During a brief stay in Hawaii, Cottonwood junior Assi Hosea got exposed to football in a whole new way.
It wasn't just the lush environment or the tougher competition that was different. Perhaps the biggest change came in not seeing a few familiar faces that dotted his teams from the little league level and up.
"It was weird out there, not seeing my cousins," Hosea said.
It's a popular turn of phrase for many high school football teams to express a newfound sense of unity by describing themselves as a "family" on the eve of a brand new season. For Cottonwood, however, that concept has a much more literal application.
Several players on the Colts roster are indeed blood relatives. At times, Friday nights can be something akin to a family reunion. Hosea said that the stands would fill up with more than 50 of his cousins, aunts and uncles for a typical game.
Such a support system is evident on the field and the sidelines as well where more than a dozen players and assistant coaches count themselves as family.
"It just makes me feel better playing with people I know more," said Colts running back Isi Sofele, a cousin of Hosea's. "It's exciting playing with them."
Playing with family leads to plenty of friendly rivalries on and off the field. Sofele and Hosea, for example, line up on opposite sides of the ball in practice. It becomes a situation where one cousin has their performance gauged on how well they perform against the other.
Bragging rights go back and forth with a lot of fluidity.
"It's a pretty good matchup," Hosea said. "Sometimes he runs me over. Sometimes I stick him. It goes both ways."
Familial bonds at Cottonwood have grown into building blocks for developing a wider sense of team unity this season. Even those players who have no blood relation start to feel like adopted cousins with the amount of time the team spends together on and off the field.
It's the kind of closeness that few players on the team have ever experienced at any other level of football.
"The only thing different between us is a few last names," quarterback Steve Romero said.
Colts coach Cecil Thomas said that the collective bond between his players has made it easier to get them to trust one another. Such a step will become increasingly vital, he said, for the team's hopes of being successful this season."It's huge," Thomas said. "If you're not together, you're going to fall apart at the seams. This way, everyone is held accountable for each other."
Region 6 projections
(Preseason rankings are based on coaches' votes)
1. COTTONWOOD: Many observers have the Colts pegged as one of the most likely challengers to Timpview's 4A supremacy based on the sheer amount of talent and experience the team returns this fall. It all starts on the offensive line where Cottonwood has a pair of highly recruited seniors John Martinez and Percy Taumoelau leading the way. Martinez has schools like USC and UCLA pursuing him, while Taumoelau has received a scholarship offer from Arkansas. The offense should be strong again with three-year starter Isi Sofele returning as the team's lead back and Steve Romero once again taking on quarterback duties. The Colts are a little greener on the defensive side, with a mostly new line. But a pair of senior linebackers Assi Hosea and Jason Bilanzich should provide solid support to the younger players up front. 2007 RECORD: 10-2. PLAYOFFS: Lost in the quarterfinals
2. HIGHLAND: The Rams look as tough as ever after an uncharacteristic first-round loss to Bonneville in 2007. Defense, long a team calling card, should be strong again. Three-year starter Latu Heimuli is a force on the line. He led the team in tackles and tackles for loss a year ago and has been highly sought after by several Division I schools led by Colorado, Arizona and Nebraska. Sam Nielson will be counted on to provide stability as the team's center and its middle linebacker. Bridger Walzer is a ferocious hitter at outside linebacker, and Travis Walzer should do good things in the secondary. On offense, Highland is counting on the one-two punch of Nick Orchard and Muli Kinikini to move them down field. Orchard has high expectations stepping into the quarterback position and Kinikini is an explosive runner who can add teeth to the Rams' option attack. 2007 RECORD: 8-3. PLAYOFFS: Lost in the first round.
3. EAST: Few teams have suffered as drastic a turnover in personnel from 2007 than the Leopards. East graduated starters in 19 of 22 positions and will field a much more raw group this fall. Danny Tuai will shift from the secondary to quarterback and brings loads of athleticism to the position. He will have a solid runner behind him in fullback Sunia Tauteoli and a pair of capable receivers in tight end Jacob Morrison and wideout Jon Webb. On defense, the Leopards will count on returning starter Steve Tuikolovatu to anchor the defensive line. Morrison and Tauteoli will be counted on to make contributions at linebacker as well. The schedule makes jelling together quickly a necessity with Snow Canyon, Skyline, American Fork and Highland as East's first four opponents. 2007 RECORD: 8-3. PLAYOFFS: Lost in the first round.
4. CYPRUS: Expectations are high in Magna after the Pirates surprised a number of people with their strong showing in 2007. But to build on it they will have to do things with a host a new faces at skill positions and along the line. Oft-injured Chris Peel will take over at quarterback. Staying healthy is a question mark after injuries robbed Peel of most of the last two seasons. He should have a capable back in Jordan Pulou. Vinny Mirable and Greg Tishncer look to be contributors in both the secondary and at receiver. Kevin Haynes and Weston Warr should anchor both lines. Depth is a question up front, though, with Cyprus suffering losses to graduation and other factors. 2007 RECORD: 6-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost in the first round.
5. (TIE) WEST: The Panthers will be helped by the return of several players that played big roles in '07. Basketball star Daniel Wray will lead West at quarterback. Coach Randy Schreiter has confidence in his abilities and says Wray could be the best unknown quarterback in the state. Helping Wray out up front are linemen Ben Ogden and Simi Hovaka. Tana Afeaki will try to step up in the backfield to power the Panther running game this season. On the other side Hovaka and Foueti Afeaki will add a nice amount of size and strength to the defense. 2007 RECORD: 5-6. PLAYOFFS: Lost in the first round.
5. (TIE) OLYMPUS: After several years of digesting the spread offense installed by head coach Mark Smith, the Titans finally feel proficient enough in the attack to believe they will enjoy a breakout season. Who will run the offense on the field is still up for grabs. Lance McGavin and Spencer Harris are both in the mix at quarterback, though Harris could potentially slide over to receiver. There is plenty of depth at receiver with Maurice Maxwell, Carter Young and basketball standout Spencer Hille leading the way. O.J. Visser looks to be the lead back out of the backfield. He brings a lot of strength to the backfield, being one of the few players on the team who can squat 500 lbs. 2007 RECORD: 2-8.. PLAYOFFS: Missed the playoffs.
7. GRANGER: The Lancers look to take some more steps forward in year two under Jonny Matich. Granger should see improvement in several areas. The line is anchored by a pair of legitimate Division I prospects in Manu Mulitalo and Meili Valele. Both players have drawn interest from a handful of colleges. The Lancer rushing attack will be powered by Manu Samani, a player that Matich expects will have a breakout season with his move to being the team's featured back. The offense will also be in the hands of sophomore Brentt Phillips, who has inherited the role of quarterback. 2007 RECORD: 2-8. PLAYOFFS: Missed the playoffs.
8. MURRAY: The Spartans may be the most experienced team in the region. Murray returns 19 starters and 17 seniors. The Spartans are expecting great things, especially in their backfield and at linebacker. Brandt Anderson, Erik White and Tyler Prestwich should form a nice nucleus at those positions. Murray coach Dan Aragon is also expecting a solid year from quarterback Nate Davis, a player who has enough size to also double as a defensive end on the other side of the ball. 2007 RECORD: 1-8. PLAYOFFS: Missed the playoffs.