A small crowd had gathered in the stands at Cottonwood High School on Friday night, anxious to get their first look at the Colts football team. The sky was darkening, the air was thick with the smell of rain.
Inoke Lotulelei, a short but quick receiver, came dashing around the end. A tackler lunged, but he spun just in time to see the blur of a black jersey moving past him.
More defenders converged, but Lotulelei kept spinning and spinning he had turned around six times before a mob of his teammates finally brought him down.
"I was just going forever," he said, laughing on the sidelines. "I was getting so dizzy."
This group of Colts has gotten used to being dizzy the football field is where they find some sense of stability in a world that has spun them around countless times this offseason.
Since April, the team has lost four coaches. Head coach Josh Lyman resigned following allegations of inappropriate contact with a student. Assistant Eric Eyre left after being charged with assault in an off-field fight. Assistant Mike Gallegos was killed in an car collision, only 39 years old.
Even as new coach Greg Croshaw was coming in the door, a new Granite School District policy sent another assistant packing: Scott Cate, long considered the architect of the Colts' ruthlessly efficient offense and whose millions of dollars built a number of the school's athletic facilities.
It was supposed to be their year. The Colts return a number of starters on offense, including at least five who will head to Division I schools next fall. The star is Cooper Bateman, an Alabama commit and perhaps the most heralded quarterback prospect the state has ever seen. But Lotulelei, Haile Falemaka, Elijah Tupai and Siale Fakailoatonga are also top-level recruits in Utah.
"It's not in our hands at all," Bateman said. "There's nothing we can do about it. Guys have to just keep working."
That's been the prevailing attitude so far at Cottonwood's football practices: a stiff upper lip and a willingness to work through the inevitable swirl of confusion and frustration.
Croshaw, an affable coach who spent two decades at Dixie State, took the job in late June, beginning camp in July. He showed up to find a roster of kids and coaches he didn't know, of a wounded community needing stability and a facility stripped of the equipment bought by Cate that the school district said it would replace.
On the first day of practice, the program had no tackling dummies, no video cameras or television monitors. Coaches and players were stunned to find Cottonwood had no footballs.
But the helmets, shoulder pads and game jerseys remained intact, and so has Cottonwood's identity. Although the players have been hurt by the events spinning around them, they press on.
"I guess we've just become closer," Fakailoatonga said. "We think we can go as far as we want. We've still worked through our drills, we still practice hard."
The new elements of the coaching staff have done their best to blend in with the old. Croshaw and his son, T.D. Croshaw, have adapted the plays and language of the offense these starters have run the past two seasons that's why a traditionally run-heavy coach will opt for the pass.
"When you have a guy like Cooper, you don't just I-back sweep the whole game," he said. "You've got to take advantage."
The Colts won't be taking the field this Friday against another team they were the only group that couldn't find a dance partner for the opening week. But the players are confident their play will speak for them.
"We still think we can be a top contender," Bateman says. "We've had a good program for a number of years now. Coaches aren't going to make plays for you."
Cate, in particular, has hung around the group of seniors as well, having coached a few of them since their hands couldn't wrap around a football. He said he's agreed to do more film sessions and highlight reels to make sure the group can get the scholarships they deserve.
But the football part? The players will take care of it themselves.
"They're just studs," Cate says. "When you go over the turmoil they've been through, they've been cool about it they haven't missed a workout. I always thought they were going to be the really, really good ones."
Cottonwood still has elite talent
Through the offseason challenges at Cottonwood this year, an impressive group of seniors has stayed intact:
• Cooper Bateman, quarterback: committed to Alabama, threw for 2,484 yards and 25 touchdowns last year.
• Inoke Lotulelei, receiver: committed to BYU, had 1,184 yards and 15 receiving touchdowns last year.
• Gabe Hosea, running back: ran for 1,399 yards last year
• Other Division I prospects: tight end Siale Fakailoatonga, offensive linemen Elijah Tupai and Haile Falemaka.