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High school football: Springville-Spanish Fork rivalry has heated back up

During the years that the Spanish Fork Dons were a 5A team, the long rivalry with the Springville Red Devils lost a lot of its luster.

There wasn't anything on the line other than bragging rights.

But the fire and excitement is back now that both, along with Nebo School District's other three high schools — Payson, Salem Hills and Maple Mountain — are in the same league, along with the Uintah Utes to the east.

Adding fuel to the rivalry fire is the fact that the Dons and Red Devils are clearly the cream of the crop in Region 8 football. In the Deseret News preseason straw poll, three league coaches picked the Dons to win the league this season, and two picked Springville. Uintah did not predict an order of finish.

Last year's Springville-Spanish Fork battle at Spanish Fork, which came down to the final seconds, was a classic prep football game. By winning, the Red Devils earned a more favorable playoff bracket and advanced all the way to the state title game.

Expect similar fireworks, a similar nail-biting game and similar importance on the line when the teams meet for the rematch on Oct. 8 at Springville. Most likely, the game will be for the Region 8 title and a No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

So why are these two teams so strong again this year? They both return almost all of their offensive stars, have good balance and good depth. Confidence is not lacking either.

The Dons have quarterback Hayden Nielsen, running back PJ Inoke, lineman Isaac Asiata and receiver Travis Still (possibly the region's top offensive player) back.

"I've never been around a team that has more team camaraderie than this team does," Still said.

The Red Devils return quarterback Steve Bate, running backs Marcus Case and Mitch Paystrup, and defensive stars Caleb McCray and Brody Swanson. The death of linebacker Brandon Curtis, killed two weeks ago in a post-practice rollover accident in the school parking lot, should also be a source of inspiration throughout the season.

"I really like our team, I really do. I think we're going to be pretty good," Red Devils coach Scott Mitchell said.

Just because the region's other teams are looking at Spanish Fork and Springville as the teams to beat doesn't mean they're throwing in the towel by any means. If the right pieces fall into the right places, one or two of the other four could spoil the plans of the favored two. All feel confident that they can compete with any team.

Most likely, however, Salem Hills, Uintah, Maple Mountain and Uintah will be fighting for the league's third and final playoff berth.

The Skyhawks, who finished third last year, appear to have the upper hand to do the same this year with decent depth and above-average athleticism.

"This is our first class that has gone through the sophomore to senior years at Salem Hills," Skyhawks coach Monte Morgan said. "We're hoping that we have developed some depth, but we're still several years away from that. Our defense must step up and improve this year for us to improve."

Payson continues to be on the verge of breaking through, and might do so this year in the second season under coach Jeremy Chapman.

"We will be athletic and able to spread the ball around. If we have a few key positions step up, we will be tough," Chapman said.

Everyone's anxious to see how Maple Mountain progresses after a tough year last season in which mostly sophomores and juniors went up against bigger and more experienced teams. Realistically, the goal of coach Brad Burtenshaw is to just become competitive, and hopefully win a game or two as the Golden Eagles take the tough steps forward in building a consistent football program.

"We have a lot of kids back and we've been working hard. We'll definitely be more competitive than we were last year. ... We don't have to start quite from scratch this year," Burtenshaw said.

The mystery of the league continues to be Uintah. The Nebo teams' coaches are not quite sure what the Utes will bring this season, other than to say that games out in Vernal always tend to be a handful.

REGION 8 PROJECTIONS

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches' votes)

1. SPANISH FORK: Ever since Nebo School District opened up Salem Hills and Maple Mountain, the Dons' football numbers have been down. However, the kids they do have are high in talent. And this year they return most of their skill-position players and one of the top linemen in the state. Hayden Nielsen was more than adequate at QB as a sophomore and should be much better this year. Cody Duncan, Christian Tuele, Alex Adams and Luigy Paulino will help out on both sides of the ball. PJ Inoke will be one of the league's top running backs. Travis Still is one of the state's top receivers and Isaac Asiata a top lineman, and both will play next season for the Utah Utes.

2009 RECORD: 8-3. PLAYOFFS: Beat Pine View in first round, lost to Timpview in quarterfinals.

2. SPRINGVILLE: When you look at what Springville lost from last year's state runner-up team you'll see some depth issues in the defensive backfield and receiver positions. But everywhere else the Red Devils are probably stronger than they were last year. The offensive and defensive lines, with Brody Swanson, Matt Sumsion, Landon McKell, John Topou and Steven Gueck, should be solid. Caleb McCray and Seth Cranford will lead a tough defense. Junior quarterback Steve Bate has a year of seasoning, and running backs Mitch Paystrup and Marcus Case provide a powerful 1-2 punch. Receiver Zach Gardinier is as fast as they come.

2009 RECORD: 11-2. PLAYOFFS: Advanced to state title game with wins over Sky View, Woods Cross and Dixie. Lost to Timpview in championship game.

3. SALEM HILLS: Even though coach Monte Morgan is playing down his talent a little bit and says the Skyhawks still have a few years to go before establishing the depth needed to be a top team, they're still much improved and deeper than most teams in the league. Right now Morgan is still figuring out how best to use his talent, and there's a battle for the QB job between 6-foot-5 Jordan Robles and the versatile Sione Wolfgramm. The most experience comes in the offensive line, where Brayden Parry, Joseph Armstrong and McAbe Fatai will keep things steady until the backfield gets comfortable. Jaxon Munns will star at both linebacker and running back, and Cody Barlow will play both DB and receiver.

2009 RECORD: 6-5. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Mountain Crest in first round.

4. UINTAH: The Utes will have to rely on the arm of Kalin Leyba, who tossed six touchdowns for nearly 600 yards as a junior last season, if they have any chance of escaping the shadows of the Region 8 powers. Jaren Daggett, who played for the team as a sophomore, returns to strengthen the backfield and should be the main focus in the speed option attack. Look for three-year starter Jarom Tollefson and Kalen Williams to make an impact on both the offensive and defensive lines. Uintah will have to capitalize on a crucial three-game stretch midway through the season against Spanish Fork, Springville and Salem Hills.

2009 RECORD: 3-6. PLAYOFFS: Failed to qualify.

5. PAYSON: The Lions seem to have the same issues year after year - several top-notch players, but not a lot of depth and weakness in a few positions. That's the case again this year. But if a few younger players step up and develop quickly, this Lions team could be one of 4A's surprise squads. They'll depend on junior QB Clint Batemen to direct the offense, with Brady Loveless being the main ball carrier, and Zach Loveless, Brad Hales and Collin Bateman providing the talent at receiver. Caleb Bateman, Tyson Allsop, Kolton Jewett and Josh Lundberg will be called upon to lead the defense, and also provide the protection up front on offense.

2009 RECORD: 5-5. PLAYOFFS: Failed to qualify.

6. MAPLE MOUNTAIN: The Golden Eagles were so young last year and have so many players back that they can't help but be better. But they'll still struggle against the league's top teams, and have to prove that they can even be competitive against the lower-tier teams. Junior QB Jace Edmunds looks to increase the offensive output, with help from running backs Cameron Carson and Riley Flinders. Devin Barker will be Edmunds' main receiving target. Linebackers Colby Jeffers and Mike Loveless hope to do a better job this year at stopping teams. The Golden Eagles' biggest question mark will be a small, young and inexperienced line.

2009 RECORD: 0-9. PLAYOFFS: Failed to qualify.

e-mail: jimr@desnews.com