Editor’s note: This is the sixth of a seven-part series previewing the high school football teams in Cache Valley.
The 2019 season was one for the ages for the Pirates, who went 11-1 and beat a very good McCall-Donnelly team in the 2A state championship game, despite replacing seven players who garnered first- or second-team all-state honors in 2018.
West Side’s football program faces a similar situation this year as it graduated five athletes who secured first-team all-state accolades last fall. Nevertheless, the expectations are still lofty for the Pirates, who welcome back most of their top skill position players, a dynamic linebacker and three starters in the secondary.
Tyson Moser and his coaching staff have helped propel West Side to three state championships since 2010, plus two other appearances in the 2A title game. Will the 2020 campaign be another special one in Dayton?
“I think if we stay healthy and if we don’t have outside forces (COVID-19) that interfere with us, I think we have a chance to be in the mix (for a state title), I really do,” Moser said. “This team has a lot of potential.”
That potential will not be realized if West Side’s brand new offensive line struggles. The Pirates are replacing all five starters, including two who earned first-team all-state honors, plus another one who was an all-state selection on the defensive side of the ball.
Those five new starters in the offensive trenches are center Zeth Groll, tackles Trevyn Hadley and Angel Montano and guards Easton Henderson and Andrew Olinger. Wes Millburn and Jaxon England will also be key cogs in West Side’s O-line.
And while his offensive line is inexperienced, Moser is confident about the potential of that unit.
“It’s a little bit opposite of last year, where we had a senior heavy offensive line and we had fewer veteran skill players,” Moser said. “And this year we’ve got more veteran skill players with a new offensive line, but the offensive line is coming together. I’m really happy with where they’re at right now and I think offensively with our skill set, we’ll probably be able to open it up a little more this year and throw the ball a little bit, which will only help our run game. But overall, I think this team has potential offensively to be very good.”
West Side will be breaking in a new starting quarterback in junior Blaize Brown, who was a first-team all-district performer as a linebacker last fall. Brown has a strong arm, Moser asserted, and some athletic playmakers to spread the ball to.
One of Brown’s primary options in the passing game will be all-state basketball and football player Bryler Shurtliff, who at 6-foot-4 is a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. Shurtliff was a first-team all-state performer on both sides of the ball last year, and Moser is counting on the junior to “take some of the pressure off that offensive line, so I don’t think we’re going to have to (finish) 18-play drives (to score).”
Jackson Stewart will be West Side’s other go-to wide receiver, while Taze Stegelmeier and Jacob Stokes will handle the tight end duties. Moser “was super impressed with” Stokes at West Side’s jamboree last week and said he made several big plays.
“There are six kids that can make big plays for us,” Moser declared.
A few of those explosive playmakers will be running the ball in West Side’s Wing-T base offense. Cage Brokens will be moving to fullback and he’s a proven commodity as he rushed for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore. Cristian Plancarte made a huge impact at running back for the Pirates at the end of last season, and Moser asserted he has all-state track speed in the 100-meter dash. Owen Nielsen will also see snaps at tailback for West Side.
The Pirates return both of their starting wing backs in Josh Reeder and Parker Henderson.
Moser is also optimistic because West Side welcomes back six starters from arguably its best defense in program history. The Pirates allowed a measly 162.9 yards of total offense and 7.4 points per game a year ago. Additionally, West Side limited a then-undefeated McCall-Donnelly squad — one that possessed one of 2A’s most explosive offenses in recent memory — to 13 points.
The one big question mark for the Pirates on the defensive side of the ball is how they will fare in the trenches. After all, only two of those five starters from their 5-3 base defense are back. West Side’s standout defensive line from a year ago was anchored by 330-pound senior nose guard Armando Montano, who was arguably the best two-way starter in Idaho’s 2A classification.
“Our defensive line’s going to have to toughen up,” Moser said. “Those guys are mostly new and last year we (had a lot of really good) run stoppers, so our defensive line has a lot to prove.”
Easton Henderson and Millburn are back at defensive end for the Pirates. Millburn missed half of last season with an injury.
Angel Montano and Hadley will start at defensive tackle for West Side, while Nielsen will man the nose guard position. England and Stokes will also figure into the mix in the defensive trenches for the Pirates.
Stegelmeier, a first-team all-state performer, will anchor West Side’s linebacker corps. Stegelmeier was a tackling machine for the Pirates as a junior as he racked up a whopping 181 stops, including 26 for a loss. The senior will be joined in the starting lineup by Brokens and Olinger, while Parker Henderson will also see reps at linebacker.
Shurtliff and Reeder will once again be counted on to lock down opposing wide receivers, plus Plancarte is also a proven option at the cornerback position for the Pirates. Brown has been moved from linebacker to safety, and Moser is anticipating he will excel at that spot this fall.
Stewart adds depth to West Side’s talented secondary.
“Defensively, returning our secondary helps a ton, but again we’ve got a pretty fresh defensive line,” Moser said. “But we have all veterans in the secondary, which was a very good secondary last year. I expect them to be even better this year.”
Brokens will handle West Side’s punting responsibilities this season, while Shurtliff (kickoffs) and Stewart (PATs, field goals) will be the kickers. Plancarte and Shurtliff will be the team’s main return specialists.
West Side will open it season this Friday on the road against Firth, with its home opener scheduled for the following Friday against 3A Snake River — the team that handed the Pirates their lone loss last season, 7-6.