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High school football: West Panthers 2009 preview

Seeing West get moved up to 5A did not meet with approval among a large segment of fans, coaches, and alumni at the school. They worried the student population numbers were being taken out of context and the Panthers would suffer while trying to compete with larger 5A schools.

A fear of 5A has not infected the football team. Few teams in their new region, or 5A, can match the experience West will be able to count on this fall. The Panthers feature eight returning starters on offense and could return as many as eight on defense if they all qualify academically. More importantly, many returners contributed at key positions like defensive line, wide receiver and running back.

Senior lineman Jovante Scott relates West's situation coming into the season to making macaroni and cheese. The Panthers have all the necessary ingredients for the recipe. Now it is a matter of simply cooking the meal. "We have the noodles, we have the cheese, we have the milk, we have the butter," Scott said. "We just need to get the temperature right and stir it. That's all we need to do."

If you take the analogy one step further, West also has a new master chef giving orders in the kitchen. Justin Spencer makes his head-coaching debut at his alma mater this season.

After seeing the skill and athleticism he has at his disposal at West, Spencer is feeling genuinely excited about the potential for this season.

On defense, it all starts with a defensive line that is both strong and deep. Returning juniors Sione Talakai and Junior Vea were both starters as sophomores last fall. Abel Stanley and Robert Martinez add to the depth up front. It ends with a secondary featuring defensive backs that Spencer feels like can be true cover guys at their positions.

"I have overwhelming confidence in our defense," Spencer said. "It's a belief in those kids that they can play football. The only holdback is we're learning a new system. Learning a new system is going to cost them a little bit of reaction time until they can get it down."

Things look good on offense too. The Panthers return virtually all of their players at the various skill positions. They lost none of their running backs and only one receiver from last season. Of those returning players, Tana Afeaki might be best positioned to have a breakout season as the team's lead running back.

Afeaki has struggled with his academics in the past. But the senior worked hard to bring his grades up and has committed himself to becoming productive in the backfield through a demanding offseason training regimen — featuring weight lifting and running among other things.

Holes need to be filled at offensive line and quarterback, but things are unfolding in promising fashion in both places. Scott earned all-region honors at center last season and, as one of the team leaders, should serve as a reliable anchor up front. West will also be breaking in a promising signal-caller in Chance Albrith.

Albrith, a junior who also plays baseball, made a big impression with his arm strength and throwing abilities in camps at Weber State and SUU. Spencer thinks he has potential to be an excellent quarterback. Right now, he just needs experience running an offense.

"He's never played a down of varsity football," Spencer said. "He's a baseball kid. He doesn't know a lot about football, so he has a long way to go. But he definitely has the physical tools to be very successful."

Players on the football team draw inspiration in what the boys basketball team accomplished with its march to the state title this past season. This group also harbors title aspirations of its own and doesn't want to see its goals go unfulfilled.

"I know we're going to do good this year," Scott said. "We're going to do a lot better than we did last year. There are a lot of expectations for this team and I'm not going to let them fall like they did last year."

West Panthers at a glance:

Coach: Justin Spencer is in his first year with the Panthers after cutting his teeth as an assistant at Kearns.

Key Players: Tana Afeaki will be counted on to be the team's lead running back on offense. He should ease the learning curve for talented new quarterback for Chance Albrith. The offensive line is depleted, but standout center Jovante Scott is back. Defensively, the Panthers are strongest on the line with players like Sione Talakai and Junior Vea leading the way.

Strengths: Experience is an asset with West, given how many starters they return on both sides of the ball. The senior leadership seems determined to push the Panthers to exceed expectations and they are listening to Spencer — always a good thing going into a season.

Weaknesses: West is breaking in a new offense and defense, which Spencer admits could slow the team down early in the season. There are also questions about how quickly Albrith will adapt to varsity ball with so little prior experience. There are other options at quarterback— such as Gordon Peterson and even Afeaki — if needed.

Predicted Region 2 finish: 4th.

Postseason Possibilities: West appears best positioned to claim the remaining playoff spot behind usual contenders like Skyline, Cottonwood and Hunter. If things work out the way the Panthers hope, there is a possibility the Panthers could finish as high as third in region. Winning a playoff game might be a harder goal to obtain and a first-round exit seems likely.

2009 Schedule:

Aug. 21 — at Juan Diego 7:00 p.m.

Aug. 28 — Tooele 7:00 p.m.

Sept. 3 — Woods Cross 7:00 p.m.

Sept. 11 — Hunter 7:00 p.m.

Sept. 18 — at Skyline 7:00 p.m.

Sept. 25 — at Cyprus 7:00 p.m.

Sept. 30 — Cottonwood 7:00 p.m.

Oct. 9 — at Murray 7:00 p.m.

Oct. 16 — at Olympus 7:00 p.m.

Oct. 22 — Granger 7:00 p.m.

EMAIL: jcoon@desnews.com