TOOELE — There were times last year when Tooele quarterback Milo Leakahe appeared as if he'd just landed on Mars.
Not only was playing quarterback new to him, but doing so in first-year coach Ray Groth's option offense was a completely foreign concept. Leakahe wasn't alone. Most of his teammates struggled to pick up the new offense as well, and the Buffaloes missed the playoffs with a discouraging 3-7 record.
A year later, Leakahe and his teammates have found their comfort zone and they're excited to compete in the revamped Region 6.
"Last year, they were looking around trying to figure out who I was, what we're trying to do. For the most part, I'd say they've bought into it and they understand what we're doing, especially when we get into a little bit of offense and defense," said Groth. "It's so much easier now."
It helps that he has six returning starters on each side of the ball.
One of the most important is Leakahe, who will also start at strong safety. The senior has dedicated himself this past offseason to improving his understanding of the option offense, and he's picked things up so well Groth says some of the military academy schools are taking an interest in his potential.
"I don't know if I've had too many guys in my career who've worked as hard and been as conscientious as that kid," said Groth about Brady. "He's a basketball player and comes in after basketball to work out. He runs track. He's a 3.9 student — you just can't say enough about it."
Defensively, Tooele isn't too deep, but Groth believes his first unit is good enough to compete with anyone in Region 6 — a region everyone in Tooele is ecstatic about.
Tooele is no longer lumped into the Utah County region, but instead will be competing against closer and more familiar foes like Highland, East, Olympus, Bountiful, Woods Cross and new rival school Stansbury.
While the players are ecstatic for their first game against Stansbury on Oct. 22., Groth is eyeing the Sept. 18 game at Highland, the school that fired him as head coach several years ago. His former assistant coach Brody Benson has been in charge for three years, and Groth admits having mixed feelings about coaching against him.
"He's like a son of mine and he's a helluva coach, one of the best in the state," said Groth. "I left Highland with not great circumstances, but I love Highland, I love the kids there. It will be interesting."
The Stansbury game will be interesting as well. Several former Tooele players now attend Stansbury High School, including a few starters.
Groth doesn't believe the opening of Stansbury will impact Tooele much, at least initially.
"My concern is the way the district has divided this up. Our little league program is really hurting in terms of numbers," said Groth. "I'm hoping within a year or two they'll rezone it. Somehow they're going to have to equalize to give us a chance."
For now, with a year more experience with the option offense, Tooele is hoping to be a contender in Region 6 this year.
Tooele Buffaloes at a glance
Coach: Ray Groth is in his second year at Tooele with a 3-7 record. This is his 21st year overall with a 115-99 record.
Key Players: Milo Leakahe is poised for a big year being the focal point of Tooele's offense. Fullbacks Thomas Allen and Damon Thomas and tailback James DeSantiago will see a bulk of the carries. Travis Brady is an outstanding all-around athlete who will play receiver and cornerback.
Strengths: The Buffaloes have a much better understanding of the option offense this year, which should make a big difference. The offensive line will be solid with three of five returning starters and decent size.
Concerns: Confidence is a concern after last year's disappointing season. There also seems to be some resentment toward the hype surrounding the opening of Stansbury High School, which could end up being a distraction. Depth is also a bit of a concern for the Buffaloes, who can't afford any significant injuries.
Last year: 3-7, missed the playoffs.
Predicted Region 6 finish: Fifth
Postseason possibilities: Will likely be on the playoff bubble all year. It might be able to sneak in with a few key victories, though.
Aug. 21 — JUDGE MEMORIAL, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 — at West, 7 p.m.
Sept. 4 — BEN LOMOND, 7 p.m.
Sept. 11 — at Bountiful, 7 p.m.
Sept. 18 — at Highland, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 — OLYMPUS, 7 p.m.
Oct. 2 — at Grantsville, 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 — at Woods Cross, 7 p.m.
Oct. 16 — EAST, 7 p.m.
Oct. 22 — STANSBURY, 7 p.m.