Few sports fans in south Utah County thought they'd ever see the day when Nebo School District basically has its own high school region.
With the new alignment of Region 8, however, that's pretty much where things stand. The Uintah Utes, of course, plan to do their best to remind Spanish Fork, Springville, Payson, Maple Mountain and Salem Hills that it is a six-team league. Still, the rivalries that have now been created for the five Nebo high schools have the potential to become as good as any in Utah.
"When you have that rivalry feel at games, that really does a lot to bring communities together," Spanish Fork coach Matt Christensen said.
With the opening of Salem Hills last year and Maple Mountain this year, in most cases the middle of a street is now all that separates the schools' boundaries. Many friends, neighbors, and junior-high classmates who have cheered together in the past will now play for and cheer for opposing teams.
"When the kids talk about games that matter to them, they don't talk about teams outside our new region. They talk about the games where they'll be playing against other kids that they grew up with," Christensen said.
Even though Spanish Fork has suffered a double-whammy in enrollment numbers with the changes the past two years, the new region still renews some historic rivalries for the Dons — rivalries that were missing the past few years when the Dons were cast into a 5A region with teams from north Utah County.
"When we were in that league we kind of felt like the outcast, and we never really had a rivalry game," Christensen said. "And those are fun. When I played those were the games I always remembered, were those rivalry games. So it's going to be nice to have them back."
The closeness of the schools, however, presents a challenge for Nebo in enrollment issues, and managing transferring and preventing recruiting. The hope is that eventually all five Nebo schools will have comparable enrollment numbers and equally competitive athletic teams.
That might not be the case this season with Salem Hills moving up a notch from 3A, and Maple Mountain beginning its first-ever season.
"Jumping to 4A will be a huge increase," Skyhawks coach Monte Morgan said. "I think we have a very competitive region."
Maple Mountain with mostly sophomores and juniors, won't have the benefit that Salem Hills had in starting in a smaller classification.
"We know we're kind of in a tough spot, but at the same time it's a lot of fun and we welcome the challenge," Golden Eagles coach Brad Burtenshaw said.
Overall, there's still a lot of mystery surrounding the new league and which teams will be competitive and which will struggle. But down the road when ripples created by the changes have had a chance to settle and equal out, most expect Region 8 to be one of the most balanced in Utah.
"I'm already feeling like there's going to be a lot of competition between the schools, and I expect that eventually every team in this league is going to be competitive, and when that happens this is going to be a very strong and very fun region," Burtenshaw said.
Also, somewhere down the road Uintah hopes to find some rivalries of its own in the new classification and region. At the very least, the Utes hope to earn a lot more respect and not just be looked at as a crasher to Nebo's football party.
REGION 8 PROJECTIONS
(Preseason rankings are based on coaches' votes)
1. SPANISH FORK: The Dons are excited to be back in the 4A ranks, and they're making the switch with a line that could still compete with the 5A teams. Junior lineman Isaac Asiata should come into this own this season with the experience he'll get alongside Uili Makai, Blake Denning, Matt Graham and J.R. Brandun. Tight end Jordunn Mattinson, headed to Utah State, could be the league's top receiver. Receivers Chase Loftin and Travis Still, and backs Tim Moala and P.J. Inoke add explosiveness to Spanish Fork's balanced attack. 2008 RECORD: 5-6. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Jordan in the first round.
2. SPRINGVILLE: As last season progressed the Red Devils got better each week under first-year coach Scott Mitchell. With Mitchell a year experienced now, and with several players who contributed to that late-season run back, the Red Devils should keep the winning momentum going. Timpview transfer Alema Key gives Springville a powerful runner and linebacker. Offensive weapons Jordan Sumsion, Aaron Gray, Zach Gardinier, Marcus Case and Mitchell Paystrup give the Red Devils variety. Defensively, Brandon Boyer, Jeff Geuck, Aaron Turley and Landon Roney will be counted on heavily. 2008 RECORD: 6-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Dixie in the first round.
3. PAYSON: The Lions are once again turning to a new coach, and Payson native Jeremy Chapman seems to be igniting a lot of hope and enthusiasm in the program. The Lions won't be a big team this season, but are athletic and aggressive. As is the norm at Payson, most of the top players will go both ways. Christopher Robbins will be a team leader on defense, and a top ball carrier on offense. The same goes for Brady Loveless, Garrett Sorensen, Nathan Cunningham and Dylan Clark will be the leaders on Payson's young and inexperienced line. 2008 RECORD: 2-8. PLAYOFFS: Missed the playoffs.
4. UINTAH: The Utes will depend a lot on their veterans to survive the jump from 3A to 4A and a new region. That jump might not be as difficult as some expect, however, with the Utes showing in recent years their ability to be competitive regardless of the opponent. Linemen Jarom Tollefson, Kaylen Williams, Ryker Thacker, and TJ Hiatt all return with varsity experience and hope to help the little-fish Utes play the role of spoiler in their bigger pond. 2008 RECORD: 5-4. PLAYOFFS: Missed the playoffs.
5. SALEM: The Skyhawks, moving up from 3A to 4A, are hoping to benefit from the experience all their young players got in last year's inaugural season. Quarterback Josh Adams is athletic, intelligent, a great leader and has quick feet. He'll get help from returning ball carriers Josh Warr and Kolapi Wolfgram. Defensively, lineman Phillip Sorensen is a good hitter, linebacker Billy Fairbanks gives the Skyhawks quickness, and linebacker Jason McDaniel is as aggressive as they come. 2008 RECORD: 1-9. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Morgan in the first round.
6. MAPLEMOUNTAIN: The Golden Eagles, as expected with a new school, will be very young and very inexperienced.
The leadership will likely come from the team's handful of seniors. Since it's also coach Brad Burtenshaw's first year as a head coach, it might be a season of growing pains from many angles. Competition for playing time, however, will be fierce. Jacob Watson, Skyler Porcaro and Jace Edmunds are currently battling for the quarterback job. Brennan Hyatt and Cameron Carson should be key ball carriers, and Devin Barker and Greg Waite two key receivers. Michael Lovelesss, MattPugh and Matt Warren will do the dirty work in the trenches.