The young men in gold and black let the tears flow freely at the heartbreaking end of a magnificent season no one thought they’d have.
Picked to finish fourth in its region, the Desert Hills football team exceeded everyone’s expectations but its own this fall.
“They had a great season — a better season than what most thought,” said first-year had coach Carl Franke after his team lost a 35-28 semifinal game against Spanish Fork on Thursday night. “We fell short of what our goal was, and that was to win the state championship. … But they’ve done a really great job; they’ve bought into the system. This won’t be the last time we’re here.”
The team is young except for a few seniors who provided leadership to the talented group. Senior Ty Rutledgemoved from two years as a receiver to starting quarterback and proved himself to be a smart, skilled offensive leader.
“Ty is just a natural athlete,” said Franke. “I can’t say he’s a quarterback per se; he’s just a competitor and an athlete and that’s why we had him on the field.”
When asked about Rutledge’s role in leading the team to the semifinal game, Franke didn’t hesitate.
“He’s the guy,” he said. “The offensive line did such a great job tonight, but Ty is one of those kids you’ll see on Saturday afternoon and Saturday nights playing for somebody. Hopefully somebody up here notices how tough and how good an athlete he is.”
Rutledge threw for 127 yards and two touchdowns in the loss.
The senior, who is also a star for the baseball and basketball teams, was embracing coaches and teammates after the loss.
“We had a great year,” he said, wiping away tears. “It was fun. … Obviously it wasn’t enough, but you win some, you lose some and life goes on. We’ll wake up tomorrow morning and go through our daily routine. This is going to hurt for a long time.”
Rutledge has no doubt that his coach is right about how his teammates will use the loss to come back stronger and more determined next season.
“We’ll bounce back,” he said. “These are all great young men, and I love every single one of these guys. I want to thank them all so much.”
Franke said that while he’s as disappointed as his players that they didn’t earn that title trophy, he hopes they gained something far more important from their time in his program. His commitment to developing their lives off the field is part of the reason the team had such success this season, he said.
“It starts with belief in family,” he said. “You’ve got to have good foundations. We preach that — we preach family and all the good things that happen. These guys are going to be great young men even after football. So, even though they’re great football players, what we hope for is that they’re just great young men in their communities afterwards. Got great support from our fans. Great coaching staff, and like I said, this won’t be our last time here.”
Much to the consternation of the home crowd, Bear River was still in it, marching for the apparent go-ahead touchdown in the waning minutes against Desert Hills.
Yet no matter how many times the Thunder offense or special tams tried to give the game to the Bears, their defense seemed to bail them out. Desert Hills went to the well again, and it was far from dry.
The Thunder came up with a pair of sacks to stifle Bear River’s final drive and quarterback Ty Rutledge made a spectacular touchdown run that proved to be the difference as Desert Hills defeated the Bears 23-17 Friday night to earn a spot in next week’s 3A semifinals.
The Thunder face Spanish Fork on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. They know a performance tantamount to Friday’s will not do.
“We’ve got to clean up some things, but it’s a win and we’re moving on,” said first-year Desert Hills head coach Carl Franke. “That’s all that really matters at this point.”
And a team with Rutledge can atone for some miscues.
The senior’s electrifying 23-yard scoring scramble in the third quarter proved to be the difference — even though the play appeared ticketed for a loss. Rutledge dropped back to pass, was unable to find a receiver, then was chased to the right. Three Bear River defenders had a chance to bring him down, but he evaded them along the sidelines. As more defenders converged, Rutledge to cut back to the left where he outraced a few defensive backs before carrying one of them into the end zone.
“I was close to going out of bounds on the sideline, then I saw a cutback lane and got there,” said Rutledge, who completed 15 of 30 pass attempts for 203 yards and rushed for 95 yards on 15 totes. “I don’t really know how it happened, but it did.”
Earlier in the game, Rutledge connected with Jordan Hokanson and Josh Anderson on touchdown passes.
“Ty puts it on his shoulders and he makes plays,” Franke said. “It’s all guts.”
The biggest reason Desert Hills is moving on, however, is its stellar defense. It allowed just one offensive possession of substance — the Bears’ 10-play, 70-yard opening drive to tie the game 7-7. A large chunk of the Thunder’s gameplan was keeping quarterback Kyle Zundel from going wild. A week ago at Wasatch, Zundel was exquisite, rushing for 188 yards and passing for 95 as the Bears stomped Wasatch. He was nowhere near as successful this time (8 of 23 passing for 83 yards; 47 yards rushing), in part because Desert Hills made a concerted effort to keep him contained.
However, the Thunder’s graciousness as hosts nearly cost them a spot in the semifinals.
Desert Hills butchered a long snap and muffed a punt to give Bear River prime real estate on two occasions. The bad snap led directly to a 25-yard touchdown pass from Zundel to receiver Colton Jensen to pull the Bears to within 23-17 with 6:33 to go. The gaffe on the punt return set up a field goal. Following Jensen’s touchdown, the Thunder picked up three first downs and appeared ready to salt away the game until the drive stalled out at the Bears’ 32.
One last time for Zundel to rally his troops.
The Bears rode Jeramie Selman for 130 yards on 17 carries, including 18 yards on the final drive. Yet Zundel made a mental error that diminished Bear River’s hopes of succeeding on the final drive.
On third-and-6 from the Desert Hills, Zundel was whistled for intentional grounding. It resulted in a loss of 10 yards, forcing a fourth and long. On the following play, Brock Doman and Anderson combined on a sack to end the game.
The Thunder now get a spot on the big stage, two wins away from what would be the program’s first state title. “It’s what we play for,” Doman said.
Written by Jeff Ames, The Spectrum
Ty Rutledge has a chip on his shoulder. He’s had it since the 2012 football season began, maybe even earlier. He’s not angry, nor does he harbor any feelings of resentment towards the sporting community, even though most pegged Desert Hills to limp through the regular season and finish fourth or fifth at best.
No, Rutledge isn’t angry. He’s hungry. Hungry to prove the naysayers and skeptics — the same naysayers and skeptics that continue to doubt the Thunder’s capability even after their jaw-dropping finish atop Region 9 last week – wrong.
“We still consider ourselves the underdogs because everybody keeps saying Desert Hills isn’t the real deal,” Rutledge said. “They say our beating Hurricane was a fluke. It’s fueled us. We honestly want to be on top.”
This Friday marks Desert Hills’ first home playoff game since hosting Park City in the opening round last year. Of course this team bears little resemblance to the one that burned its way to the state championship and featured the likes of Porter Harris, Mike Needham and Nate Brinker. But that doesn’t matter to Rutledge.
The young QB, who slid into the role after two seasons at receiver, has one goal to accomplish before he heads off into the sunset: win state.
“Ty has basically said, ‘Okay this is my senior season. This is my team and I’m going to take it,’” Thunder coach Carl Franke said. “And I’ve let him. I’ve told him, ‘It’s yours, just go ahead and take it.’”
Franke remains one of Rutledge’s most ardent supporters, a respect born several seasons ago when the young athlete walked onto the football field as an up-and-coming sophomore. “He came onto the varsity squad as this skinny little kid with a lot of athletic ability. That was basically the year I changed our offense. I went from a little bit of a pro, west coast style offense to a spread offense where we throw the ball around a lot more and utilize our athletes.”
Unbeknownst to Rutledge, Franke made the change because of him. “We just knew he was one of those kids that would do anything it took to win a ballgame.”
Desert Hills finished a meager 3-3 in region that season, but advanced to the playoffs where they lost 27-7 to Delta in the quarterfinals. Rutledge completed just nine receptions for 115 yards in his role as a slot receiver, but logged time in other positions, including QB, as well.
“We used him where we could his sophomore year,” Franke said. “In the offseason he made himself better. He worked hard and got bigger, stronger and faster.”
As such, Rutledge landed a more substantial role his junior season: wide receiver. With Harris (and occasionally Brinker) at the helm, Rutledge gave Desert Hills’ offense a terrific asset, nabbing 42 receptions for 591 yards and eight touchdowns. He even brought in a decisive 33-yard catch against Cedar in the semifinals that gave the Thunder a 17-14 advantage early in the final period.
“Ty was the one who basically got us into the finals, catching that deep ball,” Franke said. “He’s just a phenomenal athlete and a great leader both on and off the field.”
So impressed was Franke with Rutledge’s skill last season that he opted to start him at QB, a decision that paid off handsomely.
“The thing with me was I wanted my best athlete touching the ball every play,” Franke said. “And I just felt like, if he played receiver he’s gonna touch it 10, maybe 15 times a game. But if he’s playing quarterback he’s touching it 6o times a game. And I just wanted my best guy to touch the ball a lot every game because I felt like that gave us the best chance at winning games.”
True to form, Rutledge delivered an impressive 5-1 region record, capping wins against Hurricane and Pine View in the process, and compiled an astounding 1,450 passing yards and 891 rushing yards to go with 27 touchdowns.
“A lot of the kids joke around, but they know darn well that without Ty Rutledge at the helm for us we wouldn’t have a chance at winning a ballgame,” Franke said. “He’s that important to this football team.”
For Rutledge, a St. George native who grew up in a household consisting of three older sisters, success remains a constant in his family, as does leadership and athleticism. His father Karl, for example, played college football and baseball, while his sisters had a hand in everything from volleyball and softball to dance.
“We’ve got a talented family, and that’s helped me learn a lot,” he said. “I’ve always played sports and felt like a leader no matter what position I played.”
Desert Hills’ destiny truly lies in Rutledge’s hands. And so, with Payson coming to town, Rutledge will continue to lead his team. And that chip on his shoulder will continue to grow.
“We all have something to prove out there,” he said. “If you don’t play football with something to prove then you’re not going to win. We just need to show up and blow (Payson) out. We want to win and we want to keep going. We can’t worry about what’s being said. We’re just focusing on winning a football game.”
Written by Jeff Ames, The Spectrum
No one expected Desert Hills to hoist the Region 9 trophy at season’s end. Instead, all eyes focused on defending state champion Hurricane and flashy, speedy offensive-minded Dixie.
Yet after routing Cedar 42-14 Wednesday night, the Thunder stood at midfield holding the coveted region crown.
The win gave Desert Hills a 5-1 record on the season, which put them in a tie with Hurricane. Thanks to last week’s 46-38 triple-overtime victory over the Tigers, however, the Thunder claimed the top spot.
“I’ve said it from the get-go,” Thunder coach Carl Franke said. “Most people expected us to finish fourth at best. But I knew the type of kids I had. They believe in each other and believe in this family.”
Desert Hills will host its first ever home playoff game next week against either Payson or Delta. Quarterback Ty Rutledge has played a large role in making this so.
The senior, who was reintroduced to the quarterback position following a prolonged absence from under center, completed 8-of-13 passes for two touchdowns and 222 yards. He also had two turnovers, including a red zone interception, but managed to overcome those obstacles en route to the win.
“He’s MVP of the region,” Franke said. “I don’t care what anybody says. He wants others to succeed. Sometimes he gets down on himself if he doesn’t produce and I have to tell him to settle down. But he wants his team to succeed. He doesn’t care about himself.”
The game looked like it might provide some genuine excitement in the first quarter. Cedar tore through the Thunder defense and capped off a six-minute drive with a touchdown that gave the Redmen an early 7-0 lead.
“Cedar came out in a double tight,” Franke said. “They kind of surprised us with that. We had to make some adjustments, and (defensive coordinator) Nick Hansen did a good job making those changes.”
With the home crowd slightly aghast, Desert Hills took the field looking to make some noise. Right on cue, sophomore Bridger Cowdin collected the ensuing kickoff and burned Cedar’s defense with a 90-yard touchdown return that shifted the momentum back to the home team.
“Since Monday I said I wanted a kickoff return,” Cowdin said. “I even wrote it down five times. Tonight, I saw a hole and my blockers gave me some room. I couldn’t have done anything without them.”
From that point on, the Thunder maintained control on both sides of the ball. After Sil Bundy recovered a fumble — his first of two recoveries on the night — Rutledge and Cowdin took over Desert Hills’ run game and scored with 5:27 to go in the half off a quarterback sneak on the 1.
Later, with the half winding down, Rutledge scrambled to evade Cedar’s defense, and managed to hurl a long pass to the end zone into the waiting arms of Keenan Wittwer.
The Thunder entered halftime leading 28-7.
The onslaught didn’t abate in the second half. Rutledge single-handedly drove the length of the field and dished off to Jordan Hokanson for an easy 11-yard touchdown.
Desert Hills’ defense also wanted a peace of the pie and rushed Cedar quarterback Morgan Garrett, forcing him to fumble the snap. Defensive end Gabriel Sewell collected the loose ball and rumbled 40 yards to make it 42-7.
Garrett collected himself enough to throw a 65-yard touchdown pass to receiver Mike Hourigan, but it was too little too late for the Redmen, who exit the season with just one victory.
“They have a great program,” Franke said of Cedar. “I have a lot of respect for them.”
When the final horn sounded, Desert Hills’ student body stormed the field and celebrated with the Region 9 champions.
“No one expected us to win,” Rutledge said. “Those same people will probably say we won’t win our next game too. We’re the underdogs the rest of the way.”
Written by Keric Seegmiller, StGeorgeUtah.com
The only mystery surrounding the game between Desert Hills and Cedar Wednesday night was the seed in which the Thunder would enter the state playoffs.
Ty Rutledge and Co. quickly put any doubt to rest as Desert Hills cruised to a 42-14 victory over the Redmen to claim its first outright Region 9 title in school history. And while getting a trophy to add to the case is always fun, winning the outright region title definitely has perks far greater than a piece of hardware. The region champs also get two consecutive home games should they advance past the first round.
“The result of winning a region championship is the best,” Rutledge said. “Winning a region championship is big mainly because of the two home games.”
Despite only having one win this season, Cedar wasn’t about to go down without a fight. The Redmen took the opening possession and rattled off an 11-play scoring drive capped by an 18-yard scamper by quarterback Easton Weaver. The Cedar sideline and crowd was pumped, and a little thing called momentum was in its corner.
At least until the ensuing kickoff.
Sophomore running back Bridger Cowdin fielded the kick from Jeff Rogers and never looked back. Cowdin juked defenders and shook off would-be tacklers before bursting through one final hole for 89 yards and a Desert Hills touchdown. The score was tied at 7-7 before the Redmen had even finished celebrating their touchdown.
“That big return settled us down,” coach Carl Franke said. “Bridger had a huge game for us tonight. He’s a fantastic athlete and team player. He’s going to be something special.”
But even after the big special teams breakdown, Cedar still had its chances and will remember this game for the could-haves and should-haves.
The Redmen forced a Rutledge interception early in the second quarter and quickly drove to midfield. However, one play after converting on a third-and-long situation, Cedar gave away the first of four fumbles. The turnovers proved costly as Desert Hills turned each takeaway into a touchdown.
But before putting the visitors away for good, the Thunder gave Cedar one last chance. Trailing 21-7 early in the third quarter, the Redmen managed to force a Desert Hills fumble for their only takeaway of the game.
Working with a short field, the Redmen marched to the Desert Hills 2-yard line before being turned away by the stingy Thunder defense. The turnover on downs deflated completely the proverbial Cedar balloon and the Thunder blew it open en route to the region clinching victory.
With the win, Desert Hills closes out the regular season with a 6-3 overall record and 5-1 in region play. Cedar finishes the season at 1-8 overall and 1-5 in the region. The Thunder will play at home next Friday, but the time and the opponent are still to be determined.
But no matter the opponent, Franke said they will be ready.
“Our first goal was region championship, and our second goal is state championship,” he said. “But the thing we preach all the time is we take one game at time. We’re not going to worry about if we make it to the semifinals. We’ve got to win next week.”
It was a long and strange night at Tigers Stadium, but for Desert Hills, it was all worth it.
Jordan Hokanson caught the winning touchdown pass from Ty Rutledge and the Thunder survived two lightning delays and a determined Hurricane squad to win a 46-38 triple overtime thriller Thursday night.
“I’m exhausted. I don’t even know what to say,” Rutledge said. “When you put everything you have into something, give until you can’t give anymore, and you beat a great team like Hurricane, well it’s the best feeling in the world.”
The game had more story lines than a daytime soap and didn’t conclude until well after 11 p.m. At one point, after a 45-minute halftime delay due to dangerously close lightning, Hurricane and Desert Hills administrators considered postponing the rest of the game. But after a time, Hurricane principal Jody Rich announced the second half would be played “it if it takes all night.” It nearly did.
Up 21-7 during the elongated intermission, the Tigers came out in the second half and seemed to put the game away with an 85-yard touchdown drive. Jared Edwards had most of the yardage on the drive, which took eight plays and nearly four minutes. Edwards 3-yard dive made it 28-7 with 8:13 to go in the third quarter.
“We told the boys (at that point) that they could either be men and show some pride and rise to the challenge or just roll over,” Thunder assistant coach Buck Cowdin said. “We felt embarrassed we hadn’t competed better.”
From that point on, including the three overtimes, Desert Hills outscored the defending state champions 39-10.
“That first drive after they scored in the third quarter was huge,” Rutledge said. “I’m not going to lie, I doubted us before that. But that drive showed us we could do it.”
Indeed, the Thunder went 58 yards on nine plays, converting on a third-and-19 on a pass from Rutledge to Jordan Hokanson of 21 yards, as well as a fourth-and-1 conversion from the 6-yard line on a TD run by Rutledge.
The score made it 28-14 with 3:51 left in the third and gave the DH crowd some hope. After a Hurricane punt, Keenan Wittwer snagged a Rutledge pass away from a defender to make it 28-21 with still a minute left in the third quarter. Five minutes and another Hurricane punt later, Rutledge and Dallin Bristol teamed up – in a bizarre way. Rutledge lunged for the end zone on a scramble, but the ball popped out and rolled into the end zone, where Bristol snatched it up for six points, tying the score at 28-28 with 7:40 left in regulation. Both teams had chances to win before the extra periods, but couldn’t get it done.
Hurricane and Desert Hills both scored TDs in the first overtime and the Tigers Eathan Stratton hit a 37-yard field goal to put Hurricane ahead at 38-35 in the second OT. DH’s Andrew Yergensen matched Stratton’s 3-pointer with a 27-yarder to force the third OT.
The Thunder had the ball first in the third extra period. Rutledge ran it down to the 3-yard line. Three plays later, the Thunder faced fourth down at the 4-yard line. Rutledge, under pressure, rolled to the right, then spotted Hokanson back to the left and threw across his body to get the wide receiver the ball for the go-ahead score.
“I was under pressure and was thinking I would have to break a tackle and try to score,” Rutledge said. “Then I saw Jordan doing jumping jacks over there all alone.”
The TD and a two-pointer gave Desert Hills its winning margin as Hurricane stalled out at the 22-yard line in its possession.
The win puts DH in a position to capture the No. 1 seed from region 9 with a win next week against Cedar. It also hands Hurricane its first loss since 2010, a streak of 20 straight victories.
The Tigers, 7-1 and 4-1, will likely at least tie for a fifth straight region title as they play winless Canyon View next week.
For Desert Hills, 5-3 and 4-1, it is a small measure of revenge for a championship game loss last November.