SALT LAKE CITY — The high school boys soccer season kicked off a week ago for the vast majority of teams and will commence in full this week as squads across the state set out on another campaign.
Defending champions Pleasant Grove, Alta, Desert Hills, Judge Memorial and Waterford number among the title favorites, though championship contenders are aplenty.
For each state champion, all of whom have sat atop their respective classifications in the Deseret News rankings, either in the preseason or following Week One, there are three or four additional title contenders.
Well, save for in the 3A and 2A ranks, where the Bulldogs and Ravens face fewer challengers then their counterparts in the larger classes.
The wealth of depth across nearly every classification, however, promises a compelling 2018-19 season.
Here’s a closer look at each classification heading into the season.
A week into this 2018-19 season, the Pleasant Grove Vikings stand in the exact position they occupied at the close of the last — that is, ranked No. 1 among all 6A teams.
The Vikings opened the season with wins over Orem — the top-ranked team in 4A in the preseason — and Herriman, in a rematch of last year’s title bout.
The hot start and lofty ranking shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Pleasant Grove was an up-and-coming group a season ago when it upset then-top-ranked Herriman.
This year, the Vikings are an established winner, champions who brought back last year’s 6A MVP in Carson Ecalono, as well as Tyler Ashby, Cameron Pennock and Chris Jenkinson, all of whom were named first team All-State.
No returner is more important to the Vikings’ hopes of another title run than Ecalono, who was the catalyst for much of the team’s success a season ago.
“Our front line was the catalyst to our title run and that was mainly Carson,” Pleasant Grove head coach Chris Ecalono said. “We had 42 goals (last) season, he had to do with 27 of them. It wasn’t coincidence that we hit our stride when he got healthy. He was our leading goal scorer. He was our set piece taker. He had the ability to make plays that no one else could.”
If there is a team that can knock off the Vikings it’ll be the Layton Lancers.
State champions in 2016-17, the Lancers were Region 1 champs a year ago, but fell short in the first round of the state tournament.
Off to a quick 2-0 start and No. 2 ranking, however, expectations are much higher this season.
“We are bringing back several members from last year’s team who are hungry to make it deep into the playoffs,” Layton head coach Rick Talamantez said.
Ranked third in the classification are the Herriman Mustangs, state runners-up in each of the last two seasons.
The Mustangs have started the year 1-1, their lone loss coming to the Vikings.
Herriman lost a great deal of talent from a season ago, including the Deseret News’ Mr. Soccer Carter Johnson and goalkeeper JD Myers, but return first team all-stater Chandler McQueen and Dallas May, who was named honorable mention.
Rounding out the current top five in the classification are the Westlake Thunder (1-0) and Riverton Silverwolves (1-0), who, along with the Bingham Miners and Granger Lancers, expect to contend.
“This will be another competitive season and our region continues to be the top in our area,” Bingham head coach Leo Gonzalez said. “Each team is strong enough to make it to the state tournament. We are looking forward to a challenging and exciting season.”
After pulling off back-to-back state title runs in 2016-17 and 2017-18, a first in program history, it came as little surprise that the Alta Hawks were the preseason favorite to win the 5A state title.
The lofty expectations were for good reason.
Despite the losses of 5A MVP Josh Affleck, not to mention three additional first team All-State players — as well as legendary head coach Lee Mitchell — the Hawks brought back goalkeeper Traven England (first team All-State), forwards Kenny Kocherscheidt (second team) and Christian Simmons (honorable mention), and midfielder Ethan Bell (second team).
After a week of soccer, the Hawks are no longer atop the classification, however.
That honor belongs to the Brighton Bengals.
The Bengals advanced as far as the semifinals a year ago and are off to a quick 2-0 start, with convincing wins over Lone Peak and Olympus.
The hot start has the Bengals ranked No. 3 in the state, regardless of classification, per TopDrawerSoccer.
Brighton lost a great deal of talent from last year’s team — “We graduated 12 players,” head coach Brett Rosen said — but the return of Alex Fankhauser (first team All-State), Harrison Nuttall (first team All-State), Brennan Neeley (honorable mention) and Walker Schwendiman have the Bengals primed for championship contention if things come together.
“We will need to find some chemistry with a new group if we are going to compete,” said Rosen.
Ranked second in the classification are the Skyline Eagles.
The Eagles (2-0-1) kicked off their season with the St. George Tournament, where they defeated Woods Cross and Fremont before drawing with Mountain Crest.
The Hawks, meanwhile, come in at No. 3 following a week of play, a week that saw Alta (1-1-1) defeat Snow Canyon, lose to the defending 4A state champions Desert Hills Thunder and subsequently draw with Dixie.
Rounding out the current top five, all of which are legitimate title contenders, are the Olympus Titans (1-1) and the Provo Bulldogs (1-0-1).
Olympus returns a great deal of experience from a season ago, including Din Huremovic, Adam Naylor, Josh Gubler, Ian Jones, Jake Lewis and Hayden Earl, all of whom give the Titans hope for another state tournament-worthy campaign.
“We have experience and some depth,” Olympus head coach Chris Sonntag said. “It all depends on how we come together and play unselfish soccer.”
Other challengers in a deep 5A classification include, among others, Viewmont (0-0-2) — “We have some good returning talent. We will work hard at getting better each day to get better and gel as a team,” head coach Spencer Keddington said — East (0-1), West (0-0-1) and an up-and-coming Corner Canyon (1-0).
“We have deep team with quality players,” said Chargers head coach Drew Van Wagenen. “The key for us will be getting organized and coming together as a unified team.”
Heading into the season, no classification seemed more wide open, no state title more up for grabs than that of 4A.
The defending champion Desert Hills Thunder weren’t even ranked among the top-five teams by the coaches, who instead labeled the Orem Tigers as the most likely to hoist the championship trophy at the end of the season.
After a week headlined by the St. George Tournament, that is no longer the case.
Thanks to a 3-0 start that included a 2-0 victory over Alta, the Thunder find themselves once again the top-ranked team in 4A.
Led in part by their two returning all-staters, Ben Simister (first team) and Preston Hodges (second team), as well as other returners in Sawyer Heaton and Will Schroder, the Thunder look the part of defending state champ.
“Last year we were fortunate to win the state title,” head coach Benji Nelson said. “We graduated six starters, and four of them were our back line. We have five returning starters and several players with a good amount of varsity playing time and playoff experience. We have a very young group of athletic and skilled players that will be ready to compete with any team.”
Orem was ranked No. 1 in the preseason for a reason, however, and the Tigers appear to be as big a threat as any to a Desert Hills repeat.
Despite an early loss to Pleasant Grove, which was followed by 3-3 draw against Hunter, Orem is 2-1-1 and primed for a strong campaign.
“We have a dedicated, hard-working and highly motivated group that is putting in the time, effort and commitment to be an extremely good and successful team,” Orem head coach Scott Wells said. “Between punishing defensive pressure, purposeful possession and precision scoring this team is going to be fun to watch.”
Behind Orem in the rankings is a group that includes the Dixie Flyers (0-0-1), Bonneville Lakers (1-1-1) and Bear River Bears (4-0).
The Flyers, per head coach Burt Myers, “will be quick. We have good overall team speed and confident players. We have a team that is going to get along really well.”
Then there are the Snow Canyon Warriors (0-2-0), who as the defending Region 9 champions expect to make some noise.
“We expect to repeat as region champs and contend for a state title,” head coach Zac Hales said. “We have a great group of seniors who will lead the team and set the tone with their work rate and character. Our underclassmen are talented at all ages and will be big contributors.”
Other potential title contenders include the Juan Diego Soaring Eagle (0-1-0) — “The team is very young with plenty of very skillful technical and tactical soccer players,” head coach Daniel Cavar said — the Park City Miners (0-1-0), the Spanish Fork Dons (1-0) and the Mountain Crest Mustangs (2-1-1).
A season ago, the Judge Memorial Bulldogs rolled untouched through the 3A classification.
The team racked up win after win after win, with its only close competition coming in contests against the Morgan Trojans.
The region foes battled three times during the course of the 2017-18 season and each time it was the Bulldogs who walked away victorious.
The final meeting came in the state championship game, an overtime thriller won by Judge Memorial.
A week into this season, the Bulldogs appear to have picked up right where they left off.
With a 2-0 record, Judge Memorial stands as the No. 1-ranked team in 3A and the prohibitive title favorite.
Early wins over Juan Diego and East have even avenged some of the few losses the team was dealt last season.
Leading the way for the Bulldogs are a host of All-State caliber players, including 3A MVP Jack Terrill and first-teamers Joseph Paul and Cameron Lundy, not to mention Gedeon Baende (second team), Jaime Galindo and Elliot Gleich (honorable mention).
“The boys are excited for the season to start,” head coach Kelly Terrill said. “We have some great returning players and new faces looking to prove themselves.”
The principal threat to any Judge Memorial title defense? That would be the Trojans.
A 3-1 start to the season, which includes wins over Uintah, Cedar and Stansbury, has Morgan ranked just behind Judge Memorial.
Coming in third in the 3A rankings are the American Leadership Academy Eagles.
The Eagles lost to Morgan in the semifinals, but brought back a host of players including Joseph Valle, who was named first team All-State.
“Our players have been training hard during the entire year and are looking forward to competing at a high level this year,” ALA head coach Antonio Mendieta said. “We will go game by game, hoping to improve and earn our spot in the playoffs. Most of our players are coming back this year which allows us to continue our game philosophy.”
Rounding out the top five and arguably the list of title contenders are the Summit Academy Bears (2-0) and the Providence Hall Patriots (2-0).
In what should come as a surprise to few, the 2A classification looks to be a three-way battle between the defending champion Waterford Ravens, the rival Rowland Hall Winged Lions and the Layton Christian Academy Eagles.
The three schools each were semifinalists a season ago, with the Ravens and Lions meeting in the state title game.
The three teams are ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the Deseret News rankings and between them have won four of the past five state titles.
Of the three, Waterford has the most impressive history, with eight state titles all-time.
It was the Ravens who walked away victorious last season and it is the Ravens, as defending champs, who are the favorites again.
Aiding in a Waterford repeat bid are a host of returners, including Connor Smith, Nikolas Kizerian, Niklas Nilsson and Morgan Lopez, each of whom was named first team All-State. Then there was Samuel Becker, who earned a second-team spot.
Coming in at No. 2 are the Eagles, who as recently as the 2016-17 season claimed the state title for themselves.
Wins over Parowan and Hurricane have Layton Christian off to a hot start, as does the return of second team all-stater Frederico Tremonti.Comment on this story
If there is a contender outside of the Big Three it is the Beaver Beavers. The Beavers were the fourth semifinalist a year ago, and bring back more contributors than any other team, including Preston Roberts, Mason Bartlett, Daniel Magana, Brody Pullman, Adam Williams, Bryan Pimentel, Jesus Magana, Nathan Brown and Filipe Pedreina.
“2019 promises to be a challenging and exciting year,” Beaver head coach Pancho Chavez said. “This team prides itself in hard work. Many of the starters have been starting for three years. With the experience of this team the different style of play is fun and exciting to watch.”