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High school football: Desert Hills opens 2023 as Region 9 favorite

Solomona Tapasa wasn’t on the sidelines for Desert Hills last season during its run to the 4A state championship, but since being hired for the new head coaching job this past offseason, he’s witnessed the championship mentality within the program and he’s excited to get to work in pursuit of a similar goal.

The defending state champion Thunder were pegged as both the Region 9 favorites and 4A favorites in the Deseret News preseason rankings, but having the target on their back isn’t anything new.

Last year, the Thunder were voted the preseason favorite in region and state as well, and even though they finished third in region, they ultimately lived up to those expectations during a three-game winning streak to claim the state championship.

In the championship, it beat rival Crimson Cliffs, which it had lost to in the regular season.

Desert Hills also lost to co-Region 9 champion Snow Canyon in the regular season a year ago, and Tapasa expects the competition across the board to be just as difficult in 2023.

“We probably feel the same way a lot of coaches feel about the region they play in. Our view is that Region 9 is one of if not the most competitive region in the state. Every team is tough with outstanding student athletes on each team in the region. Each week is a must win game with playoff implications on the line,” said Tapasa.

With Class 4A doubling in size this season with the latest UHSAA realignment, competition at the state level will be just as difficult at the region level, which makes playoff seeding even more important.

A year ago, Desert Hills had the top scoring offense in 4A while ranking fifth in scoring defense, but that trend could be reversed this year. Seven starters return from a defense that got stingier as the season marched on last season, while the offense has just four starters back.

Regardless of who is back, though, Tapasa said this season will inevitability have a different feel to it.

“It’s a new year and with that comes change. We have a number of new coaches in the program, including a new head coach. That, along with some young athletes, will lead to a different look than what he had last year. All that leads to a lot of excitement going into this coming season,” said Tapasa.

Crimson Cliffs came up narrowly short against Desert Hills a year ago, but it’s loaded to make another run at the Region 9 title — and perhaps more.

The Mustangs return nine starters defensively and five offensively. Coach Wayne Alofipo said there are some big holes to fill on the offensive line, which is the biggest question mark going into the season.

“We have a lot of young guys that we are hoping can fill in some of our gaps and allow us to compete,” said Alofipo.

“Our region is going to be super tough with Dixie leading the way and Desert Hills and Snow Canyon right there. We should be right there in the mix if we can get some things right.”

Dixie and Snow Canyon check in at No. 3 and 4, respectively, in the preseason coaches rankings.

Dixie was upset in the quarterfinals a year ago, and despite only returning a handful of starters, the program has a lot of strong newcomers that will help the team reload and compete near the top of Region 9.

“We will be starting a lot of juniors and sophomores on both sides of the ball. Hopefully they can get their game up to varsity speed by the time we start region. Region is going to be tough again but we should be able to compete. Kids are excited about the addition of more teams to our classification,” said coach Blaine Monkres.

The biggest area of improvement for Dixie this season needs to be on the defensive side of the ball, as it ranked 10th in scoring defense in 4A a year ago at 27.8 ppg.

Statistically speaking, on paper a year ago Snow Canyon was a top-four team both offensively and defensively. It had big wins over Desert Hills and Dixie and narrowly lost to Crimson Cliffs, but its Achilles’ heel was Ridgeline — which it lost to in the regular season and the playoffs. It spoiled a season in which the program earned a share of the region title for the first time in 19 years.

The Warriors return six offensive starters from that group, and five defensively, but coach Mike Esplin knows that doesn’t mean much in the stacked Region 9.

“There are no easy weeks or weeks off when we are in region play. Teams are well coached and dialed into getting better. Extremely good athletes that have great school & community support. This makes for some of the best atmospheres in Utah high school sports,” said Esplin.

While Crimson Cliffs, Snow Canyon, Desert Hills and Dixie all finished within a game of each other in the standings, there was a pretty big drop-off in talent after that, with Cedar City, Hurricane and Pine View finishing with a combined 6-25 record.

A lot of things will need to fall into place for one of them to break into the top four, but there’s no shortage of optimism within each program.

Region 9 projections

(Preseason rankings are based on coaches’ votes)

1. Crimson Cliffs Mustangs

2023 schedule

Head coach: Wayne Alofipo

In his first season as head coach at Crimson Cliffs after a couple as an assistant, he led the program to a 10-3 record and a 4A runner-up finish. He’s a graduate of West High School and Dixie State University.

Coach Wayne Alofipo’s general outlook

“We lost a lot of good starters from last year’s team that we need to replace! Specifically our O-line and a few receiver spots. We have a lot of young guys that we are hoping can fill in some of our gaps and allow us to compete. Our region is going to be super tough with Dixie leading the way and Desert Hills and Snow Canyon right there. We should be right there in the mix if we can get some things right!”

Offensive coordinator: Andy Stokes

2022 offense: 29 ppg (No. 3 in 4A)

Five returning starters.Spread offense.

Returning offensive starters

Steele Barben.McCord Christiansen.Mason Topalian.Boston Adamson.Jacob Zarate.

Key offensive newcomers

Tyler West WR, Sr.Brooks Jensen, Sr., OL.Owen Peterson, Sr., WR.Malakai Alofipo, Jr., WR.

Defensive coordinator: Wayne Alofipo

2022 defense: 18.62 ppg (No. 6 in 4A)

Nine returning starters.3-4 defense.

Returning defensive starters

Parker Andrus, Sr., NG.Scott Nisson, Sr., DE.McKay Wright, Jr., MLB.Brayson Phillips, Sr., MLB.Rowen Williams, Sr., OLB.Brock Baker, Sr., DB.Jace Sweeten, Sr., S.Jordan Phillips, Sr., MLB.Kaden Hawes, Sr., DE.

Key defensive newcomers

Jack Morby, Sr., DB.Brayden Smith, Jr., DB.Konner Kell, Sr., S.

2. Desert Hills Thunder

2023 schedule

Head coach: Solomona Tapasa

Brings a wealth of college coaching experience to his first season as a high school football head coach. Most recently, he was an assistant coach at Southern Utah University.

Coach Solomona Tapasa’s general outlook

“We are lucky to have a good number of returning starters along with some rotational guys that got some quality varsity reps last year. As a team, we are relying on those student athletes to lead our team this coming season. Those guys were a major factor in the way the season ended last year. But it’s a new year and with that comes change. We have a number of new coaches in the program, including a new head coach. That, along with some young athletes, will lead to a different look than what he had last year. All that leads to a lot of excitement going into this coming season.”

Offensive coordinator: Sam Stevens

2022 offense: 35.2 ppg (No. 1 in 4A)

Four returning starters.Spread offense.

Returning offensive starters

Hudson Bundy, Sr, RT.Javiyen Cummings, Sr, WR.Stewart Taufa, Jr, C.Jarom Wilkins, Sr, RG.

Key offensive newcomers

Marcus Anderson, Sr, WR.Tytan Mason, Jr, RB.Alec Tafua, Jr, LG.Beau Wall, Jr, QB.

Defensive coordinator: Solomona Tapasa

2022 defense: 18.08 ppg (No. 5 in 4A)

Seven returning starters.4-3 defense.

Returning defensive starters

Hunter Clark, Sr, S.Bridger Flemming, Sr, DT.Davis Olsen, Sr, DE.Cyrus Polu, Jr, LB.Jagger Shotwell, Sr, LB.Ocean Taufa, Soph, DE.Ryker Tuckness, Sr, CB.

Key defensive newcomers

Kolu Afualo, Jr, LB.Josiah Ahosivi, Jr, NT.Javiyen Cummings, Sr, S.Trey Hortin, Jr, CB.

3. Dixie Flyers

2023 schedule

Head coach: Blaine Monkres

The most tenured coach in the state, Monkres is entering his 33rd season as a head coach in Utah with a 233-128 record. He’s coached at Morgan, Fremont, Murray, Riverton and Dixie. He’s in his second stint at Dixie, where he’s coached a combined 12 years with a 94-46 record and state titles in 2012 and 2014. He’s a graduate of Clearfield High School and Weber State.

Coach Blaine Monkres’s general outlook

“We will be starting a lot of juniors and sophomores on both sides of the ball. Hopefully they can get their game up to varsity speed by the time we start region. Region is going to be tough again but we should be able to compete. Kids are excited about the addition of more teams to our classification.”

Offensive coordinator: Blaine Monkres

2022 offense: 23.3 ppg (No. 4 in 4A)

Two returning starters.Spread offense.

Returning offensive starters

Jaxon Barben, Sr., WR.KC Faaootoa, Sr., OL.

Key offensive newcomers

Dave Bartchi, Sr., WR.Louie Bennett, Jr., WR.Kimo Lopati, Sr., OL.Ran Sawyer, Jr., WR.Brock Parrish, Jr., QB.Sylas Russell, Sr., RB.

Defensive coordinator: Dan Odette

2022 defense: 27.8 ppg (No. 10 in 4A)

Five returning starters.4-2-5 defense.

Returning defensive starters

Jake Dombrowski, Sr., LB.Carter Vanlehn, Sr., CB.Junior Coughlin, Jr., SS.Aisa Lopati, So., DL.Anthony Crichton, Sr., DL.

Key defensive newcomers

Seth Morby, Jr., FS.Daylor Ekins, Sr., SS.Kaesen Grover, Jr., CB.Kolo Lynn, Jr., LB.Andrew Warden, Sr., DL.

4. Snow Canyon Warriors

2023 schedule

Head coach: Mike Esplin

Entering his seventh season as head coach at Snow Canyon where his teams have posted a 41-32 record the past six years. He’s a graduate of Snow Canyon High School and the University of Utah.

Coach Mike Esplin’s general outlook

“We look forward to the Team that we have coming for the 2023-24 high school football season. We have strong leadership coming back to lead a group of talented football players, many of which will be first year starters. We have good team chemistry, good team speed and good team strength. I believe we are among the smartest teams collectively year in and year out. This season should be the same in that regard.”

Offensive coordinator: Tim Nowatzke

2022 offense: 31.64 ppg (No. 2 in 4A)

Six returning starters.Multiple offenses.

Returning offensive starters

Tag Gubler, Sr., C/OL.Rylan Filipe, Sr., OL.Semaj Thompson, Sr., WR.Makaio Swensen, Sr., WR.Konrad Green, Sr., WR.Max Reynolds, Jr., RB.

Key offensive newcomers

Tank Kelly, Sr., QB.Matt Maclennan, Sr., WR.Karsten Stuart, Jr., WR.Archie Threlfall, Jr., RB/WR.Andrew Castro, Jr., OL.JT Westbrook, Jr., WR.Ryder Ence, Jr., WR.Ryder Holt, Jr., WR.Bryce Barnes, Jr., RB.Cael Johnson, Jr., WR.

Defensive coordinator: Dre Smith

2022 defense: 17.27 ppg (No. 4 in 4A)

Five returning starters.Multiple defenses.

Returning defensive starters

Tegun Whitehead, Sr., LB.Konrad Green, Sr., DB.Makaio Swensen, Sr., LB/DB.Mattix Smith, Sr., DB.Ryder Holt, Jr., LB.

Key defensive newcomers

Andrew Castro, Sr., OL.Lukas Andrews, Sr., DB.Damian Tefertiller, Sr., DL.Will West, Sr., LB.Archie Threlfall, Jr., DB.Ryder Ence, Jr., LB.

5. Cedar City Reds

2023 schedule

Head coach: Josh Bennett

Entering his ninth season as Cedar City’s head coach, tallying a 34-50 record over the previous eight seasons. He’s a graduate of Millard High School and Southern Utah University.

Coach Josh Bennett’s general outlook

“We are excited for another season of Cedar Football. With several returning starters on both sides of the football and a great offseason, we expect to compete at a high level in every game this season. After a quarterfinal finish last season, we expect to make a deeper run into the playoffs this season.”

Offensive coordinator: Sam Elliott

2022 offense: 19.9 ppg (No. 8 in 4A)

Seven returning starters.Spread offense.

Returning offensive starters

Devin Crenshaw, Sr., RB.Koden Lunt, Sr., QB.TreDyn Elliott, Sr., WR.Ammon York, Sr., WR.Dahgo Houchen, Jr., OT.Noah Vega, Sr., OT.Braxtyn Hascall, Sr., OL.

Key offensive newcomers

JT Jeter, Sr., WR.Spencer Bell, Sr., QB.Harrison Smith, Jr., OL.Krew Giles, Jr., WR.Noah Parker, Jr., Center.Shawn Barney, Jr., TE.

Defensive coordinator: Mark Esplin

2022 defense: 24.9 ppg (No. 9 in 4A)

Eight returning starters.3-4 defense.

Returning defensive starters

Q Cling, Jr., DL.Aiden Pouha, Sr., LB/DE.Jourdan Raftery, Sr., LB/DE.JT Orr, Jr., LB.Jake Storie, Sr., DB.TreDyn Elliott, Sr., DB.Ammon York, Sr., DB.Dontae McGarvey, Sr., DB.

Key defensive newcomers

JT Jeter, Sr., DB.Spencer Bell, Sr., DB.Zak Reid, Jr., DB.Trace Oveson, Jr., DB.Tate Hulse, Sr., DL.Simon Heiner, Sr., DB.

6. Pine View Panthers

2023 schedule

Head coach: KJ Boyer

The Pine View alum is heading into his second season as head coach after last year’s 0-9 debut campaign. He’s a graduate of Dixie State.

Coach KJ Boyer’s general outlook

“We had a great summer. The boys have put in extra work and are looking forward to competing this year.”

Offensive coordinator: Todd Shaw

2022 offense: 14.3 ppg (No. 12 in 4A)

Five returning starters.Spread offense.

Returning offensive starters

Mohe Tonga, Sr, RB.Camden Smith, Sr, OT.Quincy Jones, Sr, WR.Matt Costa, Sr, WR.Brock Harris, So., TE.

Defensive coordinator: Zach Tauteoli

2022 defense: 41.7 ppg (No. 13 in 4A)

Seven returning starters.Hybrid 4-3 defense.

Returning defensive starters

George Tautolo, Sr., DT.Caden Nelson, Sr., DE.Seth Shumway, Sr., DT.Benson Meier, Sr., DB.Braxton Linville, Sr., DB.Dalton Palmer, Sr., LB.Alema Moors, Sr., LB.

7. Hurricane Tigers

2023 schedule

Head coach: Cory Ashby

Entering his third season as head coach at Hurricane, with a combined 4-18 record in those previous two seasons. He’s a graduate of Hurricane and Southern Utah University.

Coach Cory Ashby’s general outlook

“We are excited to get going this year. Love the new look of 4A. We lost a lot of leaders last year, so I am excited to see what kids step up to lead this team. I think we make a transition to being a bit more young then we were in the years past. The underclassmen have big shoes to fill and they are really talented, so I am excited to see what happens, as I think they will rise to the challenge. Defensively, we return a lot of linebacker depth, so expecting big things from that core group of guys. Boys are excited to get out and compete again.”

Offensive coordinator: Cory Ashby

2022 offense: 15.3 ppg (No. 11 in 4A)

Five returning starters.Multiple offenses.

Returning offensive starters

Ethan Staples RB, Sr.Gage Huntsman WR, Jr.Tovia Tuimei OL, Sr.Trey Hirschi OL, Sr.Austin McRoberts RB, So.

Key offensive newcomers

Dylan Gabriel QB, So.Riley Timpson TE, Sr.Andrew Mugleston OL, So.Matt Parry OL, So.CJ Trump WR, So.Ramsey Olds WR, Jr.

Defensive coordinator: Tyler Vanderhorst

2022 defense: 36.2 ppg (No. 12 in 4A)

Seven returning starters.Multiple defenses.

Returning defensive starters

Kellen Pledger LB, Sr.Alek Campbell DT, Sr.Alex Stubbs LB, Sr.Eric Villareal DT, Sr.Chasten Yusada DB, Jr.LJ Langston LB, So.

Key defensive newcomers

Curtis Barlow DE, So.Krueger Ashby DB, Jr.Bryon Ireland LB, Jr.Jace Vanderhorst, DB, Jr.Drew Larsen DB, So.

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