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High school football: Bonneville Lakers 2017 preview

Note: Bonneville finished with a 1-8 overall record in 2016 and was sixth in Region 5 with a 0-5 record. It did not qualify for the 4A playoffs.

Bonneville 2016 Offensive and Defensive Stats

WASHINGTON TERRACE — Jantz Afuvai proudly bleeds Bonneville High blue and gold.

Always has, ever since his days as a star football player for the Lakers during the late 1980s. And he always will.

That's why now, in his fifth season as the Lakers' head coach, he is more determined than ever to get this once-proud program's sagging football fortunes headed back in the right direction.

And this season, he feels like he has the team that's capable of doing just that.

"The leadership that I have this year is second to none. I don't recall having this many leaders who are willing to not only talk the talk but, more importantly, walk the walk," he said. "They're willing to put the time in, and I have pushed 'em so hard this past year.

"Really the biggest thing we took away from the last two years was the quality of football we played against (in Region 5) was second to none. So we capitalize on that experience this year. We've played against the best; our kids were young, and what I'm really hoping for is that, on Friday night lights, we don't have any deer-in-the-headlights type of reaction because these guys have been playing, a lot of them, on Friday nights since they were sophomores.

"And now they're seniors, and so a lot of my expectations this year for us to be successful are based on the fact that they have been willing to put their time in; I've pushed 'em as hard as I can, I feel like I've hit all the benchmarks that we need to offseason to really improve the mental side of things, and I'm excited to see how these guys roll," Afuvai said.

Much of his optimism is based on the fact that the Lakers not only have 16 returning starters from last year but, after winning just one game in 2016, his players have shown the type of dedication and determination it will take to turn this program around.

"Sixteen returning starters, I've never had that, and they're legit. They can ball," Afuvai said. "I'm really excited about our depth, plus we've got a bunch of puppies that played a lot last year that are coming in and they're ready to go.

"It's just a different feel. It's finally coming around where the expectation to compete and to do your best and to do the right thing and all those things start to factor in on the mental toughness side of things. It's finally starting to come around and it makes sense to them. The kids buy into that and they understand how important that is.

"And once you have that, you can't let it go, so there's ownership there. There's some individual accountability with the kids, which is really what I've been striving for since I got here, and it's been tough," he said.

This tradition-rich program, which was the model of consistency and success for more than three decades under former coach Thom Budge, has fallen on tough times over the last several years.

The Lakers' last winning season came in 2009, and they've endured five straight losing seasons since going 5-5 in 2011. But this year's team, bolstered by a determined bunch of seniors who have gained valuable playing experience over the past couple of years, have raised Afuvai's expectations that this is the year that coveted return to glory will finally take place.

"The offense is really progressing well," he said. "We go very fast; we don't go huddle very often, and so it takes the right people in the right positions for you to be able to do that. Otherwise, you fail and you're three-and-out pretty quickly.

"So I'm really excited about Jonah Nielson and his capabilities at quarterback. Bronson Fox is our returning running back; he was All-Region first team last year from a pretty dang good region, and he's really gonna be a threat for people to try and take away.

"And then we get the ball out on the perimeter to those other guys at the receiver position that have been playing for two years on Friday nights," Afuvai said. "So as far as good, healthy depth, yeah, we've finally got some, and I'm so excited about that and knowing the type of ball that they played, the experience that they bring back, good things should happen for the Lakers."

Afuvai feels like he has a special group of young men in the program this year, a group comprised of hardworking seniors and solid underclassmen who are eager to be successful.

"I love my players," he said. "There's a mutual respect between me and the players, between the coaching staff and the players, because we all are like that. We all are old-school type of football guys, you have to have some respect for the game and each other, or what the hell are we doing here? I couldn't be around a bunch of better guys that all love what they do, and that is so rare.

"It's a different feel, a different vibe, and it's positive. They just work hard and they don't complain. This year is really good for our program because of the willingness of these kids to work hard, and the experience that they have. It's adding up, so good things are going to happen for the Lakers because we've put the time in.

"I'm more convinced now, more than ever, that we're doing the right thing," Afuvai said. "Our record doesn't reflect that; it does not reflect the effort and the work that has gone into it, for what the kids have done to establish individual accountability and ownership to a program for them to be successful. But it translates to the academic side. We're going great in school; they're great kids, and they're gonna be great leaders and great workers, they're gonna be great in the workforce because they know how to work.

"We don't have any superstars on this group; it's just a bunch of good kids that have a ton of experience. And it'll be interesting to see what that translates into. It's been my experience in the past that, if you don't have the superstar and can't rely on the superstar to make the plays, they're gonna play as a team now. And I think we're gonna do good things. I think we'll be better than we were two years ago (when the Lakers went 4-7 and barely missed going to the state playoffs)."

Afuvai, who, following his stellar career at Bonneville went on to become an All-Big Sky Conference linebacker at Weber State, admits that turning his alma mater's program around has been much more difficult than he thought it would be when he took over.

"It's taken a lot longer than I ever envisioned. ... I thought that I could just walk in here and it's like flipping a pancake — boom, it's done! You know what I mean?" he said. "Wow, what an experience, what a roller coaster! I've looked at myself in the mirror I think more times than anybody on earth wondering 'What in the heck am I doing?'

"... As a head coach, you've gotta grow up and you've gotta face some humility and you've really gotta dig down deep and go all in and expose yourself and start offering solutions to the problem instead of complaining about everything. I'm really grateful and happy that I've been given this opportunity. I love it here, even as hard as it's been, and I wouldn't take it back.

"That burden, that yoke is on me to carry that and to make sure we don't stay down," Afuvai said. "We've gotta get back up, and we've gotta work, and the only way I know how to do things is getting your butt in the weight room and let's start going."

Afuvai said being mentally tough is such a huge part of having a winning football team, and he admitted that's an area where the Lakers have struggled in recent seasons.

"The mental toughness side of this sport is so huge," he said. "You play against the big boys, and physics usually takes over at some point. But really, it's the mental stability and mental toughness and fortitude that really gets you over that hump. Like Bonneville, for years, they weren't ever the biggest, they weren't ever the fastest, but mentally, we were still gonna win.

"Once you start to slip on that mental-toughness side, boy, it's a slippery slope and you get going downhill quick. And it's tough to stop that. It's been an uphill battle.

"And when we lost that, man, it's been hard to get that back," Afuvai said. "It's been a year-long, after year-long, after year-long effort to lay the foundation to get these guys ready to go. So we don't cut any corners, we do things the right way through just old-fashioned hard work. We put our time in, you can't cut corners in the weight room."

Indeed, the Lakers' coach knows that being not only physically strong but mentally and emotionally tough as well, is the key to getting things rolling.

"It's not an overnight change; it takes a lot of hard work, and the kids have got to buy into it," Afuvai said. "It doesn't matter how bad I want it; I can't want it more than the kid wants it. If the kid wants it, I've gotta be ready to take him there. And this group of kids is special in that regard because they want it. And they're willing to do whatever I ask them to do to get it done.

"You've got to learn how to recognize a program at the bottom and begin trying to work it back up to where we believe in ourselves, we believe in this program, we believe in this school and we can make something out of it from week to week. And I'm really hopeful that this group of kids right here is gonna manifest all of that hard work, that the foundation that they've laid means something. Now let's run with it, guys, let's go — let's have some fun."

One thing that should enhance the Lakers' chances for success is this year's region realignment. Instead of going up against the likes of state champion East High and long-established, winning programs at Highland, Woods Cross, Bountiful and Box Elder in the old Region 5, Bonneville has been moved into Region 11.

There they'll face schools which are more their own size — neighboring Weber County schools Ogden and Ben Lomond, along with Stansbury, Tooele and Park City — and that, along with their experienced personnel, should make things a little less challenging for a Laker program trying to get back on its feet again.

"Last year, we were young and we played in probably the best region of football in the entire state. I would put Region 5 up against anybody in the state — 6A, 5A, whatever classification you are — top to bottom," Afuvai said. "So when you play a hard schedule week in, week out, and you're young, that contributed to our record last year. And we were lucky to beat Ogden last year; Ogden played phenomenal against us and it was a shootout, so we were lucky to pull away with a win in that one.

"I recognized pretty early that this was a special group coming in when they were younger, plus the sophomores that came in this year and the juniors as well, so we finally have some good, healthy depth and these guys are used to winning. In the J.V. and sophomore games, they've been winning almost all their games.

"So this is really exciting for Bonneville football this year," he said. "The region realignment mixes things up for us; it's kind of like a breath of fresh air. I don't know necessarily what the strengths are of these other teams yet, so that'll be a challenge for us to recognize that pretty quick and throw in a game plan that we can compete. But I'm really excited about the new region. We thought we would land with the Cache Valley teams, so I was shocked when we fell where we did. And man, it's gonna be fun, it's gonna be a good experience."

There's that old, well-worn saying about "it's not the size of the dog in a fight that counts, it's the size of the fight in the dog."

Well, that certainly holds true for this Bonneville team as it goes forth in a quest to rebuild the success that was once always seemingly theirs.

"You've gotta want to fight and you've got to want to beat the guy in front of you, or it doesn't work," Afuvai said. "... We've had lots of failures and we've learned from those failures. ... It's not gonna be that easy, it's gonna be hard. So if you're gonna do it, you're gonna do it and it's gonna be hard but it's gonna be rewarding at the same time.

"I'm not about moral victories; I want to win more than anybody else. But that's the trick — what are you willing to do to make you and your kids better, year in and year out. I'm dedicated to the Bonneville program, and I want to be in a position to help these guys get better every year. I'm very humbled by what it takes to win.

"We're making memories and these kids are gonna remember this thing for the rest of their lives," he said. "But when they leave here, these kids are better young men for what they've learned here because they know how to work. And at the end of the day, I'm proud of that."


Bonneville Lakers at a glance

Coach: Jantz Afuvai enters his fifth season as Bonneville's head coach, and he has compiled an 8-32 overall record in his first four years there. He is a graduate of Bonneville and Weber State University.

Bonneville Offensive Snapshot

Offensive coordinator: Jantz Afuvai (12th year at the school)

2016 offensive production: 16.1 ppg (23rd in 4A)

-- 8 returning starters

-- Spread/West Coast offense

Key offensive returning starters

-- Jonah Nielson (QB)

Last year as a junior, Nielson had a couple of huge performances against a pair of teams that went on to qualify for the state playoffs, throwing for 274 yards and 2 touchdowns against Northridge, and following that up with 312 yards passing and 2 TDs against Woods Cross. He wound up with 610 yards passing and 5 TDs for the season.

-- Bronson Fox (RB)

Fox was the Lakers' leading rusher last season as a junior, running for 439 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Returning offensive starters

Bronson Fox (RB)

Jeffrey Montague (OT)

Jaxson Laramie (OG)

Jake Kilts (OG)

Aaron Eberhard (RB)

Jeffrey Criddle (TE)

Hampton Bouwhuis (TE)

Jonah Nielson (QB)

Offensive newcomers to watch

Kobe Davis (WR)

Ashton Loftus (WR)

Marcus Cutler (WR)

Caden Smith (C)

Afuvai's comments on the strengths of his team's offense and quarterback Jonah Nielson:

"Knowing how to move the ball around, that's gonna be our strength. And that's where Jonah's really strong, in his leadership capabilities on the field. He's like a field general. He may not be necessarily the best quarterback out there because he doesn't have the strongest arm and he's not the fastest guy, but he makes good decisions when I need him to make good decisions. And that really solidifies how successful you're gonna be on offense and determines whether you're good or not. Can he control the offense, can he control the pace, can he have everybody rally around him when times get tough? And he can.

"And that's what is kinda unique to him. He just naturally has that ability to pull everybody together and get 'em moving, and the kids respond to it. He's got rapport with the kids because he's put his time in. He probably loves basketball more than he loves football — he loves basketball — and this experience with football is only gonna make him a better basketball player."

Keys for Offensive Success in 2017:

Nielson showed what he can do in a couple of stellar performances last season, and he's got some solid receivers to throw the ball to in Marcus Cutler, Kobe Lewis, Aaron Eberhard, Ashon Loftus, Josh Russo, Jeffrey Criddle and Hampton Bouwhuis. Bronson Fox gives the Lakers another proven performer at running back and returning starters Jeffrey Montague, Jaxson Laramie and Jake Kilts anchor the O-line. With eight starters back from a year ago, Bonneville's offense should be able to move the ball and put points up on the scoreboard.

Bonneville Defensive Snapshot

Defensive coordinator: Jake Afuvai

2016 defensive production: 44.1 ppg (26th in 4A)

-- 8 returning starters

-- 4-3 formation

Ken defensive returning starters

-- Jaxson Sears (LB)

Last year as a junior, Sears led the Lakers in tackles with 43 and also had two sacks and an interception from his linebacker position.

-- Aashish Gottipati (DE)

Gottipati came up with 24 tackles at his defensive end spot last year as a junior.

-- Marcus Cutler (S)

Cutler collected 21 tackles from his safety spot as a junior last season.

Returning defensive starters

Zach Van Tassell (DT)

Josh Russo (DB)

Marcus Cutler (DB)

Aashish Gottipati (DE)

Jaxson Sears (LB)

Kobe Davis (FS)

Josh Turpin (LB)

Josh Tafunai (LB)

Defensive newcomers to watch

Cameron Smith (LB)

Caleb Preston (DE)

Taiten Loftus (DB)

Tony Victorino (CB)

Aidan Fry (S)

Hampton Bouwhuis (LB/DE)

Jake Kilts (DT)

Jeff Montague (DT)

Afuvai's comments on the strengths of his defense:

"The best part of our defense is we are fluid, and we have lots of little guys that are tougher than nails that'll come up and smack ya. I'm really excited; we've made some changes, we haven't really hit our sync on defense yet, and I'm really excited this year because we've got the right bodies to make a difference now.

"We have really strong linebacker and secondary kids and lots of depth. They're fast, they work hard and they get after it. I think that's gonna be the best part of our defense this year, and they're all coming back from last year."

Afuvai's comments on defensive tackle Zach Van Tassell:

"He's a stud and he just goes and goes and goes. Zach Van Tassell is just a force to be reckoned with. He didn't play at all his sophomore year; he was hurt the whole year, and then he kicked everybody's butt last year -- East, Highland, he's balling these guys, all the 5A teams that we played. He's not afraid; he'll step in and he'll go toes with anybody."

Afuvai's comments on defensive end Aashish Gottipati:

"Aashish Gottipati is one of the better D-ends I've ever had because he's so darned disciplined. He will do exactly what we tell him to do, and if you get it wrong at the D-end position, you're not going to do very well on defense — ever. He's the prototype D-end as far as high school sports goes."

Keys for Defensive Success in 2017:

With eight returning starters, the Lakers should be much better defensively than they were a year ago, and if this program is going to improve, they have to be a lot better. After all, they allowed a whopping 44.1 points per game last season, and only one 4A school in the state, Mountain View, gave up more. With Van Tassell and Gottipati leading the charge up front, Jaxson Sears, Josh Turpin and Josh Tafunai leading a strong linebacking corps, and Marcus Cutler, Josh Russo and Kobe Davis in the secondary, the Lakers'"D" should make great strides forward this year.

Coaches preseason Region 11 straw poll: Fourth

Deseret News Region 11 prediction: Fourth

Key region game: vs. Tooele, Oct. 6 (Week 8)

Bottom line: With a total of 16 starters back, the Lakers certainly won't be shell-shocked to see those Friday night lights. And realignment should suit Bonneville just fine, too, as it's now in a league where it'll go up against schools which are more its own size and strength instead of having to face powerhouse East High and other high-powered programs like Highland and Woods Cross, along with tradition-rich teams Box Elder and Bountiful. Instead, the Lakers will find themselves facing neighboring Ogden and Ben Lomond, along with Park City, Tooele and Stansbury, which bodes well for Bonneville's bid to get back in the state playoff picture and have some solid, program-building success.


2017 Schedule

Aug. 18 — at Logan, 7 p.m.

Aug. 25 — at Northridge, 7 p.m.

Sept. 1 — FREMONT, 7 p.m.

Sept. 8 — ROY, 7 p.m.

Sept. 15 — OGDEN, 7 p.m.

Sept. 22 — at Park City, 7 p.m.

Sept. 29 — BEN LOMOND, 7 p.m.

Oct. 6 — TOOELE, 7 p.m.

Oct. 12 — at Stansbury, 7 p.m.

Oct. 18 — at Box Elder, 7 p.m.


Felts Facts for Bonneville High School

All-time record: 350-239-1 (57 years)

Region championships: 18 (1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1978 co, 1980 co, 1981, 1985 co, 1986, 1988, 1989 co, 1991 co, 1992 co, 1995, 1996 co, 1997, 1999 co, 2002)

Playoff appearances: 36

Current playoff appearance streak: 0

All-time playoff record: 36-35

State championships: 1 (1980)

State championship record: 1-4

Most played rivalry: 56 meetings with Weber dating back to 1960. Bonneville leads 38-18.

Felt’s Factoid(s): Bonneville holds the single-game pass interception record (tied with Judge) of nine, set against Viewmont in 1977.

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Last 5

2016 — 1-8 (0-5 in Region 5 -- Missed playoffs)

2015 — 2-9 (1-4 in Region 5 -- Missed playoffs)

2014 — 4-7 (2-4 in Region 5 -- Missed playoffs)

2013 — 1-8 (1-5 in Region 5 -- Missed playoffs)

2012 — 3-7 (0-5 in Region 5 -- Missed playoffs)

...


Bonneville coaching history

2013-current — Jantz Afuvai (8-32)

2012 — Tyler Gladwell (3-7)

2011 — Randy Johnson (5-5)

2006-2010 — Matt Williams (21-31)

1975-2005 — Thom Budge (237-104)

1972-1974 — Brent Hancock (14-12)

1968-1971 — Larry Neves (25-11)

1960-1967 — Harry Burchell (31-40)

...


Deseret News First Team all-staters the past 10 years

2009 — Connor Stephens, DL

2007 — Jim Eskelsen, OL

To view second team and honorable mention all-staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com