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.”