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Photo courtesy South Sevier
Trevor Jones, South Sevier
I think the region will be as competitive as it was last year, with San Juan being a lot better. —Beaver coach Steve Hutchings

Every football program aspires to winning championships, but in Blanding it’s become an expectation. That’s why last season was such a disappointment.

The players and coaches knew their ultimate goal wasn’t realistic.

From 2008 to 2012, San Juan’s football team only lost four total games — twice in the semifinals and once in the state championship. Last year, however, the Broncos lost five games and bowed out of the playoffs in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007.

It also marked the end of five straight region championships, but don’t expect the drought to last long. In the Deseret News preseason coaches poll San Juan was pegged as the 2A South favorite, followed by last year’s champ, Beaver.

“I think the region will be as competitive as it was last year, with San Juan being a lot better,” said Beaver coach Steve Hutchings.

San Juan isn’t the only team that could take a step forward. Enterprise, South Sevier, Parowan and North Sevier all return a bunch of starters as they look to challenge some of the upper-echelon teams in the region.

Beaver and Grand, meanwhile, both enter the season with plenty of uncertainty after graduating numerous key contributors from last year’s semifinal and runner-up teams, respectively.

“We’ll be real young. If we started three seniors I’d be surprised. We’ll be very young this year,” said Hutchings. “I still think we’ll compete in our region for sure. Now if we go up against the top guys in 2A, we’ll see.”

That’s not a unique uncertainty to just Beaver either. Southern schools San Juan, Beaver and Grand all lost to eventual 2A state champ South Summit in consecutive weeks in last year’s playoffs.

San Juan coach Monty Lee is optimistic that the return of a healthy Bronz Eldredge can shift the balance of power in 2A back South. Eldredge went down with a dislocated shoulder in Week 2 last year and San Juan’s hopes vanished without him.

“In 2A, you don’t have the luxury of two or three deep in a spot. In 2A, if you lose a horse like Bronz, that can be devastating,” said Lee, who’s entering his 12th season as head coach. “We’ve lost kids before and we’ve been able to pick up the pieces, but last year was one of those nails that is driven into the coffin. We never recovered.”

With Eldredge back at linebacker, San Juan hopes to replicate some of its dominant defenses from a few years back.

During San Juan’s perfect 12-0 season in 2010, the Broncos only allowed 3.3 ppg. Even though it came short of its ultimate goal in 2011 and 2012, the defense still dominated, only allowing 8.3 ppg and 5.9 ppg, respectively.

Last year that scoring defense ballooned to 18.7 ppg.

South Sevier could be the sleeper team in 2A South this season. It beat Millard in the first round last year and then gave Grand a big scare in the quarterfinals, losing 27-20.

With seven offensive starters and six defensive starters back, coach Weston Zabriskie is beaming with confidence.

“Team found identity toward end of last year and expectations and excitement has grown into offseason workouts. If we can find the right combination of linemen to go with skill players we should have a very good year,” said Zabriskie.

There’s similar optimism in Parowan under third-year coach Brigham Nielson. The Rams went 1-8 in Nielsen’s first season but improved to 6-5 last season. There’s no shortage of optimism in 2014.

“I definitely think it should be our best year. This is the second year in a row they’ve had the same offense and same defense and I think that’s going to be one of our biggest helps,” said Nielsen. “They’ve hit the weight room harder than they ever have.”

Deseret News projections for 2A South football teams in 2014

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)

1. SAN JUAN: Whether it’s realistic or not, the goal of this year’s defense is to get back to suffocating opponents. A healthy Bronz Eldredge at linebacker will certainly help. Trason Jack returns at linebacker after finishing second on the team in tackles a year ago. The secondary will be strong with Brittain Bowring, Jordan Blake, Palmer Palmer and DiQuan Lopez. Just like with the offense, though, the trenches are where the question marks are with this defense. The offense will lean heavily on Max Morley, the second-leading rusher last season with 472 yards. Palmer takes over at QB, and three of the four players who caught double-digit passes are back too — Grant Laws, Morley and Lopez. 2013 RECORD: 6-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to South Summit in quarterfinals.

2. BEAVER: A year after advancing to the 2A semifinals, only three starters return for the Beavers, but coach Steve Hutchings doesn’t want to call it a rebuilding year. He’s confident he’s helped build a program that can reload instead of rebuild. The one area Beaver does have returning experience is on the offensive line with Landon Burke, Payton Radon and Gideon White. The only other returning starter is Brennan Hutchings at running back. Success in the wing-T offense is always predicated on a quality fullback, and Tyson Fotheringham and Braxton Wilson should get the bulk of the carries. Mathew Roberts takes over at quarterback. 2013 RECORD: 9-2. PLAYOFFS: Lost to South Summit 14-7 in semifinals.

3. GRAND: Definitely graduated some important players from last year’s runner-up team, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Brandon Secrest and Josh Harris are returning starters on the offensive and defensive line, which should help new QB Dalton McElhaney and RB Ronnie Dolphin settle in quickly with their expanded roles. WR Koby Sobremesana and TE Tanner White combined for 22 catches and 428 yards last season, but that production could go way up. Defensively, Grand was very good last year before getting smoked by South Summit in the title game. Dolphin and White are back at linebacker and are hungry to make amends. 2013 RECORD: 10-2. PLAYOFFS: Lost to South Summit 42-8 in championship.

4. ENTERPRISE: The Wolves gave up 56 points in a first-round loss to Gunnison last year, and that’s a big area of focus this season. Jesse Williams returns at linebacker after finishing second on the team with 52 tackles a year ago. Kelton Hunt will take on a larger defensive role at linebacker as well after carrying the offensive load last season. The running back carried the ball 216 times for 1,371 yards and 22 TDs in 2013. Michael Dougherty is another important returning starter in the backfield. Rickey Ramos is a do-everything guy for the ‘Wolves, a starter at receiver and cornerback as well as placekicker. 2013 RECORD: 5-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Gunnison 56-24 in first round.

5. SOUTH SEVIER: With seven starters back on offense and six on defense, this could finally be the year the Rams crack the 2A South top three. It starts with Trevor Jones, who will be a thee-year starter at QB and four-year starter in the secondary. Last year he passed for 1,498 yards and 15 TDs. Tight end Brock Bastian accounted for 598 yards of those yards, and he’s back again this year. So is leading rusher Avery Healey, who racked up 666 yards in 2013. The biggest question offensively is on the line with Garrett Peterson the only returning starter. Defensively, Healey and Bastian return at linebacker after finishing third and fourth in tackles a year ago. 2013 RECORD: 4-7. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Grand 27-20 in quarterfinals.

6. PAROWAN: With newcomers at QB and RB, it’s up to an experienced offensive line to lead the Rams. Josh Ulrich, Nik Bentley and Graysen Yardley are all returning starters in the trenches and have all bought into the new weightlifting program this summer. Orlando Quezada is moving to offensive line as well. Brenen Rowley takes over at QB, while Nash Bentley, Kade Lister and Rhett DeGroff will share time at running back. In its five losses last year, Parowan was outscored 170-24. The defense needs to be infinitely better for it to contend for a home playoff game this season. Coach Brigham Nielsen believes an improved, stronger defensive front will help close that gap. 2013 RECORD: 6-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Beaver 36-10 in quarterfinals.

7. NORTH SEVIER: The Wolves didn’t win a game under first-year head coach Chuck Woodhouse last season, but they should be much more competitive a year later. Fisher Andersen will be a three-year starter at QB, even though he missed the final four games last year with an injury. All five of his offensive linemen return as well, which should pay huge dividends. Collin Rasmussen returns after leading the team in receiving yards last season, while Isaiah Sivels and Preston Snyder will add even more depth to the receiving corps. Snyder along with Marshall Roundy will help anchor a linebacking corps that must be better for North Sevier to compete. 2013 RECORD: 0-9. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.