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The East Leopards enter the 2021 season with a roster that features a few senior leaders but that is also replete with young players. Coach Brandon Matich, who is entering his 12th year at the helm, said it’s the youngest team with which he’s ever started a season.
But don’t let the youth fool you. Matich said those same underclassmen are overflowing with talent — so much so that he sees massive potential if things break right.
“If you stay healthy — knock on wood — and the team comes together and performs at a high level the way that I think they can, this team has a chance to play in the last game at the end of the year if all things go the right way,” Matich said.
The team’s youth starts with sophomore quarterback Siona Vailahi, who was a starting running back last year as well as the backup to since-graduated QB Izaak Zimmerman. But Vailahi has bulked up over the offseason, Matich said, and he’s a dual threat at his position — a luxury the Leopards haven’t had for several years.
“I think, if the moment doesn’t get too big for him, he could end up being the best quarterback that comes through this high school,” Matich said of Vailahi.
Still, Matich expects his young group of players to experience some growing pains, particularly when more experienced teams assert themselves against East. The team’s first true test of that comes immediately against Orem, the defending 5A champion, in its season opener.
Fortunately, the Leopards have plenty of senior leadership returning to 2021, highlighted by Ben Roberts, a University of Washington commit who Matich considers the best defensive player in the state. Other players that will complement Roberts are Tuione Tausinga and Kalausa Fonua, who is a captain of the team and returning from an ACL injury.
The team’s biggest strength, though, is “definitively” at running back, Matich said. That group will be led by junior Amini Amone, who has already amassed close to 3,500 career rushing yards, Matich said. Others include Omar Shaw, Sione Vailahi (Siona’s cousin) and Jerrick Little.
“We have to kind of lean on that early,” Matich said of his run game.
Season opener: Friday vs. Orem
Last season: 8-5, Lost in 6A semifinals
Key returners: RB Amini Amone, DT Ben Roberts, S Tuione Tausinga, DL Kalausa Fonua, LB Petelo Tafisi, LB Suita Lutui.
Key additions: QB Siona Vailahi, RB Sione Vailahi.