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Daniel Nugent (Westlake)

Region 7 football teams are excited. Not jacked up like Christmas morning or giddy enough to frolic aimlessly through the wilderness, igniting snakes and sparklers.

But pretty darned close.

When the regions were announced for realignment in 2011, Region 7 stood out like a sore thumb — weaker than scarcely brewed tea.

The 2011 season, to critics' surprise, proved to be a stronger brew than anticipated.

Every team that qualified for the 4A postseason was successful in its opening-round playoff game. Herriman won its play-in game before ultimately being offered as sacrificial lambs to the eventual state champion, Logan.

Skyline was 1 yard away from potentially tying 4A runner-up East, but was stoned four straight downs, while Olympus — the undefeated region champion — moved past Box Elder in the first round before losing to Bountiful in the quarterfinals.

Westlake, on the other hand, entered the playoffs with a losing record, then upset Mountain Crest and nearly beat Timpview in the quarterfinals.

For a region that was deemed the joke of the 4A classification, 2011 was a great success. Now, the region is looking to continue to build momentum and become one of the premier regions in the state.

"I think the region is better than most people give credit to it. I know a lot of people think our region was one of the weaker ones last year," second-year Hillcrest coach Casey Miller said. "Skyline is a really good football team; I think they should have beat East last year. They were on the 1-yard line. They could have played in the state championship last year. I feel like our region has four really, really good teams and two of us that are pushing."

The Mustangs are the overwhelming favorite to capture the league crown this season and perhaps contend for a deep postseason run.

"Top to bottom (Herriman) is going to be the team to beat," said Olympus coach Aaron Whitehead. "For a fairly new school, they've got the kids, the coaching and the community support. I think Herriman is going to be in the mix for a state championship.

"Larry Wilson is a tremendous coach. He's got the experience at the college level (and) playing for a state title at Highland," Whitehead continued. "He's got a bevy of coaches — Coach (Ron) Halbert calling the D, that guy's a stud. Coach (Dustin) Pierce, the former Hunter coach, is out helping them. Danny Dupaix is a great coach, Paul Putnam is a great coach. It's like the dream team of staffs. In terms of high school coaches, you talk about the Larry Walls and the Roger Dupaixs — Larry Wilson's name should be added."

Skyline, soaked in winning tradition, is experiencing a slight change with the retirement of the venerable Dupaix, but Steve Marlowe — an assistant with the Eagles for 27 years — is more than capable of adding to the illustrious history of the program.

"Skyline is No. 2 in my opinion. There is so much tradition. I don't think there's another high school in Utah that has more football tradition in recent years than Skyline," Whitehead said. "You take a look top to bottom what Coach Dupaix has built there — that wins close games.

"Coach Marlowe is a tremendous coach, I don't see them taking a step backwards; they're going to take a step forward.

"I think it's going to come down to Skyline and Herriman," Whitehead added. "I wouldn't be surprised if Skyline wins the region. I wouldn't be surprised if Herriman wins the region."

Olympus, rebuilding after losing a lot players to graduation, and Westlake, adapting to a new coaching staff, are contending for the league's third and fourth seeds.

"I'm never seen a better 3-7 team in my entire life," Miller said of Westlake. "Their first win last year was against us in Week 7. I'm looking on the film and saying, 'How are these guys 0-6? There's no freaking way.' They're big and fast."

Hillcrest, which showed signs of improvement in 2011, and Murray — rejuvenated with a new coaching staff — are still on the outside looking in.

"I know us and Murray are the two at the bottom. Everyone else in the region knows it. Everyone knows that we're pushing uphill towards those other schools," Miller said. "We're not there yet, but (we've) got to try to break into that top four."

Region 7 projections

(Preseason rankings based on coaches' votes)

1. HERRIMAN: The Mustangs are making a name for themselves, quickly becoming a hot commodity. In Year 3, Herriman has the potential to legitimately contend in the 4A ranks with 14 returning starters, eight of which reside on the defensive side. Quarterback Tueni Lupeamanu returns after passing for 1,609 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior. His interception total should decline after progressing in his development in the offseason. Francis Bernard, a first team all-state selection after scampering for 1,547 yards and 22 scores, joins Lupeamanu in the backfield. 2011 record: 8-4 PLAYOFFS: Lost to Logan, 56-22, in the first round.

2. SKYLINE: Under first-year head coach Steve Marlowe, the Eagles will still run the option, but with the ability and willingness to attack through the air. The diversity quarterback Tyler Snyder and BYU signee Garrett England provide will help Skyline immensely. Many feel that the Eagles are positioned to surprise teams in the playoffs by flying so far under the radar. However, the lack of attention will quickly fade if Skyline can find success with the hardest schedule in 4A. 2011 record: 7-4 PLAYOFFS: Lost to East, 20-13, in the quarterfinals.

3. OLYMPUS: The Titans found success in their inaugural year in Region 7. It'll be difficult to find the same remedy this season after losing literally every contributor to graduation. The region championship still goes through Olympus, but if they are to find any success, the unsettled quarterback situation needs to be addressed. Having five signal-callers gunning for the starting position only spells disaster. 2011 record: 9-2 PLAYOFFS: Lost to Bountiful, 34-14, in the quarterfinals.

4. WESTLAKE: The Thunder certainly grew into their own shoes towards the end of the season, nearly upending Timpview, but ultimately falling in the waning seconds in the quarterfinals. Westlake, similar to many teams throughout the preseason, is untested with a great deal of inexperience. For the Thunder to build off of last season's end-of-the-year successes, they'll rely heavily on their defense as the offense acclimates to the varsity game. 2011 record: 4-7 PLAYOFFS: Lost to Timpview, 24-17, in the quarterfinals.

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5. HILLCREST: The new-look Huskies will be more competitive after making compelling strides in 2011. It's still a rebuilding process with nine sophomores expected to start on both sides of the ball. It's hard to compete with such youthful numbers, but it should greatly benefit the program in the coming years. No longer can the Huskies be written off simply as a bye week. 2011 record: 3-7 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.

6. MURRAY: The Spartans still have a lot of work to do under first-year coach Mike Richmond. The enthusiasm, on the other hand, isn't lacking. Participation has increased and the community is itching for signs of success after struggles have plagued the program for over a decade. Derick Sanders, a four-year starter on defense, could be a special prospect for the Spartans. As a junior, he tallied 125 tackles and led the team in rushing. 2011 record: 1-9 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify

Email: tphibbs@desnews.com