HYRUM — With 14 returning starters, including arguably the state's best quarterback in junior Alex Kuresa, and some momentum after pushing Timpview to the brink in the 4A semifinals last year, big things are expected from the Mountain Crest Mustangs this season.
"We always expect the best here," said Mountain Crest running back Alex Knowles. "I think if we don't get a state championship we've definitely fallen short of our goal."
Everyone talks about winning a state championship at this time of the year. Few teams have the pieces in place to actually do it like the Mustangs.
It all starts with Kuresa, who threw for 2,712 yards and 24 touchdowns as a sophomore. Kuresa capped his sensational sophomore season by throwing four touchdown passes and running for another in the Mustangs' heartbreaking 37-35 loss to eventual champion Timpview in last year's semis.
"He's grown," Mountain Crest coach Mark Wootton said of Kuresa. "He's gotten a lot taller and if he stays healthy we can be real good."
Kuresa will be the first to say that he's only one of several weapons for Mountain Crest this season. The Mustangs are loaded.
Even with Kuresa at quarterback, Mountain Crest will be balanced and equally dangerous running the ball as they'll be passing it. Knowles won the outstanding running back award at BYU's camp this summer and is poised for a big year. As a junior he rushed for 926 yards, had 623 receiving yards and scored 13 touchdowns.
Four other starters return on offense for Mountain Crest along with Kuresa and Knowles. Zac Neimann and Joey Jenkins will anchor the offensive line. Kuresa will have receiving threats to work with in players such as Tyler Weese, Matt Stewart and Troy Pickett.
Defensively, the Mustangs are loaded with eight returning starters, and even more players who have varsity experience. Players such as Weese, Stewart, Pickett Taylor Root, Scofield Smith, Brennen Archibald, Raider Lofthouse, Tanner Kennedy and Nate Rigby will again be key for what's traditionally a hard-hitting and stingy defense.
Other players to watch include Spencer Schwab and Neal Stott.
Wootton said he's been more than pleased with how hard his team has worked during the offseason.
"They're real hard-working kids," Wootton said. "They're real committed. It's nice when you have kids who are willing to work hard. They've put in a lot of time. We started back in March and have been going pretty hard."
Last summer, Mountain Crest was motivated by an embarrassing 38-0 loss to Timpview in the 4A semifinals. The Mustangs earned some redemption in their second straight loss to the T-Birds in the semis, and haven't focused so much on Timpview in this offseason.
"You're gonna have to go through Timpview," Kuresa said. "It's not necessarily our main focus anymore. We know we've closed the gap somewhat, but they're still that much far ahead of us and we're working to bridge that gap. We're just working hard and we'll be there by the end of the season."
The Mustangs know they face a long road before seeing Timpview — or anyone else in the playoffs for that matter. Wootton put together a tough non-league schedule with opponents such as Lone Peak, Highland and East. The Mustangs are looking forward to renewing their rivalry with Logan, who they didn't play the past four seasons.
"I know people are excited to see it," Wootton said. "We're glad they're back in 4A. It'll be fun to play them."
Everyone expects Mountain Crest to be a solid team this season, and the players have worked hard to make sure it happens. The last thing they want is to be a disappointing team.
"We have high expectations but we got to make sure we take care of things on the field and not just say it," Weese said.
Mountain Crest Mustangs at a glance
Coach: Mark Wootton is in his sixth year at Mountain Crest where he has a 39-19 record. He led the Mustangs to a state championship in 2005. He has a 112-75 overall coaching record.
Key Players: Quarterback Alex Kuresa is among the elite players in the state at his position and he's only a junior. Running back Alex Knowles is poised for a big year after putting up more than 1,600 yards of total offense as a junior. Players such as Tyler Weese, Matt Stewart and Troy Pickett are expected to contribute on both sides of the ball. Other players who should play key roles are Zac Neimann, Taylor Root, Scofield Smith, Brennen Archibald, Raider Lofthouse, Tanner Kennedy, Nate Rigby, Spencer Schwab and Neal Stott.
Strengths: The Mustangs are experienced with six returning starters on offense and eight on defense. They'll be balanced on offense with Kuresa throwing and Knowles handling the bulk of the carries. The well-coached Mustangs will be strong defensively despite their lack of size.
Concerns: The biggest concern Wootton had about his team was complacency. With so many players back with varsity experience and expectations high, it would be easy for the team to not prepare as well for a season. But even that concern seems to have been squelched during a solid offseason for Mountain Crest.
Last year: 10-2, lost in the semifinals to Timpview
Predicted Region 5 finish: First
Postseason possibilities: The Mustangs were pegged as the second-ranked team in 4A by the classification's coaches and as the favorite to win Region 5. If this team stays healthy, the sky is the limit. Region and state championships are certainly possibilities for Mountain Crest.
Aug. 21 — at Highland, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 — LONE PEAK, 7 p.m.
Sept. 4 — EAST, 7 p.m.
Sept. 12 — at Pocatello, Idaho, 4:30 p.m.
Sept. 18 — BONNEVILLE, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 — at Box Elder, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30 — at Springville, 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 — LOGAN, 7 p.m.
Oct. 16 — at Ogden, 7 p.m.
Oct. 22 — at Sky View, 7 p.m.