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Prep football: Can Beaver win 2A South region, get back to elite status?

SALT LAKE CITY — The realignment in Utah high school sports that will take effect this fall will have massive impact on schools with the smallest enrollments in terms of their competition, and that impact will start to be seen soon as the prep football season begins next month.

Completely gone in football is the 1A classification (along with 3AA) as the state will move back to just five classifications following two years with six. The eight teams that comprised 1A last season have now been incorporated into the 2A North and 2A South regions. Five will be in the North region and three in the South.

Although fewer formerly 1A squads went to the South division than the North, those three will serve to make the South the region many figure will be the stronger of the two this season.

The Milford Tigers have won two straight state championships under Thane Marshall (they’ve lost just one game along the way), the Kanab Cowboys have a stable program under Bucky Orton that has been at the top of the mountain before and the Parowan Rams have started to build something good in two years under Carter Miller.

“Moving up, it’s a challenge, but who knows?,” Marshall said about his team keeping up their success. “Every week is going to be a tough, tough game.”

Orton has some experience coaching in the higher classification, as the Cowboys are a team that has gone back and forth between 1A and 2A. He said his biggest challenges are the increase in toughness in 2A and the need for better depth.

“I’m excited about it because I think our program needs to toughen up in general, and I think we have a choice to make now,” Orton said. “We’ve either got to get tough or we’re going to get our butts kicked every week. There’s no way around it. I hope our kids will follow my lead and they won’t be afraid to compete and they’ll go play Cowboy football. I think if we do that we’ll be fine.”

Miller said the Rams are likewise up for the challenge.

“Our region is going to be pretty tough, but at the same time, we don’t hope to win, we expect it," he said. "That expectation hasn’t changed for us. That doesn’t mean we don’t respect our opponent. It just means that we’re not going to be beat before we get off the bus. We expect to win, and that expectation will be the same even though we’ll be playing some pretty good teams.”

However, they’re all expected to be chasing an incumbent 2A team: the Beaver Beavers, who finished in the middle of the pack in 2A a year ago and then fell to the Grand Red Devils 10-0 in an intense semifinal matchup. Before that, the Beavers finished second in 2A in 2017 and won it all in both 2016 and 2015.

They will be returning nine starters from last year’s team on both sides of the ball, and the hope is that continuity will carry them back to elite status.

“You can definitely tell we’re in a much different spot than we were last year going into the season,” said Beaver head coach Jon Marshall. “We return nine starters on both sides of the ball; we've got a lot of depth. I think we have a chance to have a pretty good ball team.”

Milford was picked by coaches to finish second behind Beaver, followed by three incumbent 2A teams — the Millard Eagles and the two Wolves schools, Enterprise and North Sevier.

The Eagles are certainly a team on the rise, as they won nine games and made the semifinals in 2018 after going winless in 2016, and they return a good core.

“They were disappointed not to make it to the state championship,” said head coach Ethan Stephenson. “We knew we had a team that I felt — and I think most of the kids felt — (were) good enough to get to the state championship if not win the state championship.”

Parowan was picked by coaches to finish sixth in the region and Kanab was picked seventh.

2A South projections

Deseret News projections for 2A South football teams in 2019. Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes.

  1. BEAVER: Experience is a big word for the Beavers heading into 2019, as they had success in 2018 despite a young group. Quarterback Ryker Albrecht is back, and Treyson Harris anchors an offensive line returning five starters. Defensively, Beaver returns its top four tacklers from 2018 on a defense that finished second in 2A in defensive scoring.
  2. MILFORD: Considering how good the Tigers have been the last two years, they still should be in good position as they move up to 2A. There isn’t much senior star quarterback Bryson Barnes hasn’t already done in his prolific career, and there are seven others returning on an offense that averaged almost 44 points per game in 2018. Eight players will also be back on a defense that gave up less than 16 points per contest.
  3. MILLARD: Quarterback Brooks Myers is back, as are a bunch of skill players. Offensive line is a question mark, as Bryce Carson is the only returning starter. Defensively, the secondary is primed to be excellent with the state’s 2018 leader in interceptions, Jed DeGraffenreid, and safety Kael Myers. The linebacker corps is experienced, too, while the defensive line is inexperienced.
  4. ENTERPRISE: The Wolves finished just 5-6 in 2018, but the return of all-around standout Ryan Moody (running back, linebacker), who was hurt for the season in Week 1, should help a lot this year. There are a couple of returning starters at both the skill positions and the offensive line, and on defense, the line and secondary should be good. Linebacker depth is a question. Can the Wolves make a leap forward?
  5. NORTH SEVIER: After getting hurt partway through 2018, quarterback Taylor Crane will return in 2019. The skill positions should be solid with running back Gabe Wilcox and receivers Burke Mickelsen and Landan Gale back. Offensive line is a question mark. Defensively, there is just one starter each returning on the line, in the linebacker corps and in the secondary.
  6. KANAB: Beset by injury, the Cowboys went just 2-9 in 2018, with five of the losses coming by 8 points or fewer. Sam Orton returns at quarterback after missing much of 2018, and the offensive line has a couple of returning starters, but experience at running back and receiver is limited. It’s a similar story on defense, while depth in general is a question.
  7. PAROWAN: Following two years of success taking over the Rams, Porter Miller will have to retool in 2019 as the team moves to 2A. His son Hutch Miller will be the new quarterback, and the skill position players are largely untested. Two starters will return on the offensive line. Grayson Robb will lead the defense at linebacker after racking up 11 sacks in 2018, and Miller had four interceptions. After them, returning production is limited.