Kearns takes the field to defend its region titleAug 10, 2020 01:15PM ● By Greg James
Last season Isiah Afatasi (#5) ran for 361 yards and four touchdowns. (Photo courtesy of Greg James/City Journals)
By Greg James | [email protected]
The Kearns football team has ended summer workouts in preparation for this fall’s season. The players feel lucky they have the chance to play and are shooting for another region championship.
“Our summer camp went well,” Cougars head coach Matt Rickards said. “We are blessed that we get the opportunity to be able to practice and be with our kids. There are a lot of schools across the country that are not having this opportunity.”
The Cougars will rely on several returners to strengthen their team, including a strong group of linebackers fortifying an already stifling defense for the defending Region 3 champions. In 2019, they only allowed 19.5 points per game while winning 10 of their 12 games.
“We have a handful of elite athletes,” Rickards said. “They do an amazing job not only on the field but off it too. I think our linebackers are some of the best I have ever coached.”
The four returners at linebacker are Jeff Bassa, Jack Kelly, Xavier Afatasi and Joe Alusa. The seniors’ mailbox of collegiate offers is incredible.
“Jeff [Bassa] has offers ranging from PAC-12, ACC, Big 12 and Mountain West schools—places all across the country from Hawaii to Syracuse (New York),” Rickards said. “Jack [Kelly] has several Mountain West offers and all of the [service] academy schools (Navy, Air Force and Army). We have a running back (Naki Leha) with a Utah State offer too.”
Leha is a junior this season. Last year he rushed for 1,451 yards and 20 touchdowns. Against Cyprus, he topped 220 yards and three touchdowns.
“[Leha] looked really good at cam.” Rickards said.. “I was calling plays during our last scrimmage. I tried to get cute and mixed some things up. After he scored another touchdown, I told him, ‘Remind me just to give you the ball next time.’”
The Cougars will need to replace graduated quarterback Dakota Lynde before the season begins. He threw for 24 touchdowns and 2,100 yards last season.
Utah High School Activities Association officials changed state tournament qualification guidelines last season. Its RPI system ranked the teams and placed them all into the state tournament. Kearns finished last season ranked fifth overall; after a first-round bye, it defeated Hunter 31-14 and then lost to Lone Peak 37-19 in the quarterfinals.
“Our No. 1 goal is to win region,” Rickards said. “We believe region play is very important. It is a lot about rivalries. Even though there is an RPI system, that is out of our control. We are excited to play those teams like Hunter, Cyprus, Granger, Taylorsville and West Jordan. We feel like we have a chance to compete for a region championship again. There are some tough teams.”
Kearns competes in the Region 3. Its first game is scheduled for Friday Aug. 14 at Box Elder. The Cougars will host their first home game the following week, Aug. 21, against Mountain Ridge.
“We have work to do, but I like what I see so far,” Rickards said. “There are a lot of little things that will build up to bigger things. We have a lot of young guys stepping up and making plays. We are making ground in our football knowledge. We have been able to use football to teach life lessons to these kids.”
The team has enforced new restrictions in the wake of the COVID-19 virus. Temperature and symptom checks are mandatory at the beginning of each gathering. Coaches sanitize equipment regularly during workouts.
“The reason we are taking caution is we want to play,” Rickards said. “We know that could change at any moment.”