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High school football: Strong Region 9 teams embracing better competition in new 4A

Desert Hills’ 28-27 win over Pine View at Rice-Eccles Stadium last November will go down as one of the great finishes in recent state championship history. In many ways though it was just another Friday Region 9 game.

Sure there was more riding on the outcome in that game, but whenever the crème of the Region 9 crop squares off throughout the season, there’s always great drama and extremely competitive games.

And with the region’s domination of 3AA and 3A the past six years, there have been a lot of playoff rematches for the region — with the second game not often following the script of the first.

Heading into the 2017 season, there’s a different feeling around the region. Make no mistake, the crème of the crop — Desert Hills, Pine View and Dixie — are the extremely talented front-runners again, but there’s just a bit more competition around the state.

There were only 14 teams in 3AA the last four seasons, but with the UHSAA realignment, the southern Utah schools will compete in the 25-team 4A classification. That now includes all the Cache County schools in addition to some quality Utah County schools like Orem, Salem Hills and Spanish Fork.

“I don’t think you’ll see what you’ve seen in the last few years where our No. 4 is going to be able to knock off a No. 1 from another region. Those other regions are going to be way too tough,” said Pine View coach Ray Hosner. “It’s going to make it a lot more competitive.”

There’s going to be more urgency placed on a top two finish in region. The past four years it really didn’t matter if a team finished first, second or third in region. The southern region was usually better than the northern region, so a No. 3 seed was still expected to win a road playoff game.

In fact from 2012 to 2014, the No. 3 seed went on to win the state title.

That seems less likely this season, which means there should be even more urgency in league games. No longer can the mentality be “we’ll get them back in the playoffs.”

“I like that there’s more teams and there’s different areas of the state that we’ll be competing against,” said Desert Hills coach Carl Franke. “You’re not sure who’s going to win a game now. There’s going to be teams that haven’t played each other in a while (that) play each other. It’s going to be fun.”

Within the region, competition will be as good as ever.

“It’s going to be a battle down here for sure, and that’s what I like, it gets us ready for the playoffs. I think that’s why we’ve done so well the past few years because we play really good competition week in and week out. There isn’t a huge drop off like there is in some other regions,” Franke said.

The Thunder return six offensive starters from last season, including three offensive lineman anchored by highly recruited Penei Sewell. Led by new sophomore quarterback Noah Sewell, Desert Hills will pound the football again in the running game and will be tough to beat.

Pine View and Dixie are loaded too.

Pine View returns eight defensive starters and six offensive starters from last year’s runner-up team, including its quarterback and running back.

Dixie went undefeated in region last season, but its hopes of winning the championship were realistically dashed when QB Jacob Barben broke his foot in the final regular season game. Barben is back for his senior season and poised for a big year.

“We expect a ton from him. There’s no doubt at Dixie High School who’s driving the bus,” said Dixie coach Andy Stokes.

How the rest of the region plays out is a mystery.

Hurricane has big question marks on the offensive line and just a few returning starters everywhere else. Cedar has experience on the offensive line, but is breaking in a new QB in the spread offense. Snow Canyon should be better after starting mostly underclassmen last year in a 3-7 season.

Canyon View returns to Region 9 after competing in a smaller classification the past four years. It didn’t win a playoff game in any of those four years and was much tougher competition this year.

Region 9 projections

Deseret News projections for Region 9 football teams in 2017

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)

1. DIXIE: Dixie is breaking in five new starters on the offensive line this season, but it’s loaded everywhere else offensively. QB Jacob Barben is back, as are receivers Hobbs Nyberg, Payden Harrah and Nate Mahi. Nyberg had over 1,000 receiving yards last season. Ammon Ah Quin is also back at running back. Defense could be Dixie’s strength with seven returning starters, led by defensive linemen Tyson Fisher and Kaden Williams along with linebackers Payton Wilgar, Jake Staheli and Magalei Stevenson. 2016 RECORD: 7-4. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Pine View 35-14 in 3AA semifinals.

2. DESERT HILLS: Penei Sewell, Ryan Warner and Leonides Jacobsen are back to anchor a very good offensive line. Brock Parry will take on a larger role at running back this season, while sophomore Noah Sewell takes over at quarterback. As he adjusts to the new role, expect Desert Hills to be a run-heavy team. The Thunder front seven should be strong, led by returning starters Carter Reynolds and Cole Bailey on the line and Kekoa Afualo and Jake Stokes at linebacker. A young secondary is the big question going into the season, especially with some juggernaut passing teams in the region. 2016 RECORD: 10-2. PLAYOFFS: Beat Pine View 28-27 in 3AA championship.

3. PINE VIEW: Pine View is loaded with returning starters, led by QB Ryan Javines who passed for 2,503 yards and running back Jacob Mpungi, who racked up 1,640 yards and 17 TDs. Riley Duckworth, Noah Codiga and Tomasi Tonga and excellent returning starters on the offensive line. Defense could be Pine View’s strength with eight starters back. Chris Reis, Austin Peterson and Brennan Bithell anchor the linebacker core, while Solo Katoa and BYU commit Brooks Maile are beasts on the D-line. 2016 RECORD: 10-3. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Desert Hills 28-27 in 3AA championship.

4. SNOW CANYON: Has a bunch of returning starters on both sides of the ball, led on the offensive line by David Park and Tui Kanosh. Brooks Sampson and Zach Nowatzke were two of Snow Canyon’s top receivers last year, with Seth Smith and Tae Washington expected to bolster that core this year. The defense must replace its top two tacklers, but Wyatt Parry (S), Seth Smith (S), Spencer Snow (DL) and Alex Kennedy (LB) ranked third through sixth on the team in tackles a year ago. 2016 RECORD: 3-7. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Ridgeline 26-0 in 3AA first round.

5. HURRICANE: Fullback Jaron Cordova led the team with 994 rushing yards and six touchdowns last season, and he should be even more productive this year. Wingback Kolby Heaton was second on the team in rushing a year ago, and he’s also back. The only other returning starter on offense is lineman Shane Farnsworth. Adam Heyrend is expected to take over at QB. D-lineman Steve Campbell is the only returning starter in the front seven for Hurricane. The secondary is strong with Kolby Heaton and Adam Heyrend returning. 2016 RECORD: 3-7. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Bear River 20-13 in 3AA first round.

6. CEDAR: The program hopes to take a big leap this season in the third year of running the spread offense with coach Josh Bennett. Kobee Lata and Hayden Giles are returning starters on the offensive line. Cedar is breaking in a new QB, but Trent Maurer returns at running back after finishing second on the team with 558 yards last year. Markus Johnson and Tyler Allred will be key in the running game as well. Cedar’s secondary will be strong with returning starters Maurer and Luke Maggio, while the defensive line has a ton of returning experience with Nate Ellis, Daniel Jordan and Lata. 2016 RECORD: 4-6. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Park City 28-21 in 3AA first round.

7. CANYON VIEW: Bumps up a classification this year without much varsity experience as head coach Skyler Miller takes over the program. Canyon View does have two returning starters on the offensive line, Tyler Haley and Wyatt Barton, which should help. Stockton Rigby is a returning starter at QB, but he’s been slowed by a surgery he had on his foot and might not be ready for the season. Barton will anchor the defensive line, while Haley is the only other returning defensive starter at linebacker. 2016 RECORD: 4-7. PLAYOFFS: Lost to Juan Diego 42-14 in 3A quarterfinals.

Read rest of the 2017 prep football previews here.