BOUNTIFUL — Success has become so commonplace at Bountiful that making the playoffs is not enough. When the Braves reach the 4A tournament, they expect to win games and they expect to contend for state titles.
Neither scenario happened last fall. Bountiful indeed earned its customary playoff berth, only to suffer a quick postseason exit with a 12-10 first-round loss to Highland. Seeing the program endure three first-round losses in the last four years has made the Braves hungry to do better this time around.
"We want to come out and get a good seed in the state playoffs and be able to make some waves there in the state playoffs," Bountiful coach Larry Wall said.
Helping the Braves' cause is the fact they return several key players from last year's 8-3 squad — especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Thomas Hamilton and Helam Heimuli are entering their third season as starters on the defensive line. Ben Lemon is a returning starter at linebacker and Conner Winters returns at cornerback. All four players were key contributors to a unit that surrendered just 8.4 points per game and shut out four teams.
As good as the defense was last fall, the Braves are convinced they can be even better on that side of the ball this time around because they have greater speed than a year ago.
"Growing up, I was playing on teams that were just big and strong," Hamilton said. "But now we have fast (players) in the mix, it just makes everything easier. We all do our jobs."
An experienced backfield should make that defense even more intimidating. It starts with Mitch Johnson — a three-year starter at fullback — who is just the sort of physical runner and blocker Bountiful thrives on.
Wall said having a leader like Johnson at such an important position in the Braves offense is a boon to the entire team.
"He's like having a coach on the football field," Wall said. "He's a proven winner and that's contagious with the rest of your players — not just your backfield, but your whole football team."
The major question mark on offense is at quarterback where Ty Talbot and Dylan Salazar are locked into a tight battle for the starting job. Talbot, a senior, led the JV team to an 8-1 record last season and, based on his performance at that level, could have the inside track to be the varsity team starter.
On special teams, Spencer Moleman will take over kicking duties. As with several of his predecessors, Moleman is a converted soccer player. Wall is confident the kicking game won't miss a beat with him on the field.
"We've had all-state kickers the last two years and Spencer is out of that same mold," Wall said. "He'll step in and do a great job with the kicking for us."
A defining characteristic of Bountiful this season players and coaches alike single out is how disciplined they already are across the board. It is a trait Wall demands from his players and it is one the players also demand from themselves.
"Starting on day one, that's what we always try to establish is discipline," Heimuli said. "Having all that discipline just shows that we really care and that we're all ready to work hard for this next season. We're not just screwing around. We're taking everything seriously. It will all pay off."
Based on what he's seen throughout the offseason, Wall has plenty of reasons to believe the Braves will meet the standard of past seasons and maybe even set a new mark on their own.
"Their enthusiasm is there," Wall said. "Our kids are excited. They worked hard in the summer and that's the main thing we ask of them. They're excited about starting for real here in a couple of weeks."
Bountiful Braves at a glance
Coach: Larry Wall enters his 25th season guiding the Braves and has a 183-88 record overall.
Key Players: Bountiful returns at three-year starters at several positions — including Mitch Johnson (fullback), Thomas Hamilton (defensive line) and Helam Heimuli (Tight end/ Defensive end). Ben Lemon and Conner Winters are expected to be defensive anchors at linebacker and defensive back respectively. Spencer Moleman takes over at kicker — a strong position for Bountiful in recent seasons.
Strengths: Experience is always a good thing. It is even better for the Braves that their most experienced players are in the backfield and on defense. Both areas are traditional staples in any Bountiful team under Wall and it could mean good things for the Braves in the postseason.
Weaknesses: The quarterback position was not settled going into two-a-days and a lack of a clear leader at that position could be problematic for the offense. Bountiful has two capable quarterbacks in Ty Talbot and Dylan Salazar, but the Braves need to settle on one quickly.
Predicted Region 6 finish: First.
Postseason Possibilities: As long as Larry Wall is at the helm, the Braves are going to be a virtual lock for the 4A playoffs. Getting past the first round has been a struggle the past few seasons. But with the team's experience and talent on defense and in the backfield, look for the Braves to make a run at the semifinals.
Aug. 21 - at Lone Peak, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 - SPANISH FORK, 7 p.m.
Sept. 4 - at Logan, 7 p.m.
Sept. 11 - TOOELE, 7 p.m.
Sept. 18 - WOODS CROSS, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 - VIEWMONT, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30 - at East, 7 p.m.
Oct 9 - HIGHLAND, 7 p.m.
Oct 16 - at Stansbury, 7 p.m.
Oct 22 - at Olympus, 7 p.m.