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Leopards, Rams licking their chops over playoff at U.

Highland won first meeting, but East is playing at top form

Playing on the big stage of Rice-Eccles Stadium is one of the greatest rewards a high school player can receive. The only thing that could make it better is playing your biggest rival.

That's the case this Thursday when East and Highland kick off in the Class 4A semifinals at Rice-Eccles Stadium at 1:30 p.m. That game will be following by Cottonwood vs. Mountain Crest at 5 p.m.

"This is awesome," said Rams wide receiver Les Brown. "We have it up at Rice-Eccles. They're going to be pumped, and we're going to be pumped. You can't ask for anything better."

After destroying Orem 41-14 in the quarterfinals, the Rams welcomed the news that East had defeated Timpview 49-30.

"No question it's great," said defensive back Brett Smith. "Getting back to the semifinals was one of the goals we made back in the summer, so playing East is just an added bonus."

Highland has reason to feel confident going into this matchup. It beat East 34-19 earlier this season, forcing the Leopards into several mistakes on offense and controlling the game with a dominating defense.

Rams head coach Ray Groth said the Leopards will use that game to their advantage.

"You always hate to play a team the second time around," he said. "They could have an emotional edge on us."

East might be playing the best football of any team in the state right now. Over the past couple of weeks it has beaten the likes of Cottonwood and Timpview, scoring at will against both teams.

Groth made note of the improved play by East and says the Rams have to come ready.

"Our kids are going to have to bring their 'A' game to be successful," he said. "It's going to be a tough physical game."

Region 6 success in the Class 4A playoffs is worth noting.

Cottonwood (9-2), Highland (10-2) and East (9-3) finished 1, 2 and 3 in Salt Lake City this year, and all three have marched their way through the state tourney in impressive fashion.

Colts head coach Tom Jones said having three teams from the same region in the semifinal round is a tribute to the overall strength of the region.

"It just shows you what kind of a talent we have in the region," he said. "It's as good as any in the state."

The 4A semifinals isn't an all Region 6 affair, however, thanks to the Mountain Crest Mustangs.

While some are calling them Region 6 party crashers, others are calling them 4A state tournament favorites.

Mountain Crest (10-1) finished the season as the No. 1 team in 4A, and coach Mark Wootton's team appears to be playing its best football of the year heading into the semis.

"We kind of anticipated this type of season," said Mustangs second-year coach Mark Wootton, who returned 15 starters this year. "These kids, since they were young, have put in a lot of hours."

Going back to February when they began lifting weights, players like Brady Wootton, Brady Zimmerman and Philip Rutledge were setting their sights on a successful 2005 season. For some of those players, the embarrassment of a 1-9 season in 2003 is still a motivating presence.

"They've been through the highs and the lows, and it obviously means a lot to them," said Wootton. "They were on the other end of this at one time."

Mountain Crest isn't the only team that's endured disappointment.

Cottonwood lost last year's 5A championship game to Davis, while Highland fell in last year's 4A semifinals to the eventual champion, Timpview.