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Region 2 race should be competitive as all of the teams have something to prove

FILE: Hillcrest High takes on Highland High at Hillcrest in Midvale, Utah on Friday, Sept. 1, 2017.
FILE: Hillcrest High takes on Highland High at Hillcrest in Midvale, Utah on Friday, Sept. 1, 2017.

There is only one thing that is certain when it comes to Region 2 football — every team has something to prove.

Whether it's defending champion Kearns or last-place finisher Hillcrest, the teams in Region 2 are a mix of talent, experience and new blood, and the region race promises to be more competitive than ever.

The region is made up of five programs trying to maintain a tradition or build something special, and the result should be a competitive region race. Preseason expectations for Kearns are high, despite the Cougars losing most of last year’s region championship team, including the state’s top running back in Sese Filila.

Kearns had the fourth-best 6A scoring offense, and much of that was due to the team’s ground game. But with just three returning starters, the weight of defending that title falls to running backs Isaiah Afatasi and Kalux Manuo and junior quarterback Dakota Linde.

Linde was injured early in the season, and he’s looking forward to making his mark on the team. He said he has no concerns about so many new faces in starting roles because of how they approached the offseason.

“I think the guys that are stepping in are a lot of hard workers,” Linde said. “I trust them, just like they trust me.”

Kearns has 10 seniors and some real talent, especially in the skill positions.

The defense will be led by linebacker Audrick Afatasi.

“He was our defensive leader last year as a junior, even with all of that senior-heavy group,” coach Matt Rickards said. “It’s his personality, the way he plays and his work ethic.”

The Cougars don’t see a complicated recipe for success.

“Like everybody, we have to be healthy,” Rickards said. “We have some talent, we’re just inexperienced. But these guys have been working hard. If we can stay healthy, we just do what we do, as far as have a great attitude, great effort, we’ll be fine.”

Granger earned the No. 2 spot in the preseason poll, but Lancer head coach Mike Morgan doesn’t give a lot of thought to what anyone outside the Lancer football program expects from his players.

He knows one thing, if the season comes down to talent, his team will be competing for a state title.

“We have more talent than I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’ve never seen this kind of talent in high school. It’s phenomenal.” In addition to Mosese Sonasi, the Lancers return tight end/defensive end Ian Alexander, whom Morgan called “one of the best leaders I’ve ever coached. He’s a consistent hard-nosed player.”

Region 2 boasted the top two running backs in the state, one of whom was Granger’s Sonasi, who led the state in rushing.

“I believe he’s better this year,” Morgan said. “He’s always doing the little things to improve.”

Joining him in the backfield is halfback Ammon Tavai.

“He’s one of the best two running backs in the state,” Morgan said. “He has great instincts when running the ball. He can cut on a dime or power when he has to.”

The team will rely on Lasalle Laita at quarterback, whom Morgan said has blossomed under a new quarterback coach.

“He’s gotten 100 percent better throwing the ball with the new quarterback coach Cayden Mietchin,” Morgan said. “He’s a great general to our troops.”

Granger returns some impressive linemen like Robert “Bubba” Tabile and Ian Alexander. They also have some promising new talent, including tight ends/linebackers Jordan Tuala and Malachi Lolani.

Morgan said the team’s success will hinge not on how talented they are, but on how they put all the pieces together.

“There are other things outside of (talent) that influence (success),” he said. “Do they listen to other people? How hard do they work? Are they caring about one another? How much do they improve? … If it was all about talent, you might as well pencil us in.”

Hunter was voted No. 3 in the preseason poll, likely because it has a new head coach in Tarell Richards. The Wolverines could easily be the region’s favorite as they return quarterback DaiSean Cash, who shattered nearly all of Hunter’s passing marks and earned all-region honors.

He’ll have veteran receivers in Karlo Almaraz and Mason Familar, which should make the Wolverines' move to the spread, no huddle offense a lot of fun to watch — and a nightmare to defend.

Chase Walker will take over starting running back duties, and the team has two all-region returning linemen in Sousa Moeai and Huni Tauteoli, as well as impressive returning offensive lineman Atu Kioa.

The Wolverines have a new defensive coordinator, and players and Richards said that will benefit the team.

Richards said he’s trying to keep the players from focusing on region races or playoff aspirations.

“If you have a team with talent that’s been working hard, it’s not impossible to have success,” Richards said. “I’m interested in controlling what we can control. We had a lot of learning moments last year, and things are good.”

Hillcrest was voted No. 4 in preseason polls, and the Huskies are hoping to make the playoffs after a season that began with tragedy. Just two weeks into the 2017 season, head coach Cazzie Brown died, and the team struggled to focus on football after that.

“It took them a while to want to get back into playing football last year, but they’re amazing,” said former offensive coordinator Ron Hill, who took over the program after Brown’s death and was hired as the head coach during the offseason. “They’re an incredible group of young men.”

The Huskies only return three starters, with two of them offensive linemen James Reich and Gavin Hawley.

The team will be led by quarterback Ryan Sharp and running backs Garred Modesto and Jonathan Lopez.

“We’re starting over, but we’re really excited,” Hill said. “Our junior class is loaded. We have about the same amount of kids in the program as we did last year, but our depth is much deeper. … They’re young, but I think they’re going to make an impact.”

Brown said this year’s team leaders want to make their mark on both the region and the program.

“I think their passion and then the lessons they learned off of all of that is really going to benefit us,” he said. “This senior group is definitely showing that. They’re very strong, very strong-willed. They want something.”

Of all the teams in the region with something to prove, none may be more determined than the Cyprus Pirates. They were voted No. 5 in preseason polls, but they have lofty expectations for the team — in part because of what they have built and in part because of the personnel that return.

Cyprus won four games — more than the previous three years combined — and made the playoffs, but players and coaches were disappointed, even as fans celebrated the season.

“Everyone was excited about it,” said head coach Jed Smith. “We’re not. We underperformed last year. Inside our circle, the kids understand that.”

Smith said they not only have a goal of winning the region title, they talk about it every day.

“We’ve set goals,” Smith said. “We talk about them. We know what our kids’ focus is. That alone has created a target, it’s created a focus so that every day we know what we’re working for.”

Cyprus returns eight starters, including quarterback Parker Meldrum, running back Albert Taufui and offensive linemen Jaxon Garcia and Klayton Johnson.

The Pirates' linemen won the BYU Camp Lineman Challenge, and Smith said that’s instilled a significant amount of confidence in the players.

“That was as big a victory as we’ve had as a program,” Smith said. “For us, it was just a big shot in the arm because we know our kids are talented, but them believing it? They went there and they absolutely had a great day.”

Smith believes their toughest adversary may be in their own minds. They have to believe they’re capable of the goals they set, and that, so far, has been the toughest mountain to climb.

“It’s just the mentality thing,” Smith said of what it might take for Cyprus to win a region title. “If we can overcome that, we feel really good about the season.”

(Preseason rankings based on coaches’ votes)

  1. Kearns: Has a lot of new players in key positions, but they have the advantage of having achieved high expectations. The Cougars are led by junior quarterback Dakota Linde, who should benefit from the return of receivers like Austin Perry, and the emergence of newcomers like receivers Jeffrey Bassa and Kolby Smallwood, as well as tight end Samuel Havili. Kearns' offense should be prolific, and the real question is how the defense will stop or limit opponents. The defense is led by linebacker Audrick Afatasi, with big contributions sure to come from defensive linemen Daniel Williams and Manny Salle. 2017 record: The Cougars finished with a 9-2 overall record and a 4-0 region record. Playoffs: Lost to Pleasant Grove in the first round of the 6A playoffs.
  2. Granger: Will rely on the same relentless ground game, including the state’s second-leading rusher in 2017, Mosese Sonasi, and a very capable halfback in Ammon Tavai. The team has a new defensive coordinator, and that has energized an already focused defense. The team has a lot of holes to fill, but the talent it returns is among the most significant in any region. How Granger puts all the pieces together will determine the kind of season it will enjoy. 2017 record: Finished with a 2-8 overall record, which was third in region with a 2-2 record. Playoffs: Lost to Lone Peak in the 6A first round.
  3. Hunter: Has to be one of the strongest contenders in the region, even with a head coaching change. It returns enough starters and talent to give it a strong core to build around, including quarterback DaiSean Cash and wide receiver Jeff Save, Karlo Almaraz and Mason Familiar. Defensively, a new coordinator could mean big changes, but for Hunter it may mean more technique and focus to a long tradition of gritty, hard-nosed effort. 2017 record: The Wolverines finished with a 4-6 overall record and a 3-1 region record. Playoffs: Lost to American Fork in the 6A first round.
  4. Hillcrest: Has the fewest returning starters with just three on offense and four on defense. It is going to rely on its defense, specifically its linebackers — Brody Roemmich, Jacob Salisbury and Taavili Tuitama. They will be led by new quarterback Ryan Sharp, and he will have the advantage of a strong receiving group in Michael Laforett, Koda Bunting and Noah Nichols. The Huskies are looking to put together a winning season that will take them to the playoffs after a disappointing season last year. 2017 record: Finished the season 1-9 overall, and the Huskies were winless in region play. Playoffs: They did not make the playoffs.
  5. Cyprus: Returns the most veteran talent and leadership in the region. It has had some important successes like making the playoffs, the linemen winning the BYU Camp Linemen Challenge and sending six players to college on athletic scholarships, and that should translate to more faith in what the players see is possible on the field. They have a stellar offensive and defensive line and a hard-working quarterback in Parker Meldrum. Defensively, it changed coordinators, and that should make the Pirates tougher as they simplify the system and focus on effort and execution. 2017 record: The Pirates finished the season 4-6, with a 1-3 record in the playoffs. Playoffs: Lost to Bingham in the first round of the 6A playoffs.