Last season was an eye-opener for Millard football coach Marshall Sheriff.
After eight wildly successful seasons that included an impressive 73-20 overall record, a slew of injuries and what Sheriff called a "piss-poor attitude" by some of his players led to the first losing season in his tenure at Millard.
"That cut pretty deep," said Sheriff.
Had Millard remained healthy, it might've advanced beyond the quarterfinals. But realistically, the team never seemed to recover mentally from an 0-4 start playing against mostly 3A teams. Sheriff isn't about to change his aggressive scheduling, either. He isn't content with a good regular-season record, and believes that tough games in the preseason toughen up a team for the playoffs.
That's another reason 2008 was such a punch in the gut. In 2006 and 2007, Millard advanced to the state championship game, only to lose both times.
Sheriff is hopeful that his 2009 team can get Millard back to its traditional winning ways.
"We think if we get things rolling in the right direction we can definitely get the program back to where we want to be," said Sheriff. "A lot of it comes down to if we stay healthy. We have some good young kids, but this senior group can do well if they'll work."
Like most 2A schools, Millard can't afford a rash of injuries like last year.
If the Eagles do come through their aggressive nonregion schedule against three 3A teams unscathed, they would have to be regarded as one of the teams to beat in the 2A South region.
Millard's strength should be a solid defense this season. It starts with linebacker Rendon Shields and defensive lineman Thomas Kessler, both returning starters.
"Rendon is one of our team leaders, a student body president, and we're expecting great big things from him," said Sheriff. "He'll definitely have to be that leader on the team that we need. He looks good in practice; hopefully, that will continue."
Kessler is a two-way starter on the line, a player who missed a good chunk of last season with a broken hand. The senior is one of three returning starters on the offensive line, which Sheriff admits gives him optimism about having a solid offensive season as well.
Sheriff acknowledges that his team is a bit undersized on the line, "but so was San Juan last year and we couldn't block them," he said.
Shields will also be one of Millard's primary ball-carriers along with returning junior starter Pancho Alcala.
A lot of underclassmen like Alcala earned playing time last year, which — assuming that group stays healthy — means 2009 should be a bounce-back season for Millard.
Millard Eagles at a glance
Coach: Marshall Sheriff is in his 10th year at Millard with a 77-27 record.
Key Players: Thomas Kessler and Josh Aleman make a formidable tandem on a defensive line that should be solid, whereas a linebacking core anchored by Rendon Shields and Cameron Whitaker could be even better. Michael Freeman is an undersized player on the offensive line but a returning starter who never takes a play off.
Strengths: An improved attitude should go a long way to helping Millard this year. Defensively, coach Sheriff is excited about 2009 as well. He likes his defensive ends and he's adamant that his linebackers have the potential to be as good as his linebackers during back-to-back state title-game appearances in 2006 and 2007. Junior tailback Pancho Alcala could be poised for a fantastic season as well.
Concerns: Injuries can be freakish occurrences, but when they decimate a team, that group might just be injury-prone team. That was Millard's downfall last year, but the coaching staff is hopeful it was just a fluke. Several of those players are counted on to make contributions this year, but realistically they're first-year starters after watching most of the games from the sideline last year.
Last year: 4-7, lost to Manti in 2A quarterfinals.
Predicted 2A South finish: Second.
Postseason possibilities: It's hard to imagine that 2008 wasn't an aberration. Millard will be back in the hunt for a region championship, and anything less than a state semifinal appearance would be surprising.
Aug. 21 — at North Sanpete, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 — CEDAR, 7 p.m.
Sept. 4 — at Grantsville, 7 p.m.
Sept. 11 — GRAND, 7 p.m.
Sept. 18 — at South Sevier, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 — KANAB, 7 p.m.
Oct. 2 — at Parowan, 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 — ENTERPRISE, 7 p.m.
Oct. 15 — at Beaver, 7 p.m.