ST. GEORGE – The heroes of the 2017 spring sports season in Region 9 came in various sizes and differing styles, but each made a significant impact when it counted the most.
In the state championships, an unlikely star stepped up in baseball for Dixie and girls golf for Desert Hills. A star for the D-Hills boys track team finally defeated a nemesis and the stars for the Thunder girls track squad were a thrower, a hurdler and two different relay teams.
Region 9 didn’t have a state champion in the other spring sports, but did have strong seasons in boys soccer (behind a star Snow Canyon goalkeeper), softball (with an undefeated power-hitting Cedar team) and boys tennis, which featured a shockingly unselfish move by the top singles player in the state.
Here’s a quick look at the 2017 spring sports season and those heroes that led their teams to glory:
Region 9 teams went 15-6 in the 3A state baseball tournament, led by 3A champ Dixie, which was a perfect 5-0 at State. The Flyers were dominant, outscoring opponents 44-7 in those five games.
The big debate became who was the team MVP, Hobbs Nyberg or Tyson Fisher? The two juniors took turns all season winning games for the Flyers, with Nyberg’s batting and on-base numbers edging out Fisher, but Fisher’s power numbers well ahead of Nyberg’s.
With Fisher’s pitching prowess factored in (led the region with eight wins, and 76 strikeouts), most fans would lean toward the big guy. Fisher then had a monster state tournament (11 for 16 batting, with two homers, a triple and two homers, plus two victories on the mound), leaning the debate heavily in Fisher’s favor.
But an unlikely hero emerged in the state playoffs as well. A freshman move-in for the Flyers had compiled some decent numbers for Dixie during the season. The ninth-grader Cooper Vest batted .333 during the regular season while starting about half of the Flyers games. He’d also pitched some, picking up a couple of wins, though his earned run average was over 4.00.
But in the state tournament, Vest was amazing. He won two games on the mound, allowing just four hits in 11 innings and striking out 16 batters. He had a key two-run single in the quarterfinals against Snow Canyon, but did not bat in Dixie’s semifinal win over Park City.
Then came the state championship game. Fisher had another amazing performance, with his triple setting up the tying run in the fifth inning and his monstrous solo homer (Did anyone ever fish that ball out of the pond?) bringing the Flyers within one run in the seventh.
But Vest had a game most Flyer fans will never forget. The Snow Canyon pitching held most of the Dixie lineup in check (the Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5 hitters were a combined 2 for 15 at the plate). But the Warriors could not get Vest out. He walked on five pitches in the second inning and had an RBI single in the fourth. He picked up his second single of the game to lead off the bottom of the sixth, but was left aboard as Dixie fell behind 4-2.
The seventh inning came with the Flyers still down two, and by the time Vest hit the on deck circle, there were two outs and the score was 4-3. Wyatt Woodland had drawn a walk and sophomore Kayler Yates kept the game alive with a single that put runners at the corners.
The Dixie Middle School student, still too young to drive a car by himself, stepped into the batter’s box with Flyer Nation on his shoulders. There was no pause for dramatics, no pregnant pause. Vest ripped the first pitch, an inside fastball, high over the right field fence.
Freshman hero. State championship.
Track and Field
Elly Williams and Kaylee Carter led the Desert Hills girls team to its second state championship in the past three years. Williams did it by carrying on family tradition and throwing things really far – her dad, Biff, was a record-setting collegiate thrower. Elly won the gold in shot put (40-feet, 4-inches) and silver in the discus.
Carter was the state champ in the 300-meter hurdles and was second in the 100-hurdles, helping the Thunder girls set a team record for points at the state meet.
Two big relay wins also helped propel Desert Hills to the team victory. The foursome of Rachel Myers, Brooklyn Lott, Hannah Morby and Jessica Bills nosed past Cedar’s 4X100 team with a time of 49.42 to grab gold. The medley relay (two 200-meter runners, a 400 and an 800) was also a key event for DH, which won gold in the event with a time of 4:16.75. Samantha Martinez, Jessica Harris, Emma Jacobsen and Laynee Wells teamed up to get it done.
For the boys, two guys stepped up big time at state. Carter Reynolds has been unbeatable in the 110-meter hurdles this year and the D-Hills junior won going away to take state. But Reynolds had been beaten in the 300-hurdles as Richfield’s Josh Thomas seemed to have his number in that longer event.
Not anymore. Reynolds led from the gun and beat Thomas by nearly two-tenths of a second.
But the biggest story at state track was Utah’s fastest sprinter, Bradley Earl. The speedy Earl, who graduated from DHHS on Thursday, started his Saturday by blowing away the field in the 100-meters in a time of 10.91 seconds. After a short rest, Earl joined teammates Riley Swaney, Cooper Kenney and Zach Marsden and took the 4X100 gold.
He was just getting started. Another brief respite, then Earl headed back out onto the track and gained 10 more team points for the Thunder by winning the 400 in a time of 48.06.
To top his day off, Earl climbed in the starter’s blocks for the 200 meters. Just 21.91 seconds later, he earned his fourth gold of the day by cruising past all challengers in the 200 sprint. Four races, four golds for Earl.
And a fifth straight state title for the Thunder.
Tori Thomas had never won a high school golf tournament. In fact, the Desert Hills junior watched as Dixie’s Gracie Richens dominated the courses of southern Utah. Richens, the defending state champ, won seven of the eight region tourneys, with Snow Canyon’s Lexi Hamel taking the eighth one.
But Thomas and the other golfers had to deal with the adversity of snow, hail, cold wind and near-freezing temperatures at the state tournament in Orem. And Thomas handled it well.
Though the scores were up from last year (Richens won with a two-day total of 150 in 2016), Thomas, Richens and Hamel ended up with identical 155s for the two-day event. Thomas made up two shots on the first-day leader, Richens, and Hamel made up three shots.
So a sudden death playoff was held. Again, with the wind gusting, the three golfers struggled and all three took bogeys. Richens missed a close putt for par that would have ended it.
The trio, and a large gallery of fans, returned to the 18th tee again. This time, Thomas’ second shot was within 10 feet of the cup. She stroked her birdie try, for the win, with some authority, saying it probably would have rolled forever if it missed left or right. But it didn’t. The putt was dead center and Thomas won her first tournament of the year – at the state championships.
The upset was huge, and just as epic were the team scores. Girls golf has only been around as a sanctioned sport in the state of Utah since 2008. Dixie won the first year in the makeshift 4A/5A category and the Lady Flyers took the 4A title in 2009, the first year of Desert Hills’ existence.
Since that time, only one team has won the 3A state golf title. Laurie Cook (now Dyer) was the coach, and even a marriage in 2011 for her couldn’t interrupt what has become maybe the most impressive current dynasty on sports. If Dyer got a championship ring for all those title, her thumbs would be the only bare digits on her hands.
This year, the team of Thomas, K’Jahna Plant, Gabby Meyer, Abby Leitze, Jenna Welch and Alesa Ashton combined for the Thunder’s eighth straight title. Even a move to 4A next season is unlikely to unseat the champs. D-Hills has just one senior on this year’s team.
Dyer said she was nervous for state, that Park City had a strong team. She said it would be close.
It wasn’t. The dynasty lives on, with a new medalist leading the way.
Snow Canyon boys tennis coach Jeremy Atkin is not afraid to tell anyone who will listen that his Warrior program is different than other programs.
“We don’t want those cancerous players, and we’re pretty good at weeding them out,” he said. “We don’t want those guys with a selfish attitude. And we don’t want guys who aren’t willing to put in the work. If you don’t want to be here, guess what – don’t come.”
Atkin has so instilled the team concept at SC, that no one should be surprised when he shakes up the lineup like he did toward the end of this spring season. Really shake it up.
With one region match left before the region and state tournaments, Atkin sat down with star singles player Matt Morgan and asked him if he would switch to doubles. In Utah prep tennis, you can’t play both singles and doubles, so Morgan was faced with the agonizing decision of letting someone else win the state title at 1st singles, someone he likely could have beaten, and trying to quickly mesh with new doubles partner Broden Lund.
“Matt’s a team player, and more importantly, a leader of this team,” Atkin said. “He had no problem with it. I explained that him moving to doubles gave us the best chance to win state as a team.”
So Morgan, who finished in the top four in 1st singles in the state the past two years, let his dreams of being a singles champ go and focused on doubles play with Lund.
The duo won their first match against Hurricane, but were defeated in the region tournament by Desert Hills’ Conner McArthur and Josh James. The two partners were still trying to mesh and it showed, losing in two close sets.
Atkin’s theory seemed doomed. He needed Morgan-Lund to win state and new 2nd doubles partners Cade Thorkelson and Tanner Deal to take their bracket as well. Atkin also needed a few points from a singles player or two for the Warriors to have a chance at the state title.
Unfortunately for the Warriors, that didn’t happen. While Morgan-Lund and Thorkelson-Deal did take their two state championships, the SC singles players came away empty-handed.
The gamble didn’t pay off. Or did it? Snow Canyon finished second behind first-time champion Bear River, but gained championships in both doubles slots, an unlikely scenario before the switch. Had Morgan stayed at 1st singles, he likely would have been the only state champ from Snow Canyon.
As for Morgan, he said his top priority is serving an LDS church mission. After that, he should have plenty of choices on where to play tennis collegiately. And at that level, they don’t just allow players to play both singles and doubles, they require it. So Morgan’s state championship in doubles may just be the best experience he could have gained for the next level of play.
Snow Canyon seemed like the team of destiny from the beginning of the season.
The Warriors whipped Juan Diego and 4A Provo and hung close with 5A semifinalist Copper Hills before falling 1-0. In fact, SC had an excellent preseason, even with a 1-0 loss to Canyon View just before region began (SC rested several starters for that game). Behind star goalkeeper Quinn Hargis, Snow Canyon allowed just three goals in six preseason matches.
Region began with a tougher-than-expected 2-1 win at Cedar in the howling wind. Next time out, the Warriors beat up on Pine View, but then had to settle for a 0-0 tie with Dixie. At 2-0-1 in region, Snow Canyon needed to get hot to fulfill that destiny.
That’s exactly what the Warriors did. Hargis allowed just one goal and SC dominated possession the next four matches, all wins, including a 1-0 nail-biter at Desert Hills.
With two Region 9 matches left, SC was 6-0-2 and needed just one win in a home match vs. Desert Hills to clinch the region title. Richard Vichi fired a pass to Alex Tholen, who volleyed the ball into the net for the early lead in the game.
But then something crazy happened – Hargis allowed a first-half goal, and the game was tied. Hargis, who has signed to play collegiately at Salt Lake Community College, never allowed early goals. But there it was, the equalizer by DH’s Walker Heaton, just 10 minutes into the contest.
For Snow Canyon, it was shocking to see Hargis and the defensive back line give up an early goal. But it was also a source of motivation. DH would not have many opportunities after that, and when Kaden Wittwer put the Warriors back on top just before halftime, the feeling on the pitch was that the score, and the region championship, would hold up.
Snow Canyon breezed through the first two rounds of the 3A playoffs and it looked like the Warriors were headed for a championship rematch against the team that beat them in the finals in 2016, Juan Diego. All SC had to do was get past Region 11 champ Ridgeline, a team that had struggled in both of its first two playoff rounds.
As it turns out, the first-year RiverHawks were the team of destiny. Ridgeline did something against the Warriors that hadn’t happened all year. The RiverHawks scored two goals.
The physical match was decided on a physical play, with a loose ball in open space being won by Ridgeline’s JC Vasquez over Hargis and a Warrior defender. The ball squirted into the untended net for what would be the game-winner just before halftime.
And the championship hopes of the Warriors faded with rolling ball. But SC’s players, led by coach Mark Wittwer, shouldn’t hang their heads, even if they didn’t get a second chance at Juan Diego (Ridgeline beat the Soaring Eagle 2-1 in the 3A title game).
An undefeated region championship and a 14-3-2 record are monumental accomplishments.
The buzz heading into region softball play was all about the Lady Thunder of Desert Hills.
It was fitting as D-Hills had amassed a 12-1 preseason record, dropping larger schools by such scores as 12-2, 18-0 and 14-2. With an impressive Bri St, Clair as the main pitcher and a lineup full of solid hitters, it looked like this might be the year southern Utah teams finally took that next step and competed with the best in the state in 3A.
Meanwhile, Cedar was compiling a rather unimpressive 5-5 preseason record. The Lady Reds opened region with a win over Snow Canyon, but then went 1-2-1 at the Icebreaker Tournament, losing to Juab and Lehi by the combined score of 26-7.
So when Desert Hills and Cedar met on Apr. 13, a few eyebrows were raised when the Reds (at that point just 10-7-1) beat the Thunder (at that point 19-1-1), 4-3.
Still, the game was in Cedar City and the two teams were slated to meet in the last game of the regular season back at DHHS. That’s when the Thunder would flex their muscle.
Well, someone flexed a muscle, but it wasn’t Desert Hills.
Cedar pitcher Bryton Holyoak worked out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the third inning. The escape act changed the momentum of the game as CHS, behind Japrix Weaver, put up three runs the next half-inning, added four more in the fifth and then brought on the mercy rule with three more in the sixth. Holyoak, Pua Johnson and Dream Weaver were the hitting stars in the stunning 10-0 Cedar win, which clinched the region title.
“It was not her (Holyoak) fault the bases were loaded (in the third),” said Cedar head coach Chris Weaver. “We had a couple of errors that put some runners aboard. That is the difference between Bryton this year and last year. Last year, she would have caved to the pressure and let it affect her. This year, her maturity has showed and she continues to pitch well.”
The Lady Reds, seemingly out of nowhere, went 10-0 in region and hoped to make a run at state.
Unfortunately, Region 9 still has some catching up to do with the northern schools in softball. Cedar was eliminated before championship Saturday and Desert Hills didn’t make it past the last Thursday of the season.
But maybe next year. See, Cedar had no seniors on this year’s team. None.
A southern Utah team hasn’t won a state softball title since 2006 (Canyon View), so 2018 might just be a year to remember.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.