East’s football players and coaches will always consider their 2012 season unsatisfying and unfinished, considering how it all ended.
The Leopards’ current season could not have started much better.
This 42-24 victory over powerful Alta on the Leopards’ home field Friday night may not have enabled them to instantly overcome everything that went against the proud program last season. That would be asking a lot of one 48-minute game. But the Leopards certainly took advantage of the opportunity for validation that this opener gave them, as they went after Class 5A’s No. 1 team in the Tribune power rankings with a relentless defensive effort.
Christian Polau, Korey Rush and other defenders for 4A’s No. 1 Leopards hounded Alta quarterbacks Chipper Lucero and Crosby Gull all night, and the hitting of special-teams ace Jesse Maxfield added to East’s ferocious nature. The Leopards picked off three passes and recorded three sacks, while never allowing Lucero and his receivers to get into any kind of rhythm while the outcome was in doubt.
"We just want to make amends for the seniors last year … and represent them the right way," Rush said.
In a season preview story, East coach Brandon Matich labeled his team "angry" in the wake of the Leopards’ adventures last year, ending with a loss to Timpview in the 4A semifinals — one week before the teams’ originally bracketed meeting. Because of ineligible players, East initially was disqualified from the playoffs, then was reinstated as a low seed following a series of emotional hearings with the Utah High School Activities Association.
All of that drama came after a bizarre event last August. The Leopards led eventual 5A champion Jordan by one point late in the third quarter, before a fire in the electrical room of East’s stadium caused the game to be declared incomplete.
No wonder these guys were looking forward to playing Alta.
The Hawks are accustomed to season-opening challenges, having visited Timpview last August. Alta escaped with a 33-31 victory as the Thunderbirds missed a 35-yard field-goal attempt with 10 seconds remaining.
This time, the Hawks never led. And any hope of an Alta comeback was crushed midway through the fourth quarter when the Hawks’ offense punted after a three-and-out possession and East’s Ula Tolutau broke a 57-yard touchdown run, making it 35-16.
East’s defense overwhelmed Alta at the start. Folau’s two sacks of Lucero and East’s two interceptions, with Tua Laupata returning one of them 37 yards for a touchdown, helped the Leopards take a 14-0 lead.
With better protection, Lucero became more effective and delivered an 11-yard touchdown pass to Nate Teehan, pulling Alta to within 14-10. East responded just before the half with Isaac Valles’ 5-yard toss to Joe Tukuafu to make it 21-10.
East wobbled momentarily in the second half when Tolutau was stopped on a fourth-and-1 play near midfield and Alta quickly turned the favorable field position into a touchdown. Otherwise, the Leopards were dominant.
Valles threw three TD passes, taking advantage of Alta’s commitment to stop the run. On the other side, East’s coverage in the secondary was outstanding for most of the game. It helps to have a relentless pass rush, of course.
The Leopards face a tough nonregion schedule, continuing with a visit from a Hawaii team and a rematch with Jordan and star quarterback Austin Kafentzis. Judging by the look of things Friday, no opponent should be eager to face East.
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