They're not used to losing at Dixie State College, but in the last two years, that is exactly what has been happening since the Rebels became a four-year school and jumped into the Division II football ranks.

The transition decimated the team, as players in St. George left the program for greener pastures in Division I or I-AA football, which left the school attempting to compete in Division II with mostly underclassmen. The Rebels won one game in their first year.

Head football coach Ron Haun said the transition was more difficult than his staff thought it would be. Part of it was because they were hired during the spring, which meant they weren't able to recruit. Another thing that compounded problems was that by not being a junior college, tougher recruiting restrictions are in place. A school can't take whomever they want, Haun said, because the student-athlete has to actually graduate and get good grades. Being in the conference Dixie State is in, it can only offer 24 athletic scholarships as well.

"It was a tough transition for us," Haun said. "People don't understand what went into it. Being a D-II program is unique. It's for a scholar-athlete that wants the total experience in school. But we're seeing improvement, and there's more cohesion among the kids now that they've been growing up with each other."

Things are looking up in St. George, thanks to Haun's first real recruiting season at Dixie. After winning just one game in its inaugural season as a four-year school, Dixie State tripled that win total last season.

With 15 of 22 starters back, Haun (4-18, third year) hopes to continue that progress this season with a team that's loaded with talent from all over the Beehive State.

Among the players that are returning are Pine View product Skyler Ence, who last year had a 50 percent completion rate (133-for-266) and threw for 1,395 yards and seven touchdowns.

The 6-foot-1, 225-pound, St. George native will switch to tight end this season now that the Rebels have an athlete that was actually recruited at quarterback.

"He's a good athlete, and he's basically what we had at the quarterback position last year," Haun said. "He's too good to keep off the field at any position."

Nate Lewis, a 6-5, 220-pound senior, will be under center this year.

Haun listed a number of local players fans should look out for, including some freshmen from around the state that he said will earn ample playing time.

Former Hunter running back Tauni Vakapuna, the younger brother of BYU's Fui, will see lots of playing time in the Dixie backfield. Vakapuna recently returned from an LDS mission and last played in 2004 when he gained 107 yards on nine rushes.

Haun also listed Nash Fowler (WR, Timpanogos), Braeden Gates (G, Davis), Colby Budge (G, Ogden), Zack Manning (K/P, Morgan), Ammon Schwab (K/P, Bountiful), Teddy Owens (LB, Pleasant Grove), Wayne Alofipo (DL, West), Kevin Wilks (DL, Hillcrest) and Micah Harwood (OLB, Dixie) as local players to watch.

DB/WR Vaughn Greening from Pleasant Grove is the only one of the freshmen Haun says will start. Others include Timpview LB Dominique Moe, Timpanogos WR Grant Jimenez, Jordan DB Darren Carter, Pine View OL Tyler Warhurst and Layton OL Tyler Christensen.

Haun said he's comfortable with his young group of Rebels and he feels this could be a breakout season if the cards are played right.

"We have good character and leadership," Haun said. " Our expectations are high. We want to get Dixie back to where it belongs, and we start that with a winning year. If we stay healthy, buy into the system and play smart, we can compete with anyone. We've got six tough games and Weber State on our schedule, but we've got something to prove."


E-mail: nnewman@desnews.com