SARATOGA SPRINGS — A first-year school with a first-year coach, and playing in a region with the three-time defending state champion and two teams that just dropped down from 5A to 4A.
The challenge that lies ahead this prep football season for the Westlake Thunder and rookie coach Jason Walker is monumental, to say the least. However, you won't hear any fear or cry for sympathy from anyone in the Thunder football program.
"We can't use our youth and inexperience as an excuse, because the teams we play are not going to lighten up and take it easy on us because of that," said Walker, who begins his head coaching career after helping Timpview win three straight state titles as an assistant. "So we just have to step up to the plate and be ready for the challenge."
But when Walker talks about the youth of his team, he's not exaggerating. The Thunder have only a handful of seniors, a few more juniors, but most of those who will see varsity time this season are going to be sophomores.
"I wish I could coach these kids up to be older, but I can't do that. We are going to be young and inexperienced. We have a lot of players that still need to learn the speed of a varsity game. And that's going to have to come as we begin playing, because that's not something we can simulate accurately in practice," Walker said.
Mostly, Walker hopes his team doesn't take too long to mature on the field.
"We need to be able to handle adversity and be more disciplined," he said.
Though young, the Thunder are very athletic and have very good team speed, and good size for a team that is comprised mostly of sophomores. Currently, junior Kayden Jones and sophomore John Ursula are fighting for the quarterback job. Braxton Tuiono and Semi Taeoalii will likely get most of the carries. The top receivers are likely to be Brandon Aldstadt and Tre Ofahengaue. Several kids are battling for time on the line, with Andy Toala looking the best so far.
For the most part, however, Walker is still trying to find out the right formula of putting the right players into the right positions — a task that might take a game or two to figure out.
"My philosophy is that we're going to put as many of our best athletes on the field as we can. We're just going to try to find a home for them and see where they can contribute the most," he said.
Westlake Thunder at a glance
Coach: Jason Walker begins his rookie year as a head coach after honing his skills as an assistant the past few seasons at Timpview, where he helped the Thunderbirds win three straight state titles.
Key Players: Young teams tend to rely more on running the ball, which means backers Braxton Tuiono and Semi Taeoalii could become the two workhorses in Westlake's inaugural season. Either sophomore John Ursua or junior Kayden Jones will be the QB, with the main receivers being Brandon Aldstadt, Tre Ofahengaue and Nate Jensen. Andy Toala, Zach Dean, Bruno Silva and A. J. Pauga should be main contributors as well.
Strengths: The Thunder have good team speed, a lot of quality athletes, and are doing a good job of buying into the system that head coach Jason Walker is trying to implement at the first-year school.
Concerns: Obviously, the Thunder's youth and inexperience won't work in their favor. They'll be playing against opponents that are bigger, stronger, faster and more mature than any opponents they've played against before. Depth, at all positions, is also a big concern.
Last year: Not open
Predicted Region 7 finish: Seventh
Postseason possibilities: Earning a postseason berth in its first year would be monumental for Westlake, and considering the Thunder's youth, it's highly unlikely to happen. If it should, the chances are even slimmer that they'd win a playoff game.
Aug. 21 — at Delta, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 — at Maple Mountain, 7 p.m.
Sept. 4 — PAYSON, 7 p.m.
Sept. 11 — PROVO, 7 p.m.
Sept. 18 — MOUNTAIN VIEW, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 — at Orem, 7 p.m.
Oct. 2 — at Mountain View, 7 p.m.
Oct. 8 — WASATCH, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 — at Timpanogos, 7 p.m.
Oct. 23 — LEHI, 7 p.m.