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Kearns the favorite in Region 2; Cougars looking to win fourth straight region title

Kearns quarterback Dakota Lynde (10) reaches toward the goal line while being held back by Olympus defensive backs Sawyer Peterson (26) and Ben Hawes (10) during a high school football game at Olympus High School in Holladay on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. 
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Heading into the 2020 season, Kearns is looking to win its fourth straight Region 2 championship. Last year, the Cougars cruised through the region, winning all six of their region games en route to the region crown. This year, Kearns head coach Matt Rickards thinks that the Cougars have enough talent to possibly make it four straight region championships.

“I think we have some talented players on our team for sure. They’ve done a lot of work in the offseason, as much as they can with the COVID situation. Our guys are focused when we’re in practice and engaged and ready to step up see some tough opponents and hopefully play well,” Rickards said.

Kearns, picked to win the region yet again in the Deseret News coaches straw poll, returns six starters on offense and three on defense. On offense, running back Naki Leha, who ran for 1,447 yards and 21 touchdowns will be huge for the Cougars. On defense, Kearns does’t have as many starters returning, but has a great linebacking core in Xavier Afatasi, Jeff Bassa and Joe Alusa, who combined for 130 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions last season.

Playoff competition proved the downfall of the region last year, with only Kearns and Hunter advancing farther than the opening round.

“My hope is that we do better and represent in the playoffs better. We’ve had a few competitions or scrimmages with other teams and they seem much improved. The thing with Region 2 is we’re playing with a limited roster compared to some of the other schools,” Rickards said. “I hope that that’s not going to be an issue this year. Hopefully our teams will be able to compete against some of the best schools.”

Hunter — who finished 5-1 in region play last year, with its only loss coming against Kearns — is pegged to finish second in the region. The Wolverines return almost everyone on offense, including four offensive linemen and three wide receivers. Nate Suaste, who had 832 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns last season, will be key for Hunter on offense. The big question mark for the Wolverines will be how their new quarterback and running backs perform. Koni Tahi, Lorenzo Tua’one and Mone Tauteoli are new running backs to watch. On defense, Hunter returns five starters, including defensive end Lorenzo Tuaone.

“I feel very good about our seniors. This’ll be the group of seniors that have been with me since the beginning when I got to Hunter and they know what we do. They know it well, they believe in it, they’ve had success with it,” Hunter head coach Tarell Richards said. “I really look forward to that group of seniors being really able to take charge and just be really confident in what they’re doing out on the field.”

Richards sees the region being very competitive this season.

“From one to five, I think it’s going to be very, very interesting, and it’s very, very equal across the board. I think i’s going to be a competitive as it was last year. Every team is capable of winning waves week in and week out,” Richards said.

West Jordan checks in at No. 3. The Jaguars went 4-2 in region play last year and could improve on that record with seven starters returning on both offense and defense. Boston Farmer, who threw for 1,633 yards and 14 touchdowns will lead the offense, protected by an experienced offensive line. On defense, the Jaguars return a formidable defensive line.

“You need good and big guys to compete in our region, and we really like what we have returning this year,” Mund said. “You throw in the return of our starting quarterback, and we feel we have the kids to become a good football team.”

The West Panthers are looking to continue their upward trajectory after winning four games — the Panthers’ winningest season since 2014. West returns eight starters on offense and defense.

Taylorsville is another program rising from the ashes. After winning just one game in 2018, the Warriors doubled that, winning two — both in region play. Taylorsville returns five offensive starters, starting quarterback Hamani Wolfgramm and starting running back Braxton Bates, who rushed for 715 yards and five touchdowns last season. On defense, the Warriors return six starters. The defense will be headed by Bates, who had 66 tackles last year.

Cyprus and Granger, like West and Taylorsville, are two programs trying to right the ship. Cyprus won two games last season and return three starters on offense and four on defense. Granger did not win a game last season.

“Region 2 is tough. I feel that Kearns is always a tough team. I feel that Hunter is very tough and athletically talented. West, very athletically talented last year, they shocked a lot of people with the six, seven games that they won. Cyprus, well coached team,” Taylorsville head coach Joe Johnson said. “There’s talent on here on the west side, but we don’t get a lot of credit. So it would just keep not getting a lot of credit and play tough against other teams.”

Deseret News projections for Region 2 football teams in 2020

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)

  1. Kearns: The preseason favorite returns a wealth of talent on offense — Naki Leha (RB), Jack Kelly (TE), JJ Talo (OL),Makai Fangupo (OL), Joe Alusa (FB) and Jeff Bassa (WR). Kearns has some holes to fill on defense, but does return a great linebacking core in Jeff Bassa (LB), Joe Alusa (LB) and Xavier Afatasi (LB). 2019 Record: 10-2. 2019 Playoffs: Lost to Lone Peak 37-19 in quarterfinals.
  2. Hunter: The Wolverines will be trying to dethrone Kearns. Hunter returns eight starters on the offensive end — Huni Tauteoli (OL), Jayson Chase (OL), Peseti Lapuaho (OL), Sautapu Faatuau Lole (OL), Taylor Savage (WR), Nate Suaste (WR), Josh Harding (WR) and Lorenzo Tua’one (TE). On defense, Hunter brings back five starters — Lorenzo Tua’one (DE), Latu Sotele (LB), Lucious Asiasiga (Edge), Tavian Anderson (DB), Clayten Spotten (DB). 2019 Record: 8-3. 2019 Playoffs: Lost to Kearns 31-14 in second round.
  3. West Jordan: West Jordan returns seven starters on offense — Boston Farmer (QB), Carter Baldwin (WR), Dylan Rainy (TE), Ikani Fainga (OG), Miu Tautai (OG), Junior Kaufusi (OT) and Henrich Thome (OT). On defense, the Jaguars bring back seven starters from last season — Gage Wakley (DB), Christian Olsen (LB), Allan Moea’i (LB), Leak Leausa (DT), Syrus Webster (DE), Nathan Volgursberg (DB) and Junior Kaufusi (DE). 2019 Record: 5-6. 2019 Playoffs: Lost to Jordan 20-17 in first round
  4. West: The Panthers return most of their offensive starters from last season. West’s eight returning starters are Jesse Ah-Chee (OL), Johnny Hamilton (OL), Semisi Faletea (OL), Floyd Nau (RB), Sesi Vailahi (Slot), Johnny Alo (RB), Liutai Kinikini (WR) and Clarence “Bird” Butler (WR). On defense, West brings back eight starters as well — Omarion Fa’amoe (DL), Dallas Vakalahi (DL), Kalisoni Malu (DL), Rikki Soaia (DB), Zach Latu (LB), Johnny Alo (OLB), Fanga Tukuafu (OLB) and Clarence “Bird” Butler (DB). 2019 Record: 4-6. 2019 Playoffs: Lost to Fremont 35-10 in first round.
  5. Taylorsville: Five starters return for the Warriors on offense — Hamani Wolfgramm (QB), Braxton Bates (RB), Dalton Jamison (WR), Jakob Harrison (RB, WR) and Tau Ieremia (OL). Six return on defense — Braxton Bates (LB), Jakob Harrison (CB), Brison Peisley (CB), Will Taukeiaho (DE), Dalton Jamison (WR) and Tau Ieremia (DL). 2019 Record: 2-9. 2019 Playoffs: Lost to Pleasant Grove 62-6 in first round.
  6. Cyprus: The Pirates bring back three offensive starters for 2020 — Jhdhan Lester (RB), Marcos Navarro (OL) and Ryan Herzog (FB). Just four starters return on defense — Dakota Garreaud (DE), Adrian Banuelos (DB), Cary Butler (DB) and Spies Tia (LB). 2019 Record: 2-9. 2019 Playoffs: Lost to Syracuse 49-7 in first round.
  7. Granger: The Lancers return seven starters on offense — Tasi Alatini (WR), Dionzy Fue (WR), Anthony Misi (WR), Bobo Naeata (OL), Luke Manuatu (OL), Chango Ruiz (OL), Jason Combs (FB). On defense, Granger returns ten starters — Anthony Misi (DE), Dwayne Tapusoa (OL), Vita Finau (LB), Jason Combs (LB), Desmond Fue (OL), Tony Afemata (FS), Dionzy Fue (S), Tiger Laita (CB), Landon Bates (CB) and Andrew Fleischer (WR). 2019 Record: 0-11. 2019 Playoffs: Lost to East 48-18 in first round.