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High school football: Region 9 returns to normal

There's some normalcy back in southern Utah this year. The situation still isn't ideal with the split Region 9, but most would agree anything is better than last year.

The seven Region 9 teams played football last year knowing virtually nothing mattered. For the three 4A schools and the four 3A schools, their crossover games against each other were glorified nonregion games. The coaches knew it, the players knew it and the fans knew it.

As a result, attendance suffered, and motivation was even trickier.

"Last year we lost to all three of the 4A schools," said Cedar coach Todd Peacock. "We played our butts off against Dixie; we were beating them halfway through the fourth quarter and lost the game and the kids were heartbroken. We were trying to console them and we said, 'You played hard, we lost a ball game, but what does it hurt us?' The next two games against Pine View and Snow Canyon, we didn't play very well. It was heartbreaking to see that our kids did give their best effort because in their minds it didn't matter."

Motivation was equally as bad for the 4A schools that knew their whole season was riding on two games, so what was the incentive to play hard against old region rivals Hurricane, Cedar and Canyon View?

"It's hurting the gates, you don't get the crowds anymore at those 3A Region 9 games," said Pine View coach Ray Hosner.

From a competitive standpoint and a business standpoint, things are changing this year. Region 9 will still be split between 4A and 3A, but crossover games against each other will count in the league standings and help determine who qualifies for the state tournament.

"Now that it matters, every game is going to be a battle, and I think it will help the competition and everyone will be that much more competitive," said Dixie running back Dallen Reber.

Having all six league games matter in the end seems like a logical decision; how it affects state tournament qualification was a bit more difficult.

For the four 3A schools, it's simple. Regardless of where they finish in the overall region standings, the top three advance to the playoffs. Even if 3A's top finishers end up fourth, fifth and sixth in Region 9 behind the big boys of 4A, all three still advance to the playoffs.

It's a bit trickier for the 4A schools. At most, two of the three qualify for the playoffs, but only one is guaranteed a berth. For the top 4A team — even if it finishes behind a 3A team in the standings — it goes into the state tournament as a No. 1 seed and enjoys home-field advantage in its first two playoff games.

The second 4A team must finish in Region 9's top three to qualify for the playoffs; otherwise, that postseason berth will go to Region 5's No. 4 seed. The second 4A team must finish second overall in Region 9 to receive a first-round home game, with a third-place finish sending it on the road for the playoffs.

"If we lose a game to them, there's a good chance we might not make the playoffs at all," said Hosner. "I enjoy being 4A. I'll be honest with you, the only thing I don't enjoy is if you don't finish first there's a chance you might not go to the playoffs."

Such a scenario seems unlikely, but if Hurricane and Cedar have the big seasons they appear capable of, Hosner's fear could become reality.

REGION 9 (4A) PROJECTIONS

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches' votes)

1. PINE VIEW: Pine View has advanced to the semifinals in four of the last five years, including back-to-back appearances since making the jump to 4A. Duplicating that feat won't be easy in 2009 with just four returning starters on offense and two on defense. On top of that, roughly only five seniors are projected to start this year. Among them is four-year starter K.J. Boyer, who will anchor the offensive and defensive line. Pine View will likely pass more this year with a talented receiving core that includes Mike McLaws and Kaden Hosner. Defensively, returning starting linebackers Wil Bangerter and Isaac Katoa will be the heart of the team. 2008 RECORD: 10-2. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Cottonwood in the semifinals.

2. DIXIE: There's an increased level of certainty heading into the 2009 season following a season with a new coach and a drastically new offense. Led by quarterback Mike Sharpe, the Flyers are poised for a big season in the spread offense. Running backs Dallen Reber and John Matuauto and receiver Dalton Smith should flourish in their seniors years. Dixie returns two of five starters on the offensive line, but overall it won't be as big as last year when it lost to Mountain Crest by two points in the quarterfinals. Dixie is an unknown quantity defensively with zero returning starters. 2008 RECORD: 7-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Mountain Crest in the quarterfinals.

3. SNOW CANYON: The Warriors are again under the direction of coach Jay Graft, who previously was the head coach from 2002 to 2004. Snow Canyon is scrapping the spread offense for a more traditional offense. Austin Larsen will get the starting nod at quarterback, where he'll be protected by returning offensive line starters Chad Gough and Adam Bishop. There's plenty of depth at fullback and tailback, but Graft admits there's concern on the defensive line. He wants to build his defense with speed. 2008 RECORD: 2-7. PLAYOFFS: Missed the playoffs.

REGION 9 (3A) PROJECTIONS

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches' votes)

1. HURRICANE: After coming up three points short in last year's 3A championship game, the Tigers return 10 total starters and are poised to make another deep run in the playoffs. A stout defense should be the catalyst. Ian Gates, Jaden Seeley and Micah Anderson are all returning starters at linebacker, with Anderson Rich, Zach Sorenson and Jacob Pugh back in the secondary. Coach Chris Homer is concerned about the inexperience on his offensive and defensive lines, but he's thrilled with the depth at the skill positions. 2008 RECORD: 12-2. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Juan Diego in the championship.

2. CEDAR: Traditionally a senior-heavy team, Cedar returns nine combined starters this year who were major contributors as underclassmen. Among them is lineman Jesse Woods, perhaps the strongest player ever at Cedar. He's one of four returning starters on the O-line, even though the team lacks size there. Jackson Carter will start at quarterback after starting in the secondary last year. He'll be joined by junior cornerback Treyson Fullmer, another standout player who will get plenty of touches at running back. 2008 RECORD: 6-6. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Park City in the quarterfinals.

3. DESERT HILLS: After serving as an assistant last year, Jake Nelson takes over as head coach for the second-year school. He inherits a team with about seven seniors who started on both sides of the ball as juniors. Defense should be the Thunder's strength, at least early on. Butch Hatch and Casey Schaffer are returning starters at linebacker, with some solid returnees in the secondary. Offensively, Chase Webster returns at quarterback, but he'll be doing so with the help of two new offensive coordinators. 2008 RECORD: 3-7. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Logan in the first round.

4. CANYON VIEW: The program made great strides in Alex Huxford's first year in 2008, and he's hoping to continue that upward trend. It won't be easy this season with only three returning starters and little varsity experience. Defensively the Falcons will rely on three juniors who played major minutes as sophomores. Mike Allen and Ben Doolin will start on the defensive line, with Cameron Causey backing them up at linebacker. Offensively, lineman Jake Gibb is the only returning starter. 2008 RECORD: 3-6. PLAYOFFS: Missed the playoffs.

E-MAIL: jedward@desnews.com