I told the kids that we might have some adversity. To win here means a lot to us and our community. We tried to just focus on football. —East assistant coach Larry Eldracher
HERRIMAN — East High passed a stern test Saturday afternoon on its rocky road to what it hopes will be a 4A football championship.
The Leopards, Utah's top-ranked 4A team, went up against Region 7's best ballclub, Herriman, and silenced the Mustangs' vibrant crowd with a 27-16 victory in the first round of the state playoffs.
Ula Pututau rushed for 177 yards, quarterback Isaac Valles had 130 more and speedster Preston Curtis returned a kickoff 94 yards for a score as East advanced to play at Box Elder in the 4A quarterfinals next week.
The victory improved East's record to 10-1, although officially the Leopards are 4-7 after being found guilty of using ineligible players at various times during the season. East was forced to forfeit six of those wins, but the players were given a chance to make up for the near-devastating indiscretion by being awarded Region 6's fourth seed.
"It has been an interesting, well, it seems like a month," said Larry Eldracher, an East assistant coach who was put in charge after head coach Brandon Matich was suspended for three games. "We controlled the line of scrimmage. If we gave a game ball, it would go to our lines."
The Leopards forced Herriman out of its game plan early. The Mustangs rushed for just 19 yards and gave up on their running attack in the first half. When that happened, quarterback Tueni Lupeamanu became a one-man show. The talented, 6-foot-2, 242-pound senior was harassed all night, but still passed for a career-high 303 yards.
The majority of the near-capacity crowd loved it.
However, the Mustangs held the momentum for just a few seconds.
Curtis gave East a huge burst of energy when he returned his third kick for a score in the last 10 days and the Leopards piled it on from there. Zach Swenson caught a 61-yard touchdown pass from Valles a few minutes later, and Ula Tolutau added a 16-yard scoring run for a 20-8 halftime lead.
"That (kickoff) took some starch out of us, that's for sure," said Herriman coach Larry Wilson, whose team finished with an 8-3 record in just its third year. "They're a talented team. With them, you pick your poison."
The Mustangs hoped to rally, but East virtually put the game away on its third offensive play of the second half. After stopping Herriman with a three-and-out, Valles broke loose on a 68-yard touchdown run.
"Herriman gave us all that we could handle," said Eldracher. "I told the kids that we might have some adversity. To win here means a lot to us and our community. We tried to just focus on football."
The win also gave Region 6 a perfect record in its first-round matchups against Region 7 opponents.