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High school football: Contenders aplenty in loaded 3AA North

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We are really excited about the opportunity to open up a new school in Cache Valley. It will be a challenge to start a program from scratch. – Ridgeline coach Chris Howell

Two new coaches, a new high school, and stability and optimism at traditional doormat Ben Lomond. It could be a wild year in the 3AA North region.

That’s amplified by the fact there’s no clear-cut favorite.

When the Deseret News polled the 3AA North coaches on projections for the upcoming season, three different 3AA North teams received first-place votes, and incredibly none of them were for defending state champ Logan.

Perhaps that’s to be expected after Logan graduated the bulk of its starters last season, and coach Mike Favero stepped down after 17 years and five state championships. But then again, it’s hard to imagine Logan’s winning culture simply disappearing.

“After losing a lot of seniors, we will need underclassmen to step up and take on leadership roles. We have a very competitive group that likes to work,” said Logan coach Jayson Anderson.

Tooele and Ridgeline were the two teams that received multiple first-place votes, and it’s hard to argue with their chances.

Tooele finished second in 3AA North last season, eventually advancing to the state semifinals where it lost to Dixie. The Buffaloes return their two leading rushers from last season, but just as important they return with a winning mentality that the program lacked for roughly a decade.

“Until last year we hadn’t won a playoff game in over 10 years, and hadn’t been in the playoffs for over 10 years,” said Tooele coach Kyle Brady. “Against Dixie, going back and watching the film we just weren’t ready to play. We were a little timid, a little scared.”

Tooele is anxious for a shot at the big stage again, and this year's players are confident in their ability to get there.

First-year school Ridgeline is equally as confident for uniquely different reasons.

Ridgeline split Mountain Crest’s enrollment in half, and many of Mountain Crest’s top defensive football players from last season elected to attend Ridgeline this year. In fact, four of its top six tacklers from a year ago will suit up for Ridgeline this season.

That includes highly recruited linebacker/running back Levani Damuni.

“We are really excited about the opportunity to open up a new school in Cache Valley. It will be a challenge to start a program from scratch,” said Ridgeline coach Chris Howell.

Stansbury is another 3AA North team with plenty to be excited about, and a ton of quality returning starters is the reason why.

“This team could be potentially one of our better teams I think. We’ll wait to see until we get playing real games,” said Stansbury coach Clint Christiansen. “This year we bring a ton of kids back, and we feel we have a lot of depth coming in. Expectations are always extremely high for our kids and our program, it’s just expected to win. It doesn’t matter who steps in, you’re expected to play at a high level.”

Many of the big question marks in this region come as a result of the top four contenders.

Park City, Judge and Bear River all tied for fourth in 3AA North with 2-4 records, while Ben Lomond finished one game back.

Ben Lomond returns most of its primary offensive weapons and could be one of the top offensive teams in the region. Getting stops defensively will be the key.

“Very excited about the amount of returning starters we will have and the general direction of the program,” said coach Eric Alder. “We have a good number of committed kids that have been working very hard for two years now. Looking to build on our success of last year.”

Park City’s Josh Montzingo has been promoted from assistant coach to head coach, and he has a fair amount of starters to work with as the program seeks its first winning season since Brandon Matich left as head coach after the 2009 season.

Judge and Bear River both endured frustrating 2015 seasons, but both expect a quick turnaround.

“We dealt with a lot of injury last year, we lost six full-time starters, and in high school football — especially at a small school like we are — losing one or two guys hurts. Losing six really hurt a lot,” Judge coach James Cordova said.

In high school football, there’s always a silver lining with injuries. Unexpected underclassmen get playing time, which makes a difference the following year.

Bear River only has a handful of returning starters, but coach Chris Wise said, “If we play well, we’ve got as good a shot doing well as anybody in our region.”

Deseret News projections for 3AA North football teams in 2016

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)

1. TOOELE: The Buffaloes' two leading rushers from last year’s 3AA semifinal team return this season, and it’s a big reason expectations are so high. Lincoln Powers rushed for 910 yards and 13 TDs, while Demetrius Smith added 891 yards and seven TDs. A sophomore takes over at QB, Austin Meono. The trio will hope to benefit from an experienced offensive line with three returning starters, Jaren Wilson, Slate Groskreutz and Zach Dean. Defensively, Tooele has a lot of depth in the secondary, led by Josh Leakehe. Linebackers will be a strength, with returning starters Cody Whitehouse and Blake Paystrup. 2015 RECORD: 8-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Dixie 45-6 in 3AA semifinals.

2. RIDGELINE: First-year school Ridgeline begins the year with high expectations around the state after splitting off of perennial contender Mountain Crest. Several of Mountain Crest’s starters from last season transferred to Ridgeline, which won’t be your typical first-year school. Leading the way is Levani Damuni (RB/LB), who was a 5A first-team all-stater last year and the Region 1 MVP. He was second in tackles for Mountain Crest last year, and he’s not the only key defensive player who transferred. Payton Thomas (S) was first in tackles, Mitch Stott was fourth and Mason Fiefia was sixth, and they’ll all wear RiverHawks uniforms this year. 2015 RECORD: First-year school.

3. STANSBURY: With a big chunk of starters back this season, the Stallions are hoping to improve upon last year’s third-place finish. Speed offensively will be the calling card again this season, led by McCoy Didericksen, who rushed for 1,367 yards and 13 TDs a year ago. He’ll have three returning O-line starters blocking for him, Clayton Stanworth, Dante Thomas and Steve Havili. Casey Roberts, Emilio Jaramillo and Jamin Peacock will all play key roles in the running game as well. The linebacking core is anchored by Stanworth, Matt McIntyre and Alix Taukeiaho. 2015 RECORD: 7-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Snow Canyon 48-28 in 3AA first round.

4. JUDGE MEMORIAL: Injuries kept Judge from ever really competing last season, but this season there’s renewed optimism. Jack Boomer is a key returning starter at quarterback and safety. Success in the running game hinges on Sport Falemaka and Sam Cassel, who both contributed a year ago. The defense is anchored by a strong linebacking core of Alex Barnett, Falemaka and Andreas Cordova. Both the offensive and defensive line are young and inexperienced, and their development will ultimately determine how far this team goes. 2015 RECORD: 3-8. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Cedar 20-17 in 3AA first round

5. LOGAN: With a new coach and a new offense, the landscape at Logan is certainly going to be different in 2016. New coach Jayson Anderson will be using a pro-style offense this season with Jonny Parkinson taking over at QB. It won’t be the same up-tempo offense as has been Logan’s trademark for over a decade. Josh Atuatasi is the lone returning starter on the offensive line, while Kaden Jones is the only wide receiver returning with experience. Defensively, linebacker Chance Corless and Blake Patterson are both back. They finished sixth and seventh on the team respectively in tackles a year ago. 2015 RECORD: 11-2. PLAYOFFS: Beat Dixie 26-15 in 3AA championship.

6. BEAR RIVER: After winning just three games last season, the Bears are hopeful of bounce-back. They’ll have to do so with a brand new offensive line after all five starters graduated. Coach Chris Wise said that Josh Madsen, Jordan Watson, Dalton Marsh and Lorenzo Chairez are more than capable of filling those shoes. Kaygen Canfield started two games at QB last year, and now he takes over as the full-time starter. Bear River’s top three receivers from last year are back, Gunner Sorenson, Rilee Summers and Bracken Stokes. The defense is anchored by Bryken Jensen (LB) and Madsen (DL), who finished third and fourth on the team in tackles a year ago. 2015 RECORD: 3-8. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Pine View 21-13 in 3AA first round.

7. PARK CITY: Josh Montzingo takes over as head coach, and he’ll send on the offensive combination of QB Spencer Zur and WR Collin Zur. They combined for 66 receptions for 1,371 yards and 11 TDs last year. Tyler Shea, Russ Reiss and Beau Pederson are other targets Spencer Zur will try to spread the ball to. Several linemen will be key two-way players, Cameron Gallagher and Eli Alford. The linebackers in the 4-2-5 defense are Connor Keizer and Ben Towery. 2015 RECORD: 5-6. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Hurricane 51-20 in 3AA first round.

8. BEN LOMOND: Consistency at coaching staff might finally pay dividends at Ben Lomond as Eric Alder enters his second season. The Scots were very young last season, and as a result return eight offensive starters and nine defensive starters from last year’s 4-win team. Among them are Kenyon Harris, who passed for 2,271 yards and 19 TDs last season, while running back Angelo Rios also returns after rushing for 1,299 yards and 21 TDs. Getting stops defensively will be the key to the season, and among the defensive players who need to step up are Seth Ellis (DL), Mickey Dunkley (S) and Deontay Nish (CB). 2015 RECORD: 4-6. PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.

James Edward is the Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer. EMAIL: jedward@deseretnews.com