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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Spanish Fork/Desert Hills during the 3A semi final game in Salt Lake City Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012.
I believe the coaching in Southern Utah is as good as anywhere in Utah. —Desert Hills second-year coach Carl Franke

SATURDAY: 3AA North Preview

For seven straight years from 2004 to 2010, a Region 9 football team advanced to the state championship game each season. But year after year they’d come up short as the region drew comparisons to the lame duck Buffalo Bills, who lost four straight Super Bowls in the ‘90s.

The past two years, however, Southern Utah teams finally solved their Rice-Eccles Stadium hex with Hurricane prevailing in 2011 and Dixie in 2012.

Heading into the 2013 season, it’s almost a given that a Southern Utah school will advance to the state championship game in the diluted 14-team 3AA classification, and nobody would be surprised to see them triumph again.

Desert Hills second-year coach Carl Franke believes coaching is a big reason why year in and year out the Southern Utah schools are so good.

“I believe the coaching in Southern Utah is as good as anywhere in Utah,” said Franke, who referenced the coaching legacies at Dixie, Pine View, Cedar and Hurricane.

Dixie coach Blaine Monkres has coached around the state for 23 years, with his teams winning 65 percent of the time. Hurricane’s Chris Homer has been coaching for 11 years with a similar 65 percent clip. Ray Hosner is entering his 13th year as head coach at Pine View with a 73 percent winning percentage. And Cedar’s Todd Peacock has been a head coach for 26 years, and his teams win 55 percent of the time.

All four of those coaches, along with Franke, first-year Snow Canyon coach Marcus Matua and the region’s newcomer, Payson coach Jeremy Chapman, face difficult tasks this season.

“Our new region seems to be stacked from top to bottom and it will be really tough to compete in Region 9 this season,” said Homer.

Every team from top to bottom in the new 3AA South has legitimate question marks, with each seemingly capable of finishing in the top three or bottom three.

That hasn’t been the case recently. Over the past four years everyone knew Hurricane was an elite team heading into the season, and prior to that from 2004 to 2007, Pine View was always the top dog.

There’s no clear-cut front-runner this year.

Desert Hills received the majority of the coaches votes in preseason polling, which was no doubt based on the return of all five offensive linemen and junior running back Bridger Cowdin, who Franke calls the best in Southern Utah.

“Bridger’s going to have to carry quite a big load this year as a junior,” said Franke, whose team boasts a stellar defense as well.

Desert Hills, however, will be starting a sophomore at QB, which always presents some challenges.

Defending 3A champion Dixie faces a similar predicament. With the graduation of 3A MVP Blake Barney, Monkres is wavering between naming junior Ammon Takau or sophomore Jaden Harrison his starting QB.

“We’re going to have a new quarterback that’s coming in, and we’re not going to be able to rely as heavily on him early in the year, so the rest of the guys are going to have to step up their game,” said Monkres.

All four Dixie receivers are back from last year though, which is a tremendous luxury for a spread team.

Hurricane, meanwhile, is certainly capable of earning at least a share of its fifth-straight region title. However, with only a handful of returning starters there’s uncertainty surrounding the program that’s been lacking for years.

“It’s an interesting year, plus we’re going to be young, and maybe that’s a good thing starting fresh and young. We definitely feel like we’re in a rebuilding phase. If we can find a few linemen we feel like we’re going to be good again,” said Homer.

Pine View and Snow Canyon tied for fourth last season, but expectations are very high for the Panthers with a healthy Kody Wilstead at QB and highly recruited linebacker Thor Katoa leading the defense.

Snow Canyon only returns a handful of starters, but a new coaching staff has injected life into a program that expects to be more competitive.

Cedar also expects to be more competitive. After posting a 1-8 record a year ago, Peacock said his team is bigger, stronger and faster this season — even though it will be young with only a handful of contributing seniors.

Cedar is one year removed from a 3A semifinal appearance, and every coach in Southern Utah knows never to overlook a Peacock-coached team.

Payson is the newcomer to the Southern Utah region, but coach Chapman is embracing the difficult task ahead for his experienced team that returns seven defensive starters and six offensive starters.

“I think of all the teams I’ve coached, this is the team I’d want to face that challenge. We have a lot of kids who are tough and competitive. We have a lot of athletes,” said Chapman.

Deseret News projections for 3AA South football teams in 2013

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)

1. DESERT HILLS: With the graduation of Ty Rutledge at QB, the Thunder are handing the starting QB job to Nick Warmsley, who was plenty of experience around him to be successful. Among the returners is junior running back Bridger Cowdin, who rushed for 954 yards and eight TDs last season. All five offensive linemen are also returning: Brock Doman, Gabriel Sewell, Chipper Whatcott, Lausii Sewell and Justice Alo. Defensively, the Thunder will continue to play a very physical style defense in hopes of wearing teams out over the course of four quarters. Sil Bundy anchors that group at linebacker, while Tucker Cowdin and Sewell will also start at linebacker. Desert Hills is excited to have Jacob Wagner back on the D-line after he missed last season with a torn ACL. 2012 RECORD: 8-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Spanish Fork in semifinals.

2. DIXIE: The Flyers finished third in Region 9 last year, but put an impressive playoff run together to win the state title. 3A MVP Blake Barney is gone, and the starting QB reigns will either go to junior Ammon Takau or sophomore Jaden Harrison. Gavin Graff is the lone returning starter on the offensive line, but Lukas Hildebrandt, Drew Batchelor, Tanner Webster and Andy Appel are all returning starters at receiver. Defensively, linebacker Taylor Strehlow is back after finishing third on the team in tackles, while defensive end Braxton Ipson is also returning. The secondary features several returning starters, which coach Blaine Monkres believes could be a big strength. 2012 RECORD: 11-2. PLAYOFFS: Beat Spanish Fork in championship.

3. HURRICANE: For the first time in a while, Hurricane heads into a season with a lot of varsity holes to fill. A lot of underclassmen will likely have to fill those voids, but coach Chris Homer believes his team is talented enough to compete for a fifth-straight region title. With just one returning starter on the offensive line, Jordan Ence, and a tough preseason schedule with three straight road games, Hurricane’s offense has a bit of a learning curve. The only player with much offensive experience is Adlai Elison, who started the last three games at QB. Big things are expected of junior Jeremiah Ieremia at fullback and linebacker. He's someone who may ultimately draw Brian Scott comparisons down South. 2012 RECORD: 9-2. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Juan Diego in quarterfinals.

4. PINE VIEW: There are major voids to fill after the graduation of a 2,100-yard rusher and four offensive linemen, but Pine View is excited about moving forward with a healthy QB. Junior Kody Wilstead missed 4 1/2 games with injury last year, but still threw for 1,120 yards and 13 TDs. He’s bulked up to 218 pounds, and he’s arguably one of the best in Class 3AA. Question marks at O-line could impact his productivity as Germo Fierro is the lone offensive line starter back. If the newcomers fill in well, Pano Tiatia could be in line for a fantastic season at running back. Defensively, Thor Katoa and Kaden Creager anchor what should be a stronger linebacking corps. 2012 RECORD: 7-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Spanish Fork in first round.

5. CEDAR: A year after winning just one game, Cedar is hoping for a quick bounce-back season with a handful of starters. Improved play at fullback could be the key. Dallin Grover and Dallin Brooks are talented fullbacks who will see increased carries this season. Jaren Forsyth returns on the offensive line, and is a strong defensive end as well. Heading into the season, Brecken Lewis and Austin Obering are in a battle for the starting QB spot. Defensively, Brecken Lewis is back at linebacker after a strong sophomore season. Collectively, Cedar will be a young team this season, but coach Todd Peacock believes the talent is certainly there to be competitive. 2012 RECORD: 1-8. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.

6. SNOW CANYON: A year after narrowly missing the 3A playoffs, Marcus Matua takes over as head coach for the Warriors. He inherits a program that’s missed the playoffs six straight seasons and desperately needs a boost. He doesn’t have a lot of varsity experience to work with this season, as the Warriors return just three starters on offense, including Bowman Loo and Keaton Plant on the offensive line. Defensively, Snow Canyon will lean heavily on senior linebacker Trevor Horlacher, who led the team in tackles a year ago with 109. 2012 RECORD: 6-4. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.

7. PAYSON: Payson faced two 3A teams that ultimately advanced to the 3A semifinals last season— Spanish Fork and Desert Hills. Those two teams scored 45 and 48 points, respectively. A product of those struggles was youth, but with seven returning starters the Lions hope that isn’t a problem in the new region. At the heart of the defense is junior linebacker John Harmon, who tallied 129 tackles last season. Offensively, Payson only averaged 19 ppg last year, but it returns six starters, including three O-linemen. Running back Phill Perez hopes to benefit from that O-line experience. The tailback is small, but he’s a playmaker if he’s given space. 2012 RECORD: 4-7. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Desert Hills in first round.

Follow Deseret News prep editor James Edward on Twitter @DNewsPreps