3A football: Desert Hills, Spanish Fork enjoy surprising reloading years
It was the day when Desert Hills met snowy tundra.
The Thunder marched into the Class 3A finals last year with a senior-heavy team, confident in their chances to knock off undefeated Hurricane. But as a blizzard descended on Rice-Eccles Stadium, their hopes of a title slipped away as the Tigers rang up a 21-0 victory.
Then people started writing off Desert Hills football. Everyone except the Thunder themselves.
"Even in our own community this year, people were asking, 'Aren't you happy to be in third place in region?' " Desert Hills coach Carl Franke said. "People didn't believe us when we thought we had the opportunity to win our region. Our kids have played with a chip on our shoulder, and I'm glad they have.
"They've been disrespected."
Both Desert Hills and Spanish Fork showed up to Rice-Eccles last season, leading their respective programs to their best finishes ever. But both wound up falling short of the championship, seeing their dreams dashed against the grinding Hurricane run game.
A dropoff for both was expected: Both the Thunder and the Dons lost their top passers, rushers, tacklers and sack leaders. The coach for each program stepped away from the game on his own accord.
But the downshift never happened.
In Spanish Fork, the offense once again has balance and big numbers, with quarterback Jason Money throwing the passes and Braxton Argyle at running back. Players such as senior guard Jordan Brandon are stepping up as leaders.
Under Kirk Chambers, an NFL player turned prep coach, the Dons swept through region play with ease and came out with a pair of tough victories in the 3A playoffs so far.
"As a player, the stress goes away when you go out and hit someone, but there's definitely more stress throughout the game as a coach," Chambers said. "But these guys have had steady nerves. It makes my job a lot easier."
The Spanish Fork community, a baseball-driven town, now is buzzing again about the chances that the Dons could take home the program's first state title. Founded in 1962, Spanish Fork has not even played in the finals.
"Our players have found that drive, and I think they want to do something real special for this community," Chambers said. "I think I'm almost spoiled this year for being real close, but we know we might not be in the semifinals every year, so we have to make it count."
Desert Hills is feeling urgency as well in its second straight visit to the finals in only its fifth year of existence. Although the team graduated a host of multiyear starters, an offensive line of two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman surprisingly have become one of the most consistent units in Class 3A.
That has allowed quarterback Ty Rutledge, who played receiver last year, to thrive in the backfield. He has more than 3,000 yards of offense to go with 35 total touchdowns this season.
Franke, who served as the offensive coordinator before stepping up to the head coaching job, said he always saw potential in this group. He hopes that soon, everyone will.
"We've competed this way all year, and we're going to continue to do it," Franke said. "I believe we're an up-and-coming program that's going to be in the playoffs year in and year out. We're for real."