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High school football: East Leopards 2011 preview

Note: East finished with an 8-3 overall record in 2010 and a 4-2 record in Region 6. It lost 56-26 to Mountain Crest in the 4A quarterfinals.

SALT LAKE CITY — During the historic 2008 Sugar Bowl season for the University of Utah, a motto was used to break the huddle for all 13 games.

Family.

A team sporting the same colors that's located right down the street from Rice-Eccles is now dawning that same slogan for the 2011 season.

East High made the largest turnaround in the state with a seven game improvement — including opening the year 6-0 — after a disastrous 1-8 season in 2009.

This came in the first year under head coach Brandon Matich after he enjoyed many successful seasons at Park City High. He credits the results to the feeling of family throughout the team.

"If you care about kids then I think they start to buy in. We have a great staf. We have a concept that's kind of cliché nowadays — it's family," Matich said. "We live up to ours, it's printed on our jerseys at practice. This group of kids have really bought into that and (know if they) work together and care about each other then things can happen."

The Leopards astonishingly return 18 starters on a team that ranked seventh in 4A in points per game.

Yet, in the preseason coaches poll East is predicted to finish third in Region 6 behind defending state champion Highland and powerhouse Bountiful.

"It is what it is," said Matich of the preseason rankings. "You have Bountiful and Coach Wall who has had immense success over the years; they deserve all the credit and accolades. Then Highland, they're the defending state champions, so that's going to come with some positive accolades as well. I understand; I get it."

The rankings and doubt stemming from the East program is certainly due to the travails of replacing quarterback Tanner Curtis.

The dual-threat signal-caller rushed for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns while tossing for 1,113 yards with 13 scores and only two picks last season.

Right now, two players are fighting for the spot behind center — senior Jason Cook and sophomore Isaac Valles. However, one week into two-a-day practices Cook has the slight edge over his younger counterpart.

"Early on, Jason Cook is the frontrunner. He came out of camp as our starter. He's doing really well. He was our starting wingback last year — he's a great athlete," said Matich. "But I wouldn't sell Isaac short; the kid has a lot of talent. He can really throw the football, but he's just going to be a sophomore."

Whoever notches the position for the season opener has the luxury of playing alongside one of the most explosive tailbacks in the state.

Liti Molisi — whom Matich believes is the best runner in the state — rushed for 1,041 yards and 10 touchdowns on 148 carries as a junior last season.

"He'll fulfill an interesting role this year because he'll probably be the guy, not having Tanner there," Matich said. "I made the statement (on Molisi being the best in the state) based on yards-wise because he was third or fourth in the entire state at that position (last year). He's a very quick, athletic back. He catches the ball very well. I think the sky is the limit for him."

Just how good the Leopards are will be displayed on the opening week when they travel to one of the 3A frontrunners, Pine View.

The game reeks of a trap game. The Panthers are trying to avenge a 32-14 loss last season at East. Then travel time comes into play as 300 miles separate the two campuses and the hot, dry St. George weather is bound to affect a northern school in Salt Lake.

"It's tough, it's going to be really hot, (my players) know that. It's going to be a long drive. We're going to make the journey and come back. We're not staying overnight," said Matich. "I don't know if it's a trap game. I know our guys are really excited. Pine View is a really good football team. Our guys are aware of that. I'm more concerned with how our kids are going to handle the weather in the heat and the turf down there."

East Leopards as a glance

Coach: Brandon Matich is in his second year with East after a debut 8-3 season. He has a 47-21 record in seven years of coaching experience and is a graduate of Brighton High.

Offense

(Eight returning starters; triple-option)

The quarterback is a major area of concern right now.

"You have to build your strengths around the guys you have in high school," Matich said of the vacancy at quarterback. "We're a triple-option team and a lot of our strengths rely on the quarterback."

Luckily for the Leopards they have enough firepower to compensate and an offensive line led by one of the most athletic guards in the state, Vaha Vainuku, and shouldn't miss a beat in production in 2011.

Defense

(10 returning starters)

It's rare in high school to only lose one starter on defense to graduation. The Leopards weren't exactly a juggernaut ballclub on defense, but they sufficed. With so much experience coming back its hard not to think East transforms into a stingy defensive team.

Coaches preseason Region 6 straw poll: Third

Deseret News Region 6 prediction: Third

Bottom line: It's becoming a very well-known commodity around the state that opposing teams better circle East on its calendar because the Leopards are going to bring it. This is the darkhorse in 4A that's flying under the radar. East has the luxury of playing Highland, Bountiful and Woods Cross at home this season after almost winning the Region 6 title last year. This is a very dangerous team and could make a very deep push into the playoffs.

2011 Schedule

Aug. 19 — at Pine View, 7 p.m.

Aug. 26 — at Orem, 7 p.m.

Sept. 2 — WEST, 7 p.m.

Sept. 9 — at Fremont, 7 p.m.

Sept. 16 — WOODS CROSS, 7 p.m.

Sept. 23 — at Clearfield, 3:30 p.m.

Sept. 30 — at Cyprus, 7 p.m.

Oct. 7 — BOUNTIFUL, 7 p.m.

Oct. 14 — HIGHLAND, 7 p.m.

Oct. 19 — LOGAN, 7 p.m.

email: tphibbs@desnews.com