ST. GEORGE – As excitement grows for high school football to once again take the stage for the state semifinals, so does the sentiment of belonging at Desert Hills High School.
The Thunder took everyone by surprise, so-called experts and casual fans alike, with their 2012 region co-title and return trip to Rice-Eccles Stadium. Those caught off guard by the success Desert Hills has enjoyed this year, however, are certainly warranted.
After losing key seniors like Porter Harris and Mike Needham and with a first-year coach at the helm, the Thunder seemed poised for a rebuilding year. But fast forward three months and Desert Hills is set to take on Spanish Fork in the first 3A semifinal game at RES. Coach Carl Franke and his team are anxious to prove their season hasn’t been a fluke.
“We feel like we’ve been disrespected a little bit this year,” Franke said. “We played for a state championship last year and you would’ve thought that we never even existed this year. I keep telling people we have good program established here. We have great kids who work hard and great coaches. We’re in it to compete every year.”
Tonight the Thunder have an opportunity to show they belong in the annual championship discussion when they take on the Dons at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Utah.
The boys in black will have their hands full with Spanish Fork, a team that can both run and pass efficiently. Behind the arm of Jason Money and the legs of Braxton Argyle, the Dons average nearly 35 points a game and can score in a hurry. Prior to the semifinal game, Money passed for 2,140 yards and 23 touchdowns while Argyle rushed for nearly 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns of his own.
“We’ve got to put pressure on them,” linebacker Sil Bundy said. “We’ve been pretty good at stopping the run all year, so we’ve just got to do what we do.”
Bundy, who leads the Thunder in tackles with 67 on the year, also said the defense needs to force turnovers and three-and-outs in order to give the offense a chance to put points on the board.
Fortunately, Desert Hills doesn’t have to look far to find a model to use to prepare for the Dons. They already have one–their own.
“They look like us,” Franke said. “They’re basically the same team as we are. They have a lot of athletes. They’re fast and have play makers all over the field. The quarterback is steady and the running back is tough.”
And if preparing for an actual opponent isn’t enough, the Thunder will have to learn to keep emotions and nerves in check as they get set to play on the big stage. With so much youth on the field, the team will look to players like senior Ty Rutledge to lead the way. Rutledge was a key contributor to last year’s runner-up team. He’s been trying to help his younger teammates realize that even though the stadium will be bigger, it’s really just another game.
“We just try to treat it like any other game,” he said. “It’s just another football game. Last year we went into the finals thinking this is it and this is all we’ve got. We were a little bit too riled up for that game.”
Sophomore running back Bridger Cowdin admitted the game will be different because of the environment but said he is looking forward to just having fun.
“I want to run the ball down their throat,” Cowdin said. “I just want our line to clobber them. I want to win.”
Cowdin had the daunting task of replacing Needham in the backfield for the Thunder, but has more than exceeded expectations in his first year, racking up 806 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
“It’s been a change from freshman to varsity because it’s faster,” Cowdin said. “It’s big shoes to fill because Mike tore it up last year.”
So the stage is set for Desert Hills and Spanish Fork to perform the latest stanza in the 3A state football season. And as always, only one team can go home victorious. The Thunder expect to be that team as they continue their quest for recognition and to quench their thirst of belonging.
“Hopefully we give everything Spanish Fork wants and more and we get the win,” Franke said.
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