Basketball preview: Desert Hills High School

ST. GEORGE — The Thunder girls basketball team is coming off of a second place finish in the region, but have some uncertainties after graduating four of their five starters. As for the boys team, the Thunder are returning their leading scorer as well as some juniors who played a good amount last season.

Desert Hills girls basketball

The lady Thunder finished last season 12-8 overall and 8-4 in region play. The 8-4 record earned them the second spot in the Region 9 rankings, behind the undefeated Cedar Reds. The Thunder then lost in the first round of the Class 4A state tournament to Uintah, 58-50. Coming off a second place finish, the Thunder have some uncertainties headed into the 2019-2020 season.

Four of the team’s five starters last season were seniors, with another senior coming off the bench. The Thunder are returning one starter, sophomore Sa’de Turlington, but have some players who transferred in mixed with some inexperienced players. Head coach Ron Denos said that only three returners played any minutes last season.

They did receive a boost with Kami Bliss returning to play this season. The Region 9 volleyball co-MVP sat out last season with some knee problems, but she adds some size to the Thunder roster.

Desert Hills girls basketball gets ready for their season, St. George, Utah, Nov. 26, 2019 | Photo by Ryne Williams, St. George News

“I’ve kind of had to change my whole style of play with what I have,” Denos said. “With the girls I have this year it’s going to be a little bit different style then we’re used to playing. I don’t know if people understand what we’re going to have.”

With all the change with the roster, senior Maggie Westhoff said it has been quite a difference.

“It’s been different seeing different girls not play that have in the past, and then new girls have come in,” Westhoff said. “I think it’s cool. It’ll be a different year, but I think we’ll be able to work together to make it happen.”

That change in style of play will show a Thunder team that is much more of a half court team, only running in transition when the opportunity arises. Denos sees his team being much slower than Desert Hills teams in the past. They will look to run and push the ball still, just not as much.

One thing Denos stressed was defense. When the talk of, “defense wins championships,” came up, Denos perked up. He hangs his hat on defense, but the uncertainty continues to follow the Thunder. He does not know what to expect of his team, and he won’t know what to expect until the Thunder hit the floor, but one thing is for sure, he values defense.

“It’s the most consistent thing you can do,” Denos said. “Offense isn’t always consistent. Sometimes your game is there, sometimes it’s not, but defense is all about desire and work ethic. You can have all the desire and the baskets just aren’t falling. Defense is the key for anything because you can always hang your hat on that.”

Desert Hills girls basketball gets ready for their season, St. George, Utah, Nov. 26, 2019 | Photo by Ryne Williams, St. George News

When talk of a team identity came up, Denos spoke about physicality. Boxing out and limiting teams to one possession came to mind, but physicality can show itself in various ways throughout a game. It was evident that the Thunder will not be backing down from any challenges this season.

“We’re going to be very physical. I want to be a team that is hard-nosed, and a physical team that is very fundamentally sound while playing their heart out every game.”

As a whole team, Westhoff said that she thought they will be solid. The Thunder have not set down any goals just yet, but Denos did guarantee one thing, and that is that his team will make the playoffs. He’s interested to see how the new RPI system will work out this season, and is somewhat skeptical. The good thing about the RPI ranking is that any team can get hot in the playoffs, it’s about who is playing their best basketball at the end of the season.

The Thunder start their season on Dec. 6 against Logan.

Desert Hills boys basketball

The Thunder boys basketball team had a tough season in 2018-2019, finishing 10-12 overall and 4-8 in region. They did not make the playoffs, but capped off their season with a win on the road against the region champion Pine View Panthers. That team had three seniors on it, with two of them being in the top three scorers on the team.

Desert Hills boys basketball gets ready for their season, St. George, Utah, Nov. 25, 2019 | Photo by Ryne Williams, St. George News

The good news for the Thunder is that they are returning Mason Chase, who averaged 11.3 points per game and played in every game for Desert Hills as a junior. Add in three juniors that averaged about 15 minutes or more and you have a solid returning squad.

Head coach Wade Turley has been pleased with what he has seen out of his team so far.

“Our kids are working really hard,” Turley said. “What I most enjoy is that they lift and build each other, they’re pulling for each other, as they compete against one another. We don’t care who is getting the shot as long as it is a great team shot. It shows a sign of maturity from teams that I’ve had in the past.”

One thing that is sticking out to Turley is his team’s depth. He mentioned that they could go 9 to 10 players deep on their bench. That rotation will most likely tighten down some when region play starts, but there are a good amount of players impressing him right now.

The first name that came to mind for Turley was his senior and returning leading score, Mason Chase. He spoke about his eagerness to get better and how much work he has been putting in. He brings athleticism to the Thunder roster and Turley said he is very coachable.

“When your seniors are willing to learn and listen and have a hunger and desire to improve, that kind of trickles down to the rest of the team,” Turley said.

Desert Hills boys basketball gets ready for their season, St. George, Utah, Nov. 25, 2019 | Photo by Ryne Williams, St. George News

It will be a balanced attack for the Thunder this season. They will look to push the ball, but are also capable of slowing the game down and playing in the half court. Turley said they have been sharing the ball well in the preseason and with multiple players being able to score and shoot, this fares well for the Thunder.

While everyone loves to score and shoot threes, the best teams get dirty and grind out possessions on defense. This is going to be a major focus for Desert Hills as the season begins.

“It always starts with defense, you’ve probably heard that before,” Turley said. “Defense travels in my mind. If you don’t have everyone sitting down and playing hard-nosed defense you’re going to have a lot of peaks and valleys during the season.”

Both Chase and Turley touched on the idea of focusing on the little things. The four keys for the Thunder this season are boxing out, staying in a stance, running the floor and getting back on defense. The team films scrimmages in practice and grades each other on how well they do those little things. They’re holding each other accountable.

The biggest of those four keys is boxing out and rebounding. If the Thunder can hold teams to one possession, they will be able to get the ball out in transition and their offense will come to them.

“That’s honestly probably the biggest thing we’ve been working on because last year that was one of our biggest weaknesses,” Chase said of their rebounding. “I feel like we might have dropped some games because of the small things like that.”

Desert Hills boys basketball gets ready for their season, St. George, Utah, Nov. 25, 2019 | Photo by Ryne Williams, St. George News

While most teams will quickly say that their goal is to win a state title or a region title, Turley was the opposite. He wants his team to stay focused on what they’re doing in the now. Chase said that during the team event they all spoke about that, not thinking too far ahead.

“We just try to simplify it and not look at the end product, but focus on the moment,” Turley said. “Focus on what can I control right now while I’m on the floor, what I can control in practice, what I can control in the game and if they’ll do that they’ll give themselves plenty of opportunities to be successful.”

Desert Hills will open their season with an away game at Ridgeline on Dec. 5. They will then play on Dec. 6 against the defending 4A state champions, Sky View. The Thunder will challenge themselves early, seeing how they stack up against other teams in Class 4A.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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