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Tom Smart, Deseret News
East High School and Olympus High School play in the 4A State High School football semi-final Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, in Salt Lake City.
You’ve got East and you’ve got Woods Cross, and they’re in the top two or three in preseason polls. And then you’ve got Highland, who’s just as tough, and Bountiful, and then you add Kearns is into the mix now with Clearfield and us. Those four teams on top are formidable. —Scott Wooldridge

Since the day Brandon Matich took over head coaching duties on the East High campus in 2010, the Leopards have drawn a lot of attention.

They have won 73 percent of their games. They have ended two seasons in the 4A championship game. They have included a Mr. Football on their roster.

In spite of not winning a state championship — or, perhaps in some cases, because they haven't won — Matich and the Leopards have turned a lot of heads. In terms of physicality and football talent, they have set a high bar for what it means to be a Region 6 champion.

Entering the 2014 season, that standard remains a target at which even the most talented teams are shooting, including those competing in the same league.

“Last year, playing East, we proved we could play with them in the first quarter, honestly, because we had the lead,” said Cyprus coach Scott Wooldridge, whose team scored the first two touchdowns before giving up 76 points.

“What it did for our kids was it proved that they can play,” he said, noting that many of the Cyprus players never leave the field during a game. “They can play with those teams.”

In addition to East, which is once again picked to finish at the top of the Region 6 standings, the league is stocked with talent from Highland, Woods Cross, Bountiful, Kearns, Cyprus and Clearfield.

“You’ve got East and you’ve got Woods Cross, and they’re in the top two or three in preseason polls,” Wooldridge said. “And then you’ve got Highland, who’s just as tough, and Bountiful, and then you add Kearns into the mix now with Clearfield and us. Those four teams on top are formidable.”

In 2013, every team beat the teams it was supposed to and lost to those it was predicted to lose to. The Leopards (6-0) were perfect while Woods Cross (5-1), Highland (4-2), and Bountiful (3-3) battled. This season, however, the teams that finished in the bottom of the standings in 2013 are looking to cause some upheaval.

“There’s teams that can play some football in our region. They’re big, they’re fast, they’re good,” said Kearns coach Matt Rickards. “The kids made a goal and they want to improve their record from last year. That would put us in the playoffs. We want to compete for a region championship, we want to be in that mix of those powerhouses that we have in our region.”

The Cougars return junior starting quarterback Bailey Floyd, as well as a multitude of young and fearless players on both sides of the ball.

In distinct contrast, the Pirates are looking to move up from sixth in the league standings with a great deal of experience. Senior tight end Dallas Garreaud will highlight an offense that contains seven returning starters and a defense that returns eight.

After graduating many key parts of the talent-heavy East team of last year, including Mr. Football Ula Tolutau, the Leopards are still expecting another long season.

“Our expectations as a team and as a program will always stay the same. Our kids know that,” said Matich. “And our expectations are to finish up there (at Rice-Eccles Stadium) despite who is playing.”

This year, however, there will be a little more youth on the field than in seasons past.

“The exciting thing about this team is there is so much youth that’s going to have an opportunity to step up and play,” Matich said. “The junior class is not very big numbers-wise, so the younger kids are going to have to step up.”

Meanwhile, the Rams and Wildcats are both heavier with defensive returners as the former retains six and the later retains nine.

The Falcons, who have not had a winning season since 2004, welcome a newcomer to the sidelines in head coach Andre Dyson. The Clearfield graduate was also a University of Utah and NFL standout, and his presence at the school has led to a flood of interest in the sport.

“We have a lot more kids than expected, over 100 kids, so that's been a pleasant surprise,” Dyson said. “That's encouraging and it's a good start.”

Larry Wall and his Bountiful Braves will be led by Air Force Academy-bound Houston Heimuli, a senior running back who averaged nearly 5 yards per carry last season.

“Every year I’ve contested that this is probably as tough a region as there is in the state in any classification. There’s not a lot of gimmes and every week you need to play for real,” Wall said. “I see us in that same boat, in the upper-to-middle part of the region, and I’m sure everybody else you talk to in our region will tell you the same thing about themselves. It’s very competitive and we had better be at our best.”

Deseret News projections for Region 6 football teams in 2014

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)

1. EAST: The Leopards are returning a young team, but one that continues to have great expectations. Returners with experience and strong leadership roles within the team include senior Hausia Sekona, a defensive end and offensive lineman; seniors Christian Folau, Sione Mafua and Johny Frederick, all offensive and defensive linemen; and senior Lorenzo Manu, who steps into the quarterback role full time. RECORD: 13-1. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Timpview in the 4A championship.

2. HIGHLAND: Once again, the Rams are all about getting ahead by working harder. John Hunter will move into the quarterback role, and coach Brody Benson said he has never had a kid work harder. He will have a number of players to work with, including running back Thomas Pembroke, wide receiver Alassane Niang and tight end Brandon Jones. Calvin Keyes and Talo Latu, a cornerback and a linebacker, respectively, are two of six returners who will anchor the defense. RECORD: 7-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Sky View in the 4A first round.

3. WOODS CROSS: The Wildcats are looking forward to all the possibilities that come with returning nine players on defense. Head coach Justin Spencer said that aspect of the game is where Woods Cross has its star power, led by two-way starter Braxton Gunther. The defensive back will be surrounded by defensive studs Deion Saumalu, Mason Newton, Tomasi Giles, Siale Mausia and Jared Clark. On offense, the Wildcats will initiate a new quarterback, senior Tanner Hammond, into a newer, faster, no-huddle offense. RECORD: 11-2. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Timpview in the 4A semifinals.

4. BOUNTIFUL: The Braves will return their focus to the run game this season, taking advantage of a strong offensive line and exceptional talent in senior running back Houston Heimuli. The O-line is made up of returning starters Ben Fowers, Brady Christensen, Brad Quick and Bruce Tufuaku. Bountiful returns just three starters on the defensive side. Highlights include tackles Lee Freestone and Brock Larsen, linebacker Brandon Bott, and defensive ends Collin Parrish and Mitch Halverson. RECORD: 5-6. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Logan in the 4A first round.

5. KEARNS: Youth is the name of the game for the fearless Cougars. The handful of seniors that will power the team are led by Sherwin Lavaka, a defensive back who will step into the offense for the first time as well. Junior Bailey Floyd is the new starting quarterback and junior Sione Finau will be flying all over the field. RECORD: 3-7. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.

6. CYPRUS: The Pirates are in a good position with experience to make great strides. The team returns seven players on offense, including all-purpose senior A.J. Semeatu and senior tight end Dallas Garreaud, who stands at 6 foot 5. Defensively, Cyprus returns eight starters, many of whom are major contributors on offense. Brandon Hatch will anchor both lines, P.J. Lui will play running back and middle linebacker, and Andres Orantes will play receiver and corner. RECORD: 3-7. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.

7. CLEARFIELD: The Falcons are looking forward to a new football season under their brand-new coach, Andre Dyson, a former Clearfield, University of Utah and NFL star. He is coming in with a new offense, a new defense, and a whole new set of expectations for the team that has not had a winning season since 2004. He said the first step is teaching his new players to believe in what they can accomplish. RECORD: 2-8. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.

Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.