HYRUM — It was a bittersweet experience.

Sure, the Mountain Crest Mustangs were proud that they made it to the turf for the second time in three years in 2007. But the 38-0 thrashing the Mustangs took by eventual champion Timpview in the semifinals sent them a loud and clear message.

"We told our kids at the end of the year when we played them (the T-birds) we weren't really that close to them," said Mountain Crest coach Mark Wootton. "There was a big gap between them and us. We told them you're going to get beat about as bad next year if you don't work real hard."

And as you'd expect from Mountain Crest's highly respected program, the players have done just that in preparation for the 2008 season.

"The kids are getting bigger and stronger," Wootton said. "You got to. Timpview, as good as they are, they're so far ahead of everybody. They were at the end of last year anyway. Hopefully we closed that gap a little bit."

Obviously, it will be a few months before anyone knows if the Mustangs have gotten closer to the mighty T-birds. But in August, on paper and in the weight room, Mountain Crest certainly has the look of a contender.

The Mustangs return all of their key skill-position players and two linemen in Derek Pond and Colton Reeder. Mountain Crest wasn't supposed to be a contender last year, but it advanced all the way to the state semifinals with a roster loaded with sophomores and juniors.

Oh, and a freshman, too.

Quarterback Alex Kuresa, who started four games last year, is back to direct the team's offense. Now a sophomore, Kuresa has grown 3 inches and gained about 25 pounds since he led the Mustangs into their semifinal game against Timpview last season. Kuresa, despite being just a freshman in 2007, led Mountain Crest to two playoff victories and a 3-1 record in his starts.

"He didn't have to try and establish a relationship with the other kids," Wootton said. "He'd always hung around with these kids since they were tiny kids. He was comfortable with them and the kids were comfortable with him. That eased the transition."

Kuresa was thrown into the varsity fire because of an injury suffered by star player Ethen Lofthouse.

"I had real big shoes to step into," Kuresa said. "Everyone looks to Ethen. That put a lot of pressure on me. It made me want to help out my teammates."

Interestingly, Mountain Crest has three capable quarterbacks on its roster in Kuresa, Lofthouse and Matt Stewart. Each of them could see some playing time at quarterback, but the sophomore will be the guy taking most of the snaps.

"It makes us a better team having Alex play quarterback," Wootton said. "Lofthouse can play running back. Matt is a great tight end. It's his recruitable position for college."

Teams are going to have an awfully tough time trying to slow down the Mustangs. Kuresa is a smart player and has a good arm. Lofthouse will get plenty of carries, and he'll once again play an Eric Weddle-type of role at quarterback. Stewart, Ethan Rassmussen, Hayden Snow, Alex Knowles, Mitch Jessop and Chandler Smith will also get opportunities to make plays on offense.

Outside of Pond and Reeder, the team's offensive line is uncertain. Wootton said he'll have to look at some fullback/linebacker types during two-a-days to fill out the line.

Wootton is extremely pleased with the work his players have put in during the offseason. They survived his grueling and creative workout regimen. They competed in various 7-on-7 tournaments, including a prestigious national event hosted by Alabama's Hoover High.

No one has needed to remind the Mustangs how their 2007 season ended. They've thought about their loss to Timpview since the day it happened, and they're determined to keep a blowout loss like it from happening again.

"They showed us where the bar is at, and how hard we have to work to get there," Kuresa said. "We went in with a swagger, thinking we had already won the state championship. It humbled us a little bit. It was good for us. We're just excited and ready to go."

MOUNTAIN CREST MUSTANGS 2008 PREP FOOTBALL PREVIEW

COACH: Mark Wootton is in his fifth year at Mountain Crest. He won a state championship in 2005 and qualified for the state semifinals in 2007. Mountain Crest is one of the state's top programs, and Wootton's presence is a big reason for that.

KEY PLAYERS: Mountain Crest has some tough players in key positions, and most of them will have to go both ways. Look for (QB) Alex Kuresa, (RB/LB) Ethen Lofthouse, (TE/LB) Hayden Snow, (WR/DB) Ethan Rassmussen, (WR/DB) Mitch Jessop, (OL/DL) Colton Reeder, (OL/DL) Derek Pond, (TE/DE) Matt Stewart, (RB/LB) Alex Knowles and (WR/DB) Chandler Smith to play key roles.

QUESTION MARK: The only uncertainty about Mountain Crest is its offensive line. Colton Reeder, at 220 pounds, and Derek Pond, at 230 will anchor it. But some other players will need to step in, and step up during two-a-days to fill out the rest of the starting line.

LAST YEAR: 7-4, lost to TImpview in the semifinals

PREDICTED REGION 5 FINISH: First

POSTSEASON POSSIBILITES: The Mustangs are the favorite to win Region 5 and will undoubtedly be in the playoffs. A third trip to Rice-Eccles Stadium in four years is a possibility, and if they stay healthy, they'll make a run at the state championship.

2008 SCHEDULE

Aug. 22 — HIGHLAND, 7 p.m.

Aug. 29 — FREMONT, 7 p.m.

Sept. 5 — at Northridge, 7 p.m.

Sept. 12 — at Woods Cross, 7 p.m.

Sept. 19 — at Bonneville, 7 p.m.

Sept. 26 — BOUNTIFUL, 7 p.m.

Oct. 2 — BOX ELDER, 7 p.m.

Oct. 9 — PROVO, 7 p.m.

Oct. 15 — at Sky View, 7 p.m.

Oct. 23 — ROY, 7 p.m.


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