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Ben Brewer, Deseret News
Football 3A Quarterfinal Football between Hurricane and Juan Diego, Friday, Nov. 2, 2012.
The region will be competitive and I hope we can get that first-round bye, but we will not be as dominant as past years and we could slip to third, fourth and maybe even fifth if things do not fall our way. —Juan Diego coach John Colosimo

In the three years since Juan Diego won its third-straight state championship in 2010, the balance of power in 3AA football has shifted to southern Utah.

No team from the current 3AA North region has advanced to the championship game the last three years, and only Juan Diego has advanced to the semifinals.

Is it a permanent shift, or can programs like Juan Diego, Bear River and Stansbury help level the playing field in 2014?

Stansbury coach Clint Christiansen, whose team has been eliminated in the quarterfinals the last three years by a St. George school, knows firsthand that closing the gap won’t be easy.

“I think they have a lot more depth than we do down there. We can’t afford injuries, and I think last year we ended up with eight starters out for the playoff game,” said Christiansen.

Besides depth within each team, depth within the region has been just as important as three straight state titles down south. Any team can beat anyone in 3AA South on a given night, which has played out the past two years with the No. 3 seed going on to win the state championship.

That’s not been the case in 3AA North in a long time.

After Juan Diego, Stansbury and Bear River, who all won seven or more games, there was a noticeable drop-off to Uintah, Tooele and Park City, who won just three games each. After that, the free fall continued to Ben Lomond, which has lost 20 straight.

To close the gap on the southern schools, collectively the entire 3AA North region needs to get better so every Friday night is a battle. Juan Diego won the region last year with a 38.6-point average margin of victory. Consistently resting starters in the second half is no way to prepare for grind-it-out games in the playoffs.

“At the end you don’t want to be going on cruise control. It makes it tough if you’re blowing teams out, 'cause in the first round you’re going to face the nightmare, and that’s why they have the advantage down there — every game has been so close,” said Christiansen.

Thanks to new coaches who’ve helped energize struggling programs the past couple of years, the competition in 3AA North from top to bottom should be much better.

While Juan Diego and Stansbury are still the projected top two teams, the race for the No. 3 seed that Bear River claimed last year is going to be a dogfight.

Tooele should be 1,000 percent better heading into the fourth season under coach Kyle Brady. Park City figures to be exponentially better as well after coach Mike Shepherd steered the program back on course during a frustrating 2013 season.

Uintah will also be in the hunt with eight returning starters on both sides of the ball in year three for coach Cody Reutzel.

Those three programs were competitive with each other last year, but they should be more competitive with the upper-tier teams this year also.

“In the past we didn’t play with those teams. In my first year it wasn’t even close,” said Reutzel. “Last year they beat us squarely, but we gave them a good fight. Now it’s time for, we don’t want to just give them a fight anymore, we want to come out of one of those games with a win.”

Juan Diego takes a lot of flack publicly for being allowed to recruit as a private school, but Brady and Bear River coach Chris Wise don’t want to talk negatively about the subject.

Wise believes it sends the wrong message to his players that they can’t compete.

Brady wants his players to embrace the challenge.

“Every year Juan Diego reloads, but they’ve set a standard and everybody else needs to reach that standard. It’s good for our kids to see that and see there’s something to reach for,” said Brady.

Juan Diego coach John Colosimo, however, said his depth is lower than it's been in a while and stressed that his kids can’t afford to take anything for granted.

“The region will be competitive and I hope we can get that first-round bye, but we will not be as dominant as past years and we could slip to third, fourth and maybe even fifth if things do not fall our way,” said Colosimo.

MONDAY: Region 8 Preview

Deseret News projections for 3AA North football teams in 2014

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)

1. JUAN DIEGO: The Soaring Eagle have won 11 straight region champions, and until someone knocks them off that perch coach John Colosimo’s team is again the favorite. The lone returning starters offensively are Andrew Markosian and Adam Murray on the O-line. Gabe Colosimo shifts from receiver to QB, and is capable of beating defenses with his arm or feet. Carter Campbell has backed up two good running backs the past two years, but the senior will get a chance to step out of that shadow. Fellow senior Kenzy Sanchez will also get plenty of carries this year. Markosian (DL), Campbell (LB) and Sanchez (CB) will all be counted on defensively as well. 2013 RECORD: 11-1. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Pine View 48-42 in semifinals.

2. STANSBURY: The potential is there for a huge season offensively. It starts on the offensive line with three returning starters, including Connor Littlefield and Bubba Peterson. Landon Stice is a blocking tight end who’s also back. All that experience in the trenches could help speedsters Zayne Anderson and Hudson Conrad flourish at wing back. QB Gage Manzione returns after starting seven games last season. Defensively, coach Clint Christiansen is switching to a 3-4 defense because of a glut of linebackers and a lack of size up front. The LB corps will be strong with Manzione, Stice, Connor Littlefield and freshman McCoy Diderickson. 2013 RECORD: 7-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Desert Hills 31-14 in quarterfinals.

3. TOOELE: Was decent defensively in some games last season, but three glaring outliers against Bear River (62 points), Juan Diego (49) and Snow Canyon (38) are proof of just how much this team needs to improve. With eight returning starters, an extra year of lifting could make all the difference. While Maka Kioa, Lawson Ross and Nate Reynolds are back on the defensive line, Nick Schwartzman returns at linebacker. Zac Cruz is also back at linebacker after missing about half of the 2013 season to injury. Senior Jake Brady will start at quarterback for the second-straight year, and his younger brother Ryan Brady takes over at fullback. Big things are expected from both behind an experienced offensive line with three starters and a tight end returning. 2013 RECORD: 3-7. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Snow Canyon 38-9 in first round.

4. BEAR RIVER: Coach Chris Wise is a former offensive lineman, and he’s excited about this year’s corps despite Carson Gibbs being the only returning starter. Newcomers Hayden Hammons and Ben Navejas are a big reason why. Last year Colton Jensen was second in 3AA with 1,126 receiving yards, but this year Bridger Beus will be counted on for big-play ability in the passing game. Beus had 16 catches for 447 yards and three TDs. Walker Riley takes over at quarterback, and he’s a patient QB who doesn’t like to scramble. The biggest priority this summer has been getting better defensively under new defensive coordinator Paul Lish, who will lean heavily on McKade Mitton, Gibbs and Curtis Wronkowski at linebacker. 2013 RECORD: 7-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Hurricane 38-26 in first round.

5. PARK CITY: A very young Park City team took its lumps last year, but it could pay dividends this year as QB Ian Moritz and running backs Grayson Maddux and Josh Pelegrin all return. Perhaps the biggest boost will come from sophomore Jonas Loyens, who coach Mike Shepherd believes has big-time potential to be an all-state caliber running back over the next three years. Bjorn Bornes is a move-in from Montana who will strengthen the wide receiver corps and secondary. Defensively vast improvements need to be made after giving up 62, 42 and 52 points in the final three regular-season games last year. Part of that responsibility will fall on defensive lineman Parker Shea and sophomore Eli Alford. 2013 RECORD: 3-8. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Cedar 23-13 in first round.

6. UINTAH: The Utes didn’t graduate many starters from last year, but the ones that did were the core of the team. Among the holes are at QB and two spots on the O-line to slot in alongside Vaisa Maile, Trenton Atwood and Treygan Daniels. Tyson Colton is the primary RB heading into the season, but Trevor Lofthouse has emerged this summer as someone who needs carries too. Defensively, Caden Henderson will anchor the linebacking corps, but the strength could be the secondary with Brendon Ryan, Hayden Bunderson, Jurey Beddes and Patrick Massey all returning. The lasting image the Utes have of the 2013 season was giving up 40 points to Desert Hills in the playoffs, something that’s motivated them all offseason. 2013 RECORD: 3-7. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Desert Hills 40-7 in first round.

7. BEN LOMOND: For the fifth-straight year Ben Lomond begins the season with a new head coach, but despite that, coach Eric Alder says the buy-in from the players has been great as he tries to change the losing culture. Returning seven defensive starters and six offensive starters is a good foundation to start with. Rigo Vasquez will start at quarterback, and he has two experienced receivers to throw to with Ambrosio Ramirez and Julian Gomez. Mario Anderson is the primary running back. Defensively, the Scots will lean on linebacker Israel Garcia, defensive linemen Jaime Castillo and River Phillips, and defensive backs Ramirez and Gomez. 2013 RECORD: 0-10. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.

Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer.