as bold and say he even might compete with (Logan's Jeff) Manning for the best quarterback in the league. They're a different type of player, but I'm really that high on him just because of his summer."
Stephenson's really taken to running the spread offense, and throws even better when he's on the run.
He's got numerous weapons at his disposal, including Grantsville's version of Reggie Bush. Alex Childs led the Cowboys in rushing (700) and receiving yards (400) last year despite playing on a team that ran the more conservative Wing-T offense last year.
Cloward used the Wing-T early last year in an effort to shorten the game for his younger team. It worked in terms of time of possession, but not on the scoreboard. His defense was so bad they gave up a lot of quick scores, and his methodical offense never had an answer.
"Finally, we said we're young, we may as well get these kids experience, so we widened out and started throwing the ball the last five games. That's kind of where we're at. We went to a spread like everyone else," said Cloward.
Childs isn't the only athlete in the receiving corps, though. Benji Cole is an outstanding possession receiver, while Arizona move-in Dax Buckley is very smart, having played quarterback at his previous high school. Gumucio will also play some receiver, while Bowman will start at fullback.
With a solid offensive line in front of them, Grantsville should be able to improve on its 3-8 record last year
COACH: A graduate of Grantsville High School, Tony Cloward is entering his fourth season as head coach. He owns a 12-23 record in those previous three years.
KEY PLAYERS: Grantsville is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. Senior quarterback Forrest Stephenson is poised to have a fantastic season, as is lightning quick Alex Childs, who does a little bit of everything on offense. Junior Austin Butler is the team's best lineman. Defensively, after a disappointing 2007, the Cowboys are stacked at linebacker with Austin Gumucio, Riley Bowman, Kort Fonger and Ky Fonger.
QUESTION MARK: As impressive as first-year starter Stephenson has been this summer, the spread offense isn't easy to run and varsity football is much faster than what he's used to. How will he respond in pressure situations, especially in Grantsville's tough first three preseason games against Wasatch, Juan Diego and Delta?
LAST YEAR: 3-8, lost in the first round.
PREDICTED REGION 11 FINISH: Tied for fourth with Ben Lomond.
POSTSEASON POSSIBILITIES: On paper, it doesn't appear that Grantsville will have any trouble qualifying for the playoffs. Region 11 is going to be very tough this year from top to bottom, so no team can take anything for granted. If things go as well as expected, though, Grantsville has the potential to be a 3A semifinal team this year.
Aug. 22 WASATCH, 7 p.m.
Aug. 29 at Juan Diego, 7 p.m.
Sept. 5 DELTA, 7 p.m.
Sept. 12 CARBON, 7 p.m.
Sept. 19 at Union
Sept. 26 at Logan, 7 p.m.
Oct. 3 BEAR RIVER, 7 p.m.
Oct. 10 BEN LOMOND, 7 p.m.
Oct. 15 at Ogden, 7 p.m.Oct. 24 at Morgan, 7 p.m.