Note: East finished with an 11-1 overall record in 2013 and was first in Region 6 with a 6-0 record. It lost to Timpview in the 4A championship.
SALT LAKE CITY — The heartbreak still haunts Christian Folau.
Johnny Fredrick uses the pain to motivate himself.
And while head coach Brandon Matich said he’ll likely never really “get over” the sting of losing last year’s 4A state championship game, he hopes both players and coaches have learned from the loss as the entire East High program is ready to embrace the possibilities of a new season.
“I don’t know if it’s a factor for these guys,” Matich said, pointing out that many of last year’s key players graduated. “That’s a hard question to answer because we don’t discuss it because it’s such a sore subject. … It was a hard ending. But if you don’t learn from it, you’re not doing your job. I’ve watched that game a million times.”
Folau, a senior linebacker who committed to Stanford, said that while last year’s disappointment still hurts, he’s fully focused on the future.
“I’m probably still not over it right now,” the two-year captain said with a slight smile. “But we have the same goals this year. It seems like our senior class has only experienced Rice-Eccles Stadium. We know the preparation and work our team needs to do to get back up there.”
Fredrick said many of the players found working toward new goals helped ease the pain of last year’s loss.
“It obviously hurts, losing a state championship after all of that hard work,” Fredrick said. “But it’s something we needed to get over. It is almost more motivation. We can get there, we know what we need to do. Hopefully this is our year.”
East’s consistent success is one of the reasons both coaches and the Deseret News staff ranked the Leopards No. 1 in preseason polls. But building a winning prep program is especially challenging because coaches can’t recruit to fill out their rosters. Instead, they work with the student-athletes who show up for camps and tryouts and try to find ways to carry on a tradition of success.
That’s one of the reasons Matich said the expectation for this year’s team remains the same, even in the face of losing some key leaders and critical talent.
“Our expectations as a team and as a program will always stay the same,” Matich said. “Our kids know that. And our expectations are to finish up there (Rice-Eccles Stadium). … We’re trying to build a program with consistency, not just have a good team here and there. We want to be a great program.”
He points to what Dave Peck has built at Bingham and what Mike Favero has built at Logan as examples of high school programs that are successful every year.
Expectations weren’t always as high at East as they are these days. And it isn’t just the players who expect to compete for region and state titles.
“I think those expectations are probably school and communitywide, too,” Matich said. “I hope they don’t get too complacent about it. But it’s hard not to do.”
He said they make adjustments to the program here and there to keep it moving in a positive direction and to accommodate the talent on the roster.
This year’s team is led by one of the state’s best linebackers in Folau, who will sign with Stanford this winter. Folau, along with safety/quarterback Lorenzo Manu, defensive end Hausia Sekona and center Sione Mafua were all elected captains by their teammates.
But both players and coaches said one of the most exciting aspects of the upcoming season is the potential of the team’s youngest players.
“The exciting thing about this team is there is so much youth that is going to have the opportunity to step up and play,” Matich said. “The junior class is not very big numbers-wise, so the younger kids are going to have to step up. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad.”
Those younger players, including freshman linebacker Carl Odom, will be tested early as East faces rivals Highland and Woods Cross in the first two games of region play.
“We’ll have a good idea about who is in the driver’s seat early,” Matich said. “Woods Cross has a lot of guys returning and they’ve had a lot of hype this summer. …Highland is well-coached and they’re tough kids. There is a lot of emotion in that game. Highland is a big, big deal.”
In early August, however, the Leopards are focused on battling for positions and preparing for their season opener against 5A’s Northridge.
“We talk about Northridge and that’s it,” Matich said. “Hopefully our kids are hungry for that.”
Manu, who is battling Gavin Herd for the job of starting quarterback, said he doesn’t feel any pressure about the upcoming season — just excitement.
Manu is one of the players Folau is most excited to watch this season.
“I’m really excited to see Lorenzo Manu,” he said. “I think he was a huge difference in our defense last year, and he also emerged as a team leader.”
Matich said he knows every team is dreaming of state championships in the heat of summer.
“Every team in the state has those expectations right now, or that dream,” Matich said. “But I think it can be a reality for these guys. It depends on how well they gel together this week and next and throughout fall camp. This is the most cohesive team I’ve ever been a part of.”
East Leopards at a glance
Coach: Brandon Matich is in his fifth season as coach of the East Leopards. The Brighton and Utah alum owns a 38-14 record at East and a 77-32 record in his decade as a head coach.
(3 Returning starters)
With just three returning starters, there are a lot of questions about the Leopard offense. While it will likely be led by senior Lorenzo Manu, junior Gavin Herd could also take some snaps at quarterback. He will have plenty of targets, including Jordan Anderson, Cole Peterson and tight end Tangaloa Kaufusi.
Center Sione Mafua will anchor the offensive line, with Johnny Fredrick offering veteran leadership at right tackle. The Leopards also benefit from the transfer of senior running back John Mafi, although a number of young players will see time in the backfield.
(5 returning starters)
Manu will likely lead the team’s offense, but his teammates hope he will still spend some time on the field defensively. Not only is he quick and tough, but he’s also an emotional leader. Stanford commit Christian Folau is the most high-profile starter to return, and the linebacker is one of the best all-around athletes in the state. Hausia Sekona, who has committed to play for Nevada, will lead the defensive line at defensive end. Napa Nuusa, a defensive tackle, and Connor Van Leeuwen, a safety, could also have a big impact on the season.
Coaches preseason Region 6 straw poll: First
Deseret News Region 6 prediction: First
Bottom line: The East Leopards may play better without last year’s superstars.
“Our senior group was really talented last year,” Matich said. “They were a unit, and sometimes the kids underneath them looked to them to do so much.”
This year’s seniors are not only reaching out to the team’s younger players, but they are putting their faith in them. The team will be an interesting mix of experience and youth, and despite losing some of the state’s best players, the Leopards still have plenty of talent on their roster to compete with the best teams in 4A.
There are more questions for this year’s Leopard squad, but the potential is definitely intriguing.
East coaching history
2010-current — Brandon Matich (38-14)
2009 — Sean Knox (1-8)
2008 — Larry Eldracher (8-3)
2003-2007 — Aaron Whitehead (39-21)
2001-2002 — Jim Hamblin (6-13)
1993-2000 — Chris "Keeko" Georgelas (48-33)
1992 — John Holladay (2-6)
1989-1991 — Mike Kernodle (4-24)
1986-1988 — David Jenson (4-25)
1985 — Jerry Haslam (1-8)
1981-1984 — Jay Vesterfelt (7-30)
1978-1980 — Dale Simons (13-21)
1956-1977 — Grant Martin (140-63)
1950-1955 — Floyd C. "Tally" Stevens (47-8)
1926-1949 — McKinley "Mickey" Oswald (104-47)
1922-1925 — Leroy E. Warthman (27-3)
1918-1921 — G. Ottinger Romney (31-1)
1914-1917 — Tommy Fitzpatrick (21-11)
Deseret News Mr. Football recipients
2013 — Ula Tolutau, RB
Deseret News First Team all-staters the past 10 years
2013 — Preston Curtis, RB
2013 — Joe Tukuafu, TE
2013 — Sione Tuikolovatu, OL
2013 — Tennessee Su’e Su’e, OL
2013 — Christian Folau, LB
2013 — Lorenzo Manu, DB
2012 — PJ Nu’usa
2012 — Merrill Taliauli, OL
2012 — Korey Rush, DL
2012 — Zach Swenson, DB
2011 — Jason Cook, QB
2011 — Liti Molisi, RB
2011 — Tevita Hafoka, OL
2011 — Vaha Vainuku
2011 — Sione Lea'aetoa
2011 — Sione Makoni, DB
2010 — Tanner Curtis, QB
2010 — Vahu Vainuku, OL
2010 — Ofa Hautau, DL
2007 — Sam Fulton, DL
2006 — Jake Cook, RB
2006 — John Tauteoli, LB
2006 — Sean Swenson, DB
2005 — Jake Cook, RB
2004 — Sefo Mailua, DL
To view second team and honorable mention all-staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.
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