MANTI — If one team statewide is truly embracing a change in classifications, Manti is it. Heartbreak is what the Templars associate most with their final season of 2A competition.
Manti spent all of last season as a potential state title favorite and lived up to the hype by reaching the 2A championship game. For a half, it appeared the Templars would close the door on 2A by hoisting a trophy on the football field at Timpview. Instead, Manti proved unable to halt one of the most impressive comeback victories in state playoff history and watched North Summit live out those championship dreams.
Memories of that sour variety make moving up to 3A seem like a perfect opportunity to create a fresh beginning.
"This is a new start for everybody," Templars coach Cole Meachem said. "This is a new year. We've got a new region. Most of our preseason games are with new schools. I've been at Manti for 15 years and we're playing several schools that we've never played in 15 years."
A fresh start means one important thing for Manti — putting the memories of the near-miss in the 2A title game behind it. Meachem acknowledges that coming up short offers some motivation going into the new season. But he and his staff have worked hard to make sure the players put the past behind them.
"There is a little bit (of hunger)," Meachem said. "There would be for any kid. What we really try to do is downplay that. We try to say last season is last season. This is this year."
Much like a year ago, things look promising for Manti this fall. On offense, the Templars will have Russell Hugentobler around to anchor the backfield once again. The senior back rushed for 775 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior. Sharing the load will be another senior, Zach Bown, who saw time on the offensive line last season.
The reason for Bown switching positions is Devan Fowles has been promoted from running back to quarterback. Fowles rushed for 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns in '08, so he offers mobility and another important ball-carrying option.
Even though Fowles possessed no prior experience as a quarterback in the Templar program, Meachem felt like he had the right qualities for the position.
"He has never taken a snap," Meachem said. "We just felt that he's a great athlete, he's a great leader and we figured that's the kid that we wanted to have the ball in his hands. So that's where we wanted to put him."
As good as things look on offense, they look even better on defense.
Experience is a defining factor on the line. Meachem expects big things out of junior Teancum Faumui after he chalked up 21 tackles and a pair of sacks as a sophomore. Teaming with him up front are seniors Marcus Tiatia and Courtney Lund.
The linebackers are solid as well. Bown was the team's leading tackler last year from that position, accounting for 61 stops. Hugentobler, who will team with Bown at linebacker too, had 25 tackles as a junior.
Fowles should be a leader in the secondary, after accounting for 24 tackles at safety last fall. Jansen Howe, another defensive back, is a player who Meachem thinks is primed for a breakout season.
"In the secondary, in the linebackers and defensive line, we do have at least one returning starter at each level there," Meachem said. "So I think that's going to be really good for us."
Manti Templars at a glance
Coach: Cole Meacham is entering his 10th season at Manti with a 66-30 overall record.
Key Players: Devan Fowles is going to need a monster season for the Templars to meet expectations. Fowles is already a leader in the secondary and now takes over as the team's new quarterback. Zach Bown, the team's leading tackler last season, is back to anchor the defense at linebacker and will contribute also at running back where Russell Hugentobler is the top returning rusher from last fall. Starting with Teancum Faumui, Manti has several experienced linemen up front.
Strengths: With many starters back from a team that came within a whisker of earning the 2A title, there is no question this Manti team knows how to win. Hugentobler had a solid junior season at running back and seems poised for an even better senior campaign. With defensive standouts like Faumui and Bown, the Templars will make it tough for opponents to get yards or points.
Weaknesses: Fowles is athletic and mobile, but he had not played quarterback until moving to the position heading into this season. Can he lead the offense with so little experience? The Templars also have to worry what kind of lingering effect blowing a huge lead in last year's 2A title game will have going into this season.
Predicted Region 12 finish: 2nd
Postseason Possibilities: It's safe to say that, barring a rash of injuries, the Templars will be playoff bound. Beyond that, going deep into the 3A tournament may be a chore with Manti now in the position of being one of the smaller 3A schools. Expect a victory or even two if the brackets are kind.
Aug. 21 — at ALA, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 — UNION, 7 p.m.
Sept. 4 — at Maple Mountain, 7 p.m.
Sept. 11 — at Cedar, 7 p.m.
Sept. 18 — PARK CITY, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 — at Delta, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30 — EMERY, 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 — at North Sanpete, 7 p.m.
Oct. 16 — JUAB, 7 p.m.
Oct. 23 — RICHFIELD, 7 p.m.