After stringing together back-to-back 4A title game appearances, Highland never expected to fall victim to a first-round playoff upset.
But, like many of their counterparts in Region 6, the Rams could not advance past their opening game and fell 21-6 to Bonneville. It did not take Highland long before it began looking to this season as a time of redemption.
"That next Monday, we started counting down the days to our first game," senior Latu Heimuli said. "We were all just getting ready. We didn't want to wait."
When Highland does take the field in its opener against Mountain Crest, the Rams will present a team that is focused on being a factor in the 4A championship picture again. What's scary for the teams they will face especially in Region 6 is that this is a group that has more than enough talent to make it happen.
Highland returns several starters on its offensive and defensive lines. Leading the way is Heimuli a highly recruited Division I prospect and Sam Nielson. Heimuli is a beast on defense in particular, with 50 tackles, including 10 for loss, in 2007. That degree of experience up front should help new quarterback Nick Orchard adjust to running the Ram scheme real quickly.
Orchard is a little raw on offense, but started at cornerback all of last season. Highland coach Brody Benson thinks that game time experience on defense will help him anticipate and react to defenses with little difficulty.
The Rams' top rusher, Muli Kinikini, should provide plenty of help for Orchard. Kinikini rushed for a team-high 872 yards and eight touchdowns on 115 carries a year ago. Travis Walzer and Bridger Walzer should provide some solid additional depth in the backfield.
"I see our offense right now as being better than last year right when we start the season because of that experience factor," Benson said.
Experience should serve Highland well in navigating a tough early schedule. Besides their traditional endowment game matchup with the Mustangs, the Rams also face American Fork and Skyline before opening region play at East.
Such a slate doesn't allow for much breathing room, but Benson feels confident his kids can compete with anybody provided they don't succumb to injuries first.
"I think that it basically boils down to staying healthy," Benson said. "You look out here and we don't have a whole lot of numbers as far as players on the team. But I'll put my starting eleven up against anybody else's in the region."
Whatever comes about this season for the Rams, they want to make sure it will not be feeling the sting of another postseason disappointment.
"We don't want the same thing to happen as last year going out in the first round," Orchard said. "That's a lot of motivation right there to get further into the playoffs and hope we get to Rice-Eccles (Stadium)."
HIGHLAND RAMS 2008 SEASON PREVIEW
COACH: Brody Benson may not have the numbers or depth, but he makes the most with what he has. Benson has 19-6 record over the past two seasons, which included a 4A title game appearance in his debut year.
KEY PLAYERS: Highland should be plenty tough up front with Latu Heimuli (OL/DL) and Sam Nielson (C/MLB) leading the way. Muli Kinikni (FB/DE) is explosive enough to give defenses fits. Travis Walzer (RB/SS) and Bridger Walzer (FB/OLB) will serve as backfield and defensive anchors. Nick Orchard (QB/DB) could be poised for a breakout season behind center.
QUESTION MARK: With several returning starters who went both ways last year, there aren't too many unknowns for Highland. The biggest concern might be surviving a tough first four games. Can the Rams stay healthy and confident enough to stave off a slow start?
LAST YEAR: 8-3, lost in 4A First Round
PREDICTED REGION 6 FINISH: Second.
POSTSEASON POSSIBILITIES: Last year's first-round loss was a fluke in many ways and Highland will prove as much if it stays healthy going into the playoffs. With their experience on the line and in the backfield, Highland could make a title game push for the third time in four seasons.
Aug 22 at Mountain Crest, 7 p.m.
Aug 29 at American Fork, 7 p.m.
Sept 5 SKYLINE, 7 p.m.
Sept 12 at East, 6:30 p.m.
Sept 19 GRANGER, 7 p.m.
Sept 26 at Olympus, 7 p.m.
Oct 3 COTTONWOOD, 7 p.m.
Oct 10 at Cyprus, 7 p.m.
Oct 15 WEST, 7 p.m.
Oct 23 MURRAY, 7 p.m.