MURRAY — Winning one game in two seasons is not a situation that usually breeds positive feelings within a football program. At Murray, however, it feels like the storm clouds are dissipating and rays of light are finally breaking through.
Even as the Spartans make an improbable shift from 4A to 5A, they do so with a team that promises to be the most experienced and most gifted in terms of speed and athleticism since Dan Aragon took over as head coach.
Aragon feels confident he has gathered enough ingredients to cook up a successful season in Murray's 5A debut.
"A lot of teams have been kicking us while we've been down the last few years," Aragon said. "We're ready to come back up."
If the Spartans do make that ascent, they will likely require big performances from returning playmakers Tyler Prestwich and Dee Hamala to fuel it. Last year, Prestwich averaged nine yards per carry out of the backfield and was one of the team's top linebackers as well. Hamala averaged 34 yards per return as a special teams ace and will now guide Murray as its starting quarterback. Both players are hungry to prove they and their team can be competitive even with the move to 5A.
"I feel like we belong," Prestwich said. "We had a couple of bad seasons, but we're going to step up. We have the right players. We have the right mentality. Coaching has been great for us. 5A is just another step."
One reason for the good vibes is Aragon's decision to implement a spread offense. With several players on the roster who can run a 4.5 or 4.6 in the 40, he felt like they had the speed and athleticism required to handle a wide-open attack. Aragon also wanted to find new ways to stimulate offensive production after seeing his team score more than 10 points in a game just three times last season.
"We put ourselves into binds in the past through field position and stuff like that," Aragon said. "There's a renewed emphasis on getting first downs and continuing to move the ball. Our offense will be different."
Aragon is confident the spread will work well because he has confidence in Hamala's ability to make it work. He noted that the senior has worked hard during the offseason to improve his strength and accuracy. Add to the mix his preexisting mobility and Hamala seems poised to give defenses a lot of problems. After having some time to digest the new offensive schemes, Hamala feels like the spread plays to his strengths and the strengths of his teammates.
"We feel like we finally found the right offense," Hamala said.
One thing that should aid Murray in its efforts to improve on both sides of the ball is the Spartans return several senior linemen who have the size and experience to make good things happen. Aragon is upbeat about the potential of senior defensive end Sean Pili.
His skills piqued the interest of the Snow College coaching staff when the Spartans went to a camp there in June.
Murray also has some strength at linebacker where Prestwich and multisport athlete Wyatt Woodward will anchor the position. Perhaps the most positive sign the program is heading in the right direction is how things are developing for Murray among the younger classes. Aragon has been able to retain nearly all the kids who live in the school boundaries among the freshman and sophomore classes — losing just two players in each age group to other schools. If the current team can generate victories, they feel confident things will keep progressing.
"It will mean a lot to Murray as a whole," Hamala said. "It will help for the future years. They'll know what it takes to be successful and they'll just build on it. We'll be the foundation."
Murray Spartans at a glance
Coach: Dan Aragon is entering his third season at Murray with a 1-18 record.
Key Players: With a new spread offense in place, Dee Hamala and Tyler Prestwich will be counted on to become playmakers at quarterback and running back respectively. Experience on the offensive and defensive lines should help Murray's efforts at turning things around. Keaton Adams, Calob Aloi, Thomas Palmer and Sean Pili are all seniors who should make a difference up front. Prestwich and Wyatt Woodard look solid at linebacker. Kamron Sanders could be a difference maker in the secondary.
Strengths: Speed is much more of an asset this year for the Spartans. Aragon felt comfortable departing from a traditional run offense to a spread look because he feels like he has the horses to back it up. Collectively, the team is hard working and focused on making this season a better one.
Weaknesses: Offense was practically non-existent for Murray last fall and a switch to the spread may not mean a whole lot if the Spartans can't move the chains. You also have to wonder about the confidence of a team mired in a 17 game losing streak stretching back nearly two years.
Predicted Region 2 finish: 7th.
Postseason Possibilities: The Spartans' long losing streak will come to an end this season — possibly in the opener against Ogden. With some region rivals also breaking in new offenses — and in some cases new coaches — the door is open to move up the ladder. The Spartans could challenge for a playoff berth if things break right, but realistically probably need another year to be a true contender.
Aug. 21 — at Ogden, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 — HILLCREST, 7 p.m.
Sept. 4 — TAYLORSVILLE, 7 p.m.
Sept. 11 — at Cottonwood, 7 p.m.
Sept. 18 — GRANGER, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 — BYE
Sept. 30 — at Hunter, 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 — WEST, 7 p.m.
Oct 16 — at Cyprus, 7 p.m.
Oct. 22 — SKYLINE, 7 p.m.