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Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)
The landscape of high school basketball in Utah has changed — some think for the better, some for the worse.
Regardless of the opinions, the 2017-2018 season tips off this week with a sixth classification for the first time in state history with the latest round of UHSAA realignment.
The state's top two classifications (6A, 5A) won't see too much impact from the extra classification, but the bottom four most definitely will.
Here's a class-by-class look at the upcoming season and what to expect from the primary contenders:
If the coaches' preseason rankings are any indicator, the focus in the revamped 6A classification will be on Region 4.
The preseason top four all hail from Region 4 — Lone Peak, Pleasant Grove, Bingham and American Fork — with Davis from Region 1 checking in at No. 5.
There's a ton of returning experience on those Region 4 teams as well. Top-ranked Lone Peak returns four starters from last year's team, including all-state point guard Steven Ashworth, who averaged 13.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.9 assists last year.
"We have a really fun group coming back this year, very unselfish and hard-nosed. We are excited about this upcoming season," said Lone Peak coach David Evans.
Second-ranked Pleasant Grove returns three starters, including 7-foot-3 junior center Matt Van Komen, who should be a double-double machine this season.
American Fork took some lumps last year with a young team, but it returns four starters this season and will be a very difficult matchup for everyone.
The team in the preseason top five with the most question marks is defending champ and third-ranked Bingham, which returns just two starters.
"We are very excited about the upcoming season. We have a lot of uncertainty going into this year. I am really excited to see what this team can become. We have an extremely tough schedule and a brutal region to play in, but I know our guys will be ready to compete," said Bingham coach Jake Schroeder.
After the top four, there's quite a lot of uncertainty in Class 6A. Davis and Layton appear to be the class of Region 1, with both returning over half of their starters from last season.
"We will be tested early with one of the toughest preseason schedules in the state. If we can get guys healthy from off-season surgeries, this team should make some noise in region and in the state tournament," said Layton coach Kelby Miller.
Region 2 features three teams that were in Class 4A last season, with Kearns and Hillcrest likely the primary contenders for the region title.
In Region 3, most of the teams were very senior-laden last season, and how quickly the newcomers adjust to their new roles will determine whether any of those teams can compete with the front-runners in Region 4. Copper Hills and West Jordan should be the front-runners, as they were the only teams from the region who participated in last year's playoffs.
Four different teams received first-place votes in the 5A preseason rankings, but it's no surprise Olympus headlines that list with two returning starters who averaged in double figures last season.
Juniors Rylan Jones (14.1 points per game) and Jeremy DowDell (14.4 ppg) are both returning starters for the top-ranked Titans — who lost a heartbreaker to Springville in last year's thrilling 4A title game.
"We have a good returning group of players. Going to be small, so going to have to really defend and rebound. If we share the ball and play the right way, we have a chance to compete every night. Should be a fun team to watch play," said Olympus coach Matt Barnes.
Others who received first-place votes were Corner Canyon, Timpview and Springville, with Timpanogos rounding out the preseason top five.
Defending champ Springville has only one starter back from last season, Ben Schreiner, and definitely faces some new challenges this year.
"We are excited about this year's group. We'll be very different on offense but hope to bring the toughness and defense that Springville is known for," said coach Justin Snell.
En route to last year's title game, Olympus beat Corner Canyon in the semifinals and Timpanogos in the quarterfinals, and both those teams return three starters and seem poised for great seasons.
Corner Canyon is led by Josh Christensen (11.1 ppg) and Ammon Jensen (10.2), two senior guards who will be the focal point of the Chargers' game-plan each night.
Timpanogos' trio of Matt Norman, Derik Eaquinto and Tyler Walker combined to average 27 points last year, and figure to be even stronger this year.
"I'm really excited about our team this season. We return some of our key players from last year's team that won 20 games," said Timpanogos coach Izzy Ingle. "We have some really good underclassmen who will get a lot of experience early in the year. If our younger guys can develop the way we think they can, we could have a really strong chance to compete for a region championship again."
After the preseason top five, there are numerous other quality teams who hope to be in the mix in late February, teams like Bountiful and Viewmont in Region 5, East and Highland in Region 6, Alta, Brighton and Jordan in Region 7 and Maple Mountain and Wasatch in Region 8.
Realignment's biggest impact could be felt in 4A this season, as three of the top five preseason teams all competed in higher classifications last year.
Top-ranked Orem was in the previous 4A ranks last year, while fourth-ranked Sky View and fifth-ranked Lehi were both in 5A.
Orem and its five returning starters are the front-runner everyone must deal with.
"We have a lot of experience and points coming back this year with 55 points per game returning. We can play big or small ball. With Puka (Nacua) and Ross (Reeves), our leadership and skill are at a high level," said Orem coach Golden Holt. "We have a strong preseason schedule to give our team a great challenge every night."
Orem will face plenty of competition within its own region, as Lehi returns three starters and plenty of big-game experience competing in Region 4 a year ago.
Sky View went 19-4 in Region 1 last year in 5A, but coach Kirk Hillyard only has one starter returning and has some holes to fill heading into the revamped Region 12.
"Sky View is coming to a new classification and a new region that will be challenging every evening. It will be a rival game every night in region. We do not have a lot of experience but have some high-character guys that will compete every night," said Hillyard.
Logan returns four starters and will be one of the primary contenders in Region 12, while defending state champ Ridgeline has just one starter back and limited expectations.
Juan Diego lost to Ridgeline in last year's state championship game, and the Soaring Eagle begin the season ranked No. 2 in the new 4A with two quality returning starters, Jason Ricketts and Matt Kitzman.
Dixie and Desert Hills are traditionally the front-runners in Region 9, but neither has a returning starter as both squads have a lot of work to this preseason.
"This will be a fun year. It will especially be fun as we move into the 4A classification. It is always exciting to see how the players come together and compete every day," said coach Ryan Cuff.
The revamped 3A classification is a mix of teams who were in 4A, 3A and 2A last season, and not one is a defending state champion.
South Sevier reached the quarterfinals a year ago in 2A and, with three returning starters, it begins the season as the preseason No. 1 in 3A.
Caleb Barton (15.3 ppg), Brodee Tebbs (10.2 ppg) and Tyson Chisholm (9.9 ppg) give the Rams plenty of scoring this year.
"We have a great deal of improvement to make as we start the season. Hopefully we can share the ball and play hard and have fun. We have quite a bit of potential as a team. We will see how well we can improve," said South Sevier coach Rhet Parsons. "We hope to be competitive late in the season. Our region is going to be a very tough region. Every region game will be tough."
Emery should give South Sevier its biggest challenge in Region 15.
Region 13 figures to be the strongest region in 3A, with the other four teams all coming from Region 13 — Summit Academy, Judge Memorial, Morgan and Grantsville.
No. 2 Summit Academy was a semifinalist in 2A last year, while No. 3 Judge missed the playoffs in 4A. Judge coach Tim Gardner likes the squad he has coming back, though.
"We have a hungry group this year and look forward to seeing our improvement over the course of the year," said Gardner.
No. 4 Morgan and No. 5 Grantsville both return two starters, and Morgan should make some noise after a couple of down seasons for the Trojans.
"We have some returning players that have put in a ton of work and some younger players that have the potential to really contribute. Every team in our region is tough so we will need to bring our A game each and every night," said Morgan coach Brad Matthews.
Defending state champion Layton Christian received every first-place vote in 2A this year and is the clear front-runner as the season begins. It is led by Sano Gasana, a junior forward who averaged 5.8 ppg last year.
Last year's 2A runner-up, Waterford, has zero returning starters but expectations are high as it begins the preseason ranked fifth in 2A.
"Replacing a group of eight seniors who led the program to a region title and an appearance in the championship game last season will be a tough task for the Ravens, but the program is full of dedicated, hard-working athletes who are ready for their turn to lead the program," said coach Ryan Judd.
Leading the way will be seniors Kyle Mika, Andrew McSlarrow and Grant Flynn.
North Summit, Beaver and Enterprise begin the year ranked second, third and fourth, respectively.
North Summit has two starters back from the team that narrowly lost to Waterford in the semifinals.
"This season we look to build on where we finished last year. We have a lot of new guys that will need to step in and fill key spots," said coach Aaron Preece.
Beaver has three starters back heading into this season, while new Enterprise coach Bud Randall is excited about trying to take the program to the next step.
"With only one returning starter, we will be a little inexperienced but look forward to the challenge with the athletes we have coming back from the J.V. level. Looking forward to a great season and optimistic about how we will perform," Randall said.
Panguitch was the runaway winner of last year's 1A championship, and even though it begins the year as the overwhelming preseason No. 1, the landscape figures to be much more competitive.
Bryce Valley, Rich and Valley all return strong teams, as they begin the year ranked in the preseason top five.
Everything still goes through Panguitch, though, as it returns three starters, led by Jace Eyre (18.6 ppg) and Acey Orton (11.5 ppg).
"We are excited for this season to start. We have a good group of players returning, and they have worked hard during the offseason to improve their skills. I expect the boys to come out and work hard each day," said coach Clint Barney.
Valley lost to Panguitch in last year's title game, and it returns three starters from that 21-win team, with Garrett Spencer leading the way.
Bryce Valley lost to Panguitch in last year's semifinals and in both region games, but it might be the team most capable of dethroning the champs, as it returns all five starters from last season.
"We are really excited about the upcoming year with five returning starters and good young talent," said coach Gary Syrett. "It should be a good year for us and, with the changes in the region alignments, it should make for an interesting year."
Monticello is the favorite in Region 19 with three returning starters, while Tintic is the projected front-runner in Region 21.
Tintic returns four starters, including three starters who averaged in double figures — David Whitney (13.5 ppg), Braxton Petersen (13.1 ppg) and Jesse Wall (14.1 ppg).
"This group of young men are extremely talented and work hard on and off the court. We have high expectations and cannot wait for the season to get underway. We have amazing senior leadership this year, which is critical to the success of our team," said coach Luke Thomas.
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