SALT LAKE CITY — In Brandon Matich’s first four campaigns as East High head football coach (2010-2013), the Leopards always made noise in the playoffs. Even if they didn’t have a good regular season, they managed to win at least one postseason contest each year.
Then 2014 happened. Coming off a season in which they rolled to a 13-0 start before falling to Timpview in the state championship game, East was plagued by injuries and struggles in the leadership department. The Leopards went 5-5 in the regular season and then lost to the Thunderbirds in the first round of the playoffs.
Just over a year after that loss, East will be playing for the 4A championship on Friday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, where it will get another shot at Timpview for the title.
How did Matich’s men make the jump? All players who were asked had the same answer.
Soon after getting knocked out last year, team captains got together and decided to hold workouts at 6 a.m. instead of after school. Senior offensive lineman Johnny Maea admits he wasn’t sure players would buy in, but there was desire and a recommitment to be better, to not be a squad that would go 5-5 again.
The task was difficult at times, as many of them were playing spring sports and they all had schoolwork to juggle, but the sacrifice paid off.
“To see each other in the morning at 6 a.m. every day, I think something just finally clicked, like, ‘I can trust this guy. I can play for him,’” said senior defensive end Tangaloa Kaufusi.
Senior linebacker Junior Maile had similar sentiments.
“I felt like the workouts brought us together and made us like a family,” he said. “We were spending most of the day together, like from 6 a.m. all the way until 6 at night, just studying film, lifting, spending time with each other, everything.”
The workouts rolled on until preseason camp started in the summer. They weren’t a magic pill for success, however, as the Leopards still faced some challenges.
Multiple key players have suffered injuries, and some guys even left the team. Facing a tough nonregion schedule, East lost two of its first four games, albeit to out-of-state powerhouses Centennial (California) and Valor Christian (Colorado), and players knew they had to get on track.
If there was a turning point of sorts in the season, it was Oct. 2 against Bountiful. The Leopards trailed 23-19 and just minutes remained. Only a touchdown could win it. East responded by marching the ball and Jaylen Warren punched it into the end zone from 4 yards out with 37 seconds left for the 25-23 win.
“We were talking in the huddle, and we knew that this was it,” Warren recalled this week. “We were saying that this is what we worked for since January. We came together and made a good outcome out of it.”
The Leopards have gone on to win their last six contests by an average of 32 points.
“I think our bond as a brotherhood this year is way stronger than any other team I’ve played on,” Kaufusi said. “We’re not worried about ourselves. It’s just for the guy next to you. The chemistry we have together is strong.”
That chemistry has led East to the state championship game Friday where it will face another formidable Thunderbirds squad, but it’s right where Kaufusi wants to be.
“We wanted to be up at Rice-Eccles again, but more importantly, we want to finish at Rice-Eccles,” he said. “We all wanted it, we committed ourselves and here we are now in our last week together.”
Ryan McDonald is a sports reporter at DeseretNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanwmcdonald.