Now expanded to include the former 4A duo of Bountiful and Woods Cross, the eight-team Region 6 initiates league basketball competition Friday with a full four-game slate - Tooele at Judge Memorial, Jordan at Bountiful, West at Granite and Woods Cross at Murray.
With a 24-3 overall record, 3A runner-up and defending region champion Judge is again the league favorite this year. "There are no weak links," said one coach of the Region 6 lineup, although shaky preseason showings by some teams may result in "missing links" if slow starts aren't righted early in the league season.
Bountiful: Not only are the Braves among the league's newcomers, but former Highland and BYU guard Mike Maxwell is making his coaching debut at Bountiful this season. "We're struggling with a new system," said Maxwell of his Braves, which won only one of their first half-dozen preseason games.
"It takes time to put it in and to have the kids get comfortable with it."
Something the Braves are comfortable with is size inside, what with 6-6 Jeremy O'Brien, 6-4 Jon Peterson and 6-4 Matt Walton - the latter is averaging nearly 24 points a game already with a tops of 32. Chris Godfrey and Aaron Roderick key the backcourt for Bountiful, which went 15-9 overall last year for a second-place finish in the old Region 4 and the consolation championship in the 4A tournament.
Granite: Labeled by some as the league's darkhorse, the Farmers have something this year that they haven't enjoyed in recent seasons - size.
Granite's starting frontcourt is 6-6, 6-5 and 6-5, with the big boys boasting more quickness than raw strenth, said Coach Charlie Whiting.
Afer jumping out out to a 3-1 start this preseason, Whiting has found that a half-dozen players are taking turns pacing the points department. Kelly McGrath returns as Granite's leading scorer after averaging 25 last year, while guard Richard Paul is expected to return to form after an early injury.
Jordan: Leading the senior-laden Beetdiggers is 6-7 Ryan Williams who averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds a game last year as a junior. Returning starters Art Hunter and Spence Tueller are also back - the latter a third-year starting guard - while guard Hadden Frasier and forwards Billy Shalz and Mark Elliot headline the newcomers for Coach Hal Hale.
Dropping its first four games going into Tuesday night's contest with Hillcrest, Jordan has started out slowly so far this preseason - something not uncommon, though, for the 'Diggers. That has some opposing coaches already thinking about - and fearing - a strong showing in league competition for Jordan, which had a 9-13 overall record last year but went 6-4 in Region 6 for a third-place finish.
Judge Memorial: All-state guard Jimmy Soto is graduated and gone to the University of Utah, but equally honored backcourt mate Chris Jones is back - and the 6-2 University of Portland-bound senior takes over at the point.
Jones is expected to pick up where he left off last season - a near triple- double average of 22 points, 9 assists and 12 rebounds.
Coach Jim Yerkovich's team is strong for starters, including 6-2 frontliner Nathan Semerad, 6-0 scorer Rob Solvason and 5-10 backcourt defender Michael Beierschmitt. Yerkovich' admitted key will be to develop an accompanying Bulldog bench.
Murray: Starting for the Spartans are a sophomore, two juniors and two seniors, with the team lacking not only size but seasoning. "We're young - I've never had a team with this much inexperience," said Coach Craig Hammer, whose team finished fifth in the league last season. "The question mark is experience, but we've got decent shooters."
Pacing those "decent shooters" is four-sport-standout David Madsen, who averaged 22 points a game last year and who is averaging the same this year; Jeremy Winget who was good for 10 a game is expected to be in double figures as well. The guardline includes senior Carson Winget and sophomore Kevin Carlston.
Tooele: Most folks might have expected the Buffaloes to suffer this season after Coach Clyde Ahlquist graduated an athletic Class of '89. But Tooele is quite competitive already, thank you, what with preseason wins over Provo, Springville and Cyrpus and a triple-overtime loss to 4A Bonneville and a loss to two-time state champion Timpview.
Ahlquist sees the team strength being the lacking of a true superstar and the team chemistry. Chad Hancock, at 6-4, gives strength inside, Kevin Putnam runs the offense from the point, and Jeff Lewis is at the wing after being the sixth man last year.
West: Like some of its peers, the Panthers are short in returning varsity experience. Seniors Brant Tidwell and 6-8 center Steve Taufer (12 rebounds a game last year) are returning starters from last year's 7-16 team, while senior Derrick Davis gets his chance to shine this season.
Coach Bob Lyman acknowledges that Taufer is not a scoring machine, but he expects him to contribute heavily on defense and on the boards. Also expected to contribute is the West youth movement, with two sophomores and freshman Chris Stepan - the Panthers' first such player on the varsity squad - already part of the regular rotation.
Woods Cross: Having the Wildcats play through the 3A football finals resulted in a slow start for Coach Kevin Wilson's basketball team. "It hurt us, having to try and learn to play together as a team," said Wilson of the delays and subsequent preseason struggles against tough 4A competition.
Kitt Rawlings, the 2,200-yard running back, will be looked upon to carry much of the load on the hardwood as well, with 6-6 Justin Peterson coming along quite nicely and 6-2 Greg Poole providing more raw athletic ability than pure basketball talent as the 'Cats top threesome. They're joined by the likes of 6-7 Drew Chamberlain, 6-2 transfer Jason Kimmel and 5-8 guard Mike Gurr.