An unusual thing happened to Highland en route to reaching the 4A quarterfinals last season. For the first time in several years, the Rams did not claim a region title. It left an empty feeling to an otherwise solid year for the team.
It also left those players coming back this fall feeling hungry to not let things play out the same way twice.
"We're looking at a region title and we're getting back up to the turf," senior quarterback Mason Keller said. "We worked all winter for this. Everybody has put on pounds. Everybody has picked up speed. So the expectations are high, definitely."
The good news for Highland is it has enough of the right tools to transform those lofty goals into reality.
Things look particularly promising in the backfield where the Rams possess enough depth, athleticism and experience to make their triple option offense run as smoothly as a finely tuned engine.
Lead fullback Muli Kinikini is gone, but Highland has other experienced runners back. Chris Lloyd started last season at halfback and Alex Olsen also saw time at that position. The Rams also have seen Sione Fainu climb the depth chart to become the no. 1 fullback going into the season.
Fainu, who mostly played at linebacker as a junior, was third-string until injuries to players ahead of him gave him a shot to show what he could do. In a short time, Fainu wowed coaches with his speed and work ethic. Now he is firmly entrenched as a starter.
"It's created some depth, but what it has also done is it's shown those guys that at any point you can step up and be the guy," Highland coach Brody Benson said.
Another key player on offense will be Keller. Expectations are high for senior quarterback who served as an understudy to Nick Orchard a year ago. Orchard led the '08 team by accumulating more than 2,000 yards on the ground and through the air. Keller knows he has big cleats to fill. But he also understands the offense well enough to pick up right where Orchard left off.
"I've been here for so long it's starting to come to me pretty easy now," Keller said. "I've picked it up pretty quick. I know what I'm doing out here, so I feel pretty confident."
Highland lost some talented linemen — most notably Latu Heimuli and Sam Nielson — on both sides of the ball. It is not a huge concern though, because Benson is convinced this group has greater depth than any team he has coached. Pete Ferrin and Ono Tafisi are both returning starters up front. George Heimuli, Julio Hernandez, Jonny Drage and Fihi Kafusi offer additional depth in the trenches. Benson has enough players to draw from up there that he can afford to rotate linemen in and out more often in games this season.
Ferrin and Kafusi will help power a defense returning several contributors from an '08 unit that surrendered just 12.4 points per game and allowed only 10 points per game in the 4A playoffs. Both Olsen and Fainu contributed significantly at linebacker a year ago. Lloyd started at cornerback and is joined by Keller, Andre Coleman, and Nate Fakahafua — also a key wide receiver in '08 — in the secondary. Returning loads of experience has the Rams believing they can match or exceed last season's defensive output.
"Our defense should be our strong point this year," Olsen said. "We return a lot of starters and we always like to focus on defense. That's what we're proud of here."
If everything on paper translates well on the field, Highland could be back where it is accustomed to being — atop its region and in contention for a state title. And that's the path the Rams plan to follow — starting in the season opener with Mountain Crest.
"Our no. 1 goal right now is to go out and win that first game and get off on the right foot," Benson said.
Highland Rams at a glance:
Coach: Brody Benson is entering his 4th season with the Rams and has compiled a 27-10 record overall.
Key Players: Highland is loaded in the backfield. Chris Lloyd is a returning starter and Sione Fainu worked his way up from third-string to starter at fullback. Mason Keller takes over at quarterback. Pete Ferrin and Ono Tafisi are returning starters on the offensive line. Most see time on defense too where Alex Olsen and Fihi Kafusi will be key contributors.
Strengths: In a word: depth. The Rams' option offense will be in great shape with the amount of running backs at Benson's disposal. Defensively, Highland returns several starters on the line, linebackers and the secondary. Given the strength of the unit a year ago, it is a safe bet the Rams could be tough for offenses to deal with once again.
Weaknesses: Highland must find a way to produce points more consistently. Once teams figured out their option offense in the playoffs, the Rams could not put up enough points. They tallied 19 total points against Bountiful and Pine View. That has to improve if they hope to go further this season.
Predicted Region 6 Finish: Second.
Postseason Possibilities: Highland is hungry to reclaim the region title after missing out on it last year. The Rams have the talent to do it and the determination to make it happen. Don't be surprised if Highland reaches the 4A semifinals when all is said and done.
Aug. 21 – MOUNTAIN CREST, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 – HUNTER, 7 p.m.
Sept. 4 – at Skyline, 7 p.m.
Sept. 11 – at Highland, Idaho, 7 p.m.
Sept. 18 – TOOELE, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 – at Stansbury, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30 – OLYMPUS, 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 – at Bountiful, 7 p.m.
Oct. 16 – WOODS CROSS, 7 p.m.
Oct. 22 – at East, 7 p.m.