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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Delta running back Hadley Myers.
It’s teams we ought to be able to compete with, but it’s going to be a tough, competitive game every week. —Manti coach Cole Meacham

THURSDAY: 3A North Preview

After a brief two-year hiatus, the rural 3A football region that everyone loved is back in hybrid form.

For Manti, Juab, Delta, North Sanpete and Richfield, the gang is back together — along with newcomer Canyon View. The five were lumped together in Region 12 back in 2009 and 2010, and the makeup of that region always received glowing endorsements from the coaches.

Back in 2009, former Delta coach Russ Henrie said: “I love our region. It’s fun to have Juab, Richfield and Manti in our region. That’s how it used to be for a lot of years, and we had great rivalries with these small-town schools. I look forward to getting these rivalries going again.”

New Delta coach Russ Fowles echoed that sentiment, but added that it’s nice not to have a “meat saw” like Juan Diego or Hurricane waiting in the playoffs. The 14 larger 3A schools are now in a larger classification of their own, something the smaller schools obviously love.

“It’s nice to be able to know you have a chance,” said Juab coach Mike Bowring.

Of the six smaller 3A schools who qualified for the 3A playoffs last year, only Morgan advanced past the quarterfinals. The year before only two of six smaller 3A teams made it out of the first round.

Now, however, the playing field is level and suddenly there are six to seven teams in the new 3A who are probably good enough to win a state title.

“From the smallest to the biggest in the whole 3A, I doubt there’s a 200-kid difference. It’s teams we ought to be able to compete with, but it’s going to be a tough, competitive game every week,” said Manti coach Cole Meacham, whose team won back-to-back 2A state titles in 2011 and 2012.

Before Manti or anybody else starts concerning themselves with winning a state title, securing the 3A South region title is the first goal — and very much up in the air.

Based on results from the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Delta would seem to be the front-runner, as it earned a share of the Region 12 title in 2009 and then won it outright in 2010. Last season, however, Delta lost to Manti and North Sanpete during the regular season, and the Rabbits have a lot of holes to fill because of graduation.

Based on experience, Manti is probably the slight favorite despite playing 2A football a year ago. It returns seven starters on offense and five on defense, and has plenty of returning talent in the trenches and at quarterback with Connor Aste.

“They’re used to wining; they expect to win; and we try and push it that we’re not going to lose. There’s times it’s going to happen, but we’re not going to live with it,” said Meacham.

North Sanpete could be the sleeper team in the region. Under first-year coach Matt Roberts last season, the Hawks beat Canyon View, Juab and Delta during the regular season. Even though only a handful of starters return, new coaches often find more success in the second year when the kids have a better understanding of the offense and defense.

Delta and Canyon View will each feature new head coaches in 2013.

After serving as Delta’s junior varsity coach the past several years, Russ Fowles takes over for Henrie as head coach. Meanwhile, Robbie Robinson is taking over the reins at Canyon View, and is optimistic his offensive philosophy can help turn the struggling program around.

Robinson likes to play an up-tempo brand of football, which he likens to playing basketball on the football field. Robinson, 61, has 37 years of head coaching experience and says the offense has worked wherever he’s coached.

Deseret News projections for 3A South football teams in 2013

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)

1. MANTI: Back in 3A, Manti has size and experience on the line to immediately compete for a region and state title. Keltn Pritchard, Dane Howe and Dylan Brown are all returning starters on the offensive line, while Jared Schiess is back as a blocking tight end. The quartet is great news to returning starting QB Connor Aste. Manti is a run-first team, but with a slew of new running backs this year, Aste’s experience throwing the ball should take some pressure off the runners early in the season. Defensively the Templars are sound in the trenches and at middle linebacker with TJ Pogroszewski, but they’ve got to find replacements at the critical outside linebacker positions. 2012 RECORD: 11-1. PLAYOFFS: Beat San Juan in 2A championship.

2. JUAB: A year after missing the playoffs, Juab is hoping for a quick bounce-back year. Nick Wolforth, Jake Hatfield and Riley Owens are all returning starters on the offensive line, which is a great starting point for the Wasps. Senior Jeff Rowley is back at quarterback after throwing for 2,117 yards and 23 TDs, but he’s getting competition from junior Nick Robins. Juab’s leading rusher from a year ago, Dalton Harmon, is also back after tallying seven TDs last year. Defensively, Dedric Davidson is the only full-time returning starter, and he’s a great one to have back after snagging six interceptions. 2012 RECORD: 5-5. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.

3. DELTA: Russ Fowles takes over as head coach, and he’s a Delta alum himself who understands the culture of Rabbit football. With only four returning starters, he’ll be counting on the kids he coached on the junior varsity level to make big contributions this year. Two of Delta’s key returning starters are RB/LBs Kale Leavitt and Riley Nielson. Morgan Bogue started at cornerback last year, but he’ll take on much larger role at running back in 2013. The lone starter back in the trenches is Saxon Day, someone the coaching staff is counting on to bring the younger kids along. 2012 RECORD: 3-8. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Hurricane in first round.

4. NORTH SANPETE: The Hawks graduated most of their starters from a year ago, but expectations are still high in coach Matt Roberts' second year as head coach. Junior Brady Wheeler returns at quarterback and will look to improve on his 574 passing yards and four TDs from a year ago. Seniors Ryan Milne and Colton Barkdull are returning starters on the offensive line, and should help bring some stability to the position. Barkdull and Joey Raymond will take on increased roles offensively. 2012 RECORD: 5-6. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Dixie in first round.

5. RICHFIELD: Externally, not much is expected of the Wildcats in 3A. Internally though, confidence is high. Richfield surrendered 20 ppg last year, but against tougher competition in 3A, that defense will need to be even better. Leading the way is defensive end Shay Morrison, who was tops at Richfield last year with 107 tackles. The secondary could be a strength as well with the return of Ryley Cunningham, a lock-down corner according to Morrison. Offensively, Spencer Henderson will start at quarterback, while Morgan Torgersen and Brody Ellis will be the primary ballcarriers. 2012 RECORD: 6-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to South Summit in 2A quarterfinals.

6. CANYON VIEW: Coach Robbie Robinson is changing the offense to an unbalanced dive attack, but Koy Huxford will remain the starting quarterback. The senior will be a three-year starter, and he’s really picked up the nuances of the offense. Sophomore Michael Musto will see plenty of time as well. Braxton Higgins started at corner last year defensively, and this year he’ll also start at running back and likely receive 20 to 25 carries per game. Brooks Rigtrup is a returning starter on the offensive line, while defensive lineman Brycen Bybee is one of the few returning starters on the defensive side of the ball. 2012 RECORD: 1-9. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.

Follow Deseret News prep editor James Edward on Twitter @DNewsPreps