When Desert Hills vaulted to the top spot in the 3A soccer rankings earlier this season, coach Logan Fielding had a pretty clear message for his players, "it's respectful that they gave us that ranking, but it really doesn't mean anything until the end."
The Thunder maintained that attitude throughout the season, finishing with an impressive 14-0-1 record and running away with the Region 9 title.
Fielding knows there are still those who doubt if Desert Hills is capable of winning the 3A state tournament despite the glossy record, but he's anxious to see if his players can prove them wrong over the next two weeks with the 3A first round getting under way at home sites this Thursday.
Desert Hills is one of about eight teams who many believe has the quality to hoist the trophy at Rio Tinto Stadium on May 14.
"It's going to be a challenge in the state tournament because there's a lot of good teams out there," said Wasatch coach Dawain Wheatley, whose team is probably the No. 1 challenger to Desert Hills with a 14-game winning streak heading into the playoffs.
Wasatch's only loss of the season was a 3-2 setback at Desert Hills in the opening weekend of the season. Since that game the Wasps haven't lost and have only conceded three goals.
"We're playing good. We slip up here and there, and we kind of lose our focus once and a while, but we've been able to get it back," said Wheatley.
Wasatch graduated 14 seniors off of last year's 3A runner-up team, but this year's mix of seniors, juniors and sophomores has picked up right where last year's team left off. Collin Hopkins is the only returning starter from last year's team, and Wheatley said he's constantly reminding his teammates about the importance of staying focused.
A slight lack of focus in last year's championship game contributed to a 2-1 loss to Judge.
More so than perhaps any other team in the tournament, Desert Hills can't afford lose its focus. The Thunder face a very tough playoff road with a first-round game against Region 11's No. 4 seed, a potential quarterfinal game against Park City and a potential semifinal game against the Region 11 champs.
In the championship game it could face any number of teams, including a rematch with Wasatch.
"I think we've got a tough road to get to that point, I think one of the tougher roads out of any team in the postseason," said Fielding. "If we're going to make it happen we're going to have to work for it, and there won't be any questions after it's all said and done if it does happen."
Fielding said northern teams play a more physical style than Region 9, and that his players will have to adjust quickly to march along.
Wasatch is one of just two northern schools to face Desert Hills in the preseason, and Wheatley said the Thunder are a dangerous team.
"With Desert Hills they have really good speed up top, and then they have good outside midfielders. They're just athletic and fast," said Wheatley.
The 3A brackets won't officially be finalized until Tuesday night, when Juan Diego and Judge meet in the Region 11 finale. The winner heads in as the No. 1 seed while the loser takes the No. 2 seed.
Regardless of the seed both teams are capable of making a deep run in the playoffs.
Other teams capable of causing some trouble for the favorites are Hurricane, Park City, Bear River, Ben Lomond and Delta.