SPANISH FORK — With opening night a little more than a week away, there's a sense of urgency with the Spanish Fork Dons football team.
For two straight years a chunk of their student body has been pulled away with the opening of Salem Hills High last year and Maple Mountain High this year.
For now, the boundary changes haven't shown a drastic impact on the school's athletics. It should also help that the Dons are now back down in 4A, where in most sports they are more comfortable, more familiar with their opponents and feel a bit more competitive. Also, in the new Region 8 alignment they're back competing with their traditional rivals.
"Overall, it's just a better situation for us," Dons head football coach Matt Christensen said.
But it's uncertain how the two new schools and boundary changes will affect the Dons down the road. What they do know, however, is that they have a very good football team right now, and that they better take advantage of the opportunities they have right now.
"We've got a good group of seniors, with a good mix of juniors and sophomores, and we think we've got a pretty solid team," Christensen said.
But it's not just talent that Christensen likes with his squad as this season approaches. He's seeing a different kind of unity than he's seen in past years.
"These kids have really come together and feel close to the coaches and each other, and there's just a little more excitement in the air than we usually have through the summer. There's just some things going on here that we haven't experienced, so I'm really excited for that," he said.
Christensen's also excited by the fact that several players have filled the holes left with the departure of stars Breck Lewis, Richard Wilson and Trevor Randolph. After last season he thought the Dons might be a little thin at several positions, but through the summer he's had several players improve more than he expected and prove that they are capable of getting the job done.
"I've been surprised, and it's been a good surprise. There have been some kids who have stepped up and have made us more flexible than I thought we'd be, and that's allowed us to move a player or two around to where we need them. In the past we didn't have enough kids to do that. But this group of seniors have really worked hard and that's given us a few more options than we thought we were going to have," Christensen said.
A deep and talented pack of linemen also has the Dons coaching staff smiling. Led by Isaac Asiata, Uili Makai, Blake Denning, J.R. Brandon and Matthew Graham, this might be Spanish Fork's best group upfront in years.
"We've always had two or three good linemen and had to plug some people in at the other spots, but this year I think the strength of our team is going to be our line. Those guys are going to be our vocal leaders and our horses, so that's something that's going to be new and exciting. We've always had the skills guys, but never quite had a deep line to go with them. This year we do," Christensen said.
Spanish Fork's skill guys are led by the talented tight end Jordunn Mattinson, who will eventually play at Utah State, receivers Travis Still and Chase Loftin, and running backs P.J. Inoke, Tim Moala and Dallas Smith.
"With that combination we feel like we can move the ball on the ground better, which is something we need to do. We're really hoping to establish the run game a little bit more and be a little bit more balanced in our offense," Christensen said.
There's really only one big question mark with this Dons team. They're going to have an unproven and inexperienced quarterback leading the way. Currently, senior Taylor Nelson is battling sophomore Hayden Nielsen for the job. Christensen is not sure how that lack of experience in that critical position will affect the team.
"When we hit some adversity, are we going to drive around that, or what direction are we going to go?" he said.
Spanish Fork Dons at a glance
Coach: Matt Christensen, a former three-sport star at Spanish Fork, begins his third season at the helm of the Dons and has a career mark of 17-17.
Key Players: The big name on the Dons' roster is Jordunn Mattinson, an outstanding tight end who will continue his career, after his senior season, at Utah State. But many in Spanish Fork are telling others to keep an eye on Travis Still, who should get the football plenty from either a running back or receiver position. Dallas Smith, PJ Inoke and Tim Moala will rotate in the backfield. Chase Loftin will be a key player at both receiver and defensive back. Taylor Nelson, a senior, and Hayden Nielsen, a sophomore, are leading in the battle for the quarterback spot. The Dons are big up front with Isaac Asiata, Uili Makai, J.R Brandon, Matt Graham and Blake Denning.
Strengths: It's not often that you can say a Spanish Fork team has a big and deep line, but that's the case this year. They should be able to run the football and provide plenty of pass protection. The Dons also have good balance, good team speed and good depth in the skill positions. They are very deep at the receiver position.
Concerns: The past several seasons the Dons have had strong leadership and experience in the quarterback position, but currently there are two, maybe three players fighting for that job, and it might end up going to a sophomore. Someone in the starting lineup is going to have to emerge as the guy who rallies the troops together in the huddle. It's also a question of how the new quarterback will handle the pressure in critical game situations.
Last year: 5-6, third in region, lost in first round of playoffs to Jordan.
Predicted Region 8 finish: First
Postseason possibilities: The Dons are kind of an off-the-radar team to the traditional powers in 4A football, but they have the size, athletes and skill-position players to surprise some teams and make a run at least into the semifinals.
Aug. 21 - MOUNTAIN VIEW, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 - at Bountiful, 7 p.m.
Sept. 4 - OREM, 7 p.m.
Sept. 11 - BOX ELDER, 7 p.m.
Sept. 18 - at Uintah, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 - at Salem Hills, 7 p.m.
Oct. 2 - PAYSON, 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 - SPRINGVILLE, 7 p.m.
Oct. 2 - at Maple Mountain, 7 p.m.