As attention turns toward the 2A boys state soccer tournament, which kicks off with first-round matches Wednesday, there is one thing for certain: Manti is once again the team to beat.
After losing to Spanish Fork of 3A in their season-opener, the defending champion Templars closed the regular season on a 13-game winning streak. They have allowed just 10 goals on the season while averaging six goals per match and boast three of the top seven scorers in the state.
"I have to give all the credit to the strong youth programs bringing the kids up," head coach Gerald Wayman said of the surge of good soccer players in Sanpete County. "When they get to me, they are ready to play."
Juniors Alvaro Cardenas and Juan Frutos have each scored 22 goals so far this season, and senior Carlos Garcia has added another 18 to the Manti effort. The trio has combined for 62 of the squad's 85 goals on the season.
At the other end of the pitch, junior Emmanuel Vega, a returning all-state selection, has anchored the Manti defense for the second-straight year.
"They are all top-notch players," Wayman said of his team. "They are all very talented, all very capable of scoring."
The Templars' toughest 2A East region tests came against second-place Gunnison and third-place Wasatch Academy, which each lost by just a goal in one of their league matchups. The latter has the state's top scorer in Emrem Tanriover, who has totaled 32 goals and has been firing on all cylinders late in the season.
"I think they will shock someone going in as a No. 3," Wayman said of the Tigers, who will travel to play Summit Academy in the first round. "We just played them (Wasatch Academy) and they gave us all we could handle. They started the season a little rough but are finishing really strong."
The Templars will host Waterford in a first-round matchup, a team they have not seen this season but still know something about.
"The private school teams up north play a little different style than we do," Wayman said. "It forces both of us to play a different style, and we'll see which one wins out."
Manti defeated St. Joseph 3-2 in the championship game a year ago and, with the Jayhawks winning the 2A Central title, the two could potentially meet in the semifinals this year.
"I hope we both get there," Wayman said, "but it's going to be a dang good tournament."
St. Joseph will host Grand County in a first-round game. The Red Devils (7-7-0) are led by the scoring of sophomore Koby Sobremesana.
Oakley (9-3-0) and Layton Christian (8-2-2) top the 2A North standings, while American Leadership (13-1-0) and Merit Academy (8-2-1) are the 2A West leaders.
"The top teams in each region have a great shot," Wayman said. "The tournament is going to be better this year than last because there are more teams with the potential to win it."
Tournament play begins Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the homes of the higher-seeded teams.