Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Desert Hills coach Carl Franke told his team that in order to be successful Friday afternoon, it needed to play well in all three phases of the game. His special teams crew certainly did its part.
The Thunder benefitted from two big returns for touchdowns to spark the team to a 21-14 victory over region foe and defending champion Dixie in the semifinal round of the 3AA tournament at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Friday.
"It was huge," Franke said of the special teams play. "We talked about it all game and the week of practice leading up to it. We knew if we made some plays on special teams, we'd be right in it today."
Senior Braden Reber made the first big play for Desert Hills at the close of a nearly scoreless first half. Facing fourth-and-25 with only 15 seconds remaining, the Flyers were forced to punt from their own 13-yard line. Reber caught the ball near midfield and then zig-zagged his way downfield, ultimately diving for the goal line to cap the 48-yard return as time expired. The play gave the Thunder a 7-0 lead at the half.
"I put two back just in case they were going to kick it to the corner," Franke said. "It gave us an opportunity for a return. We were just lucky enough to get one more block and then a cutback across the grain and we got in."
One quarter later, the Thunder found themselves down 14-7 — until sophomore Zac Fuchs saw an opportunity to make a play.
Immediately following the Flyers' final score, a 12-yard touchdown run by Konner Aitken with seven seconds left in the third quarter, Fuchs stepped in to receive the kickoff and returned it 92 yards to tie the score.
"Bridger (Cowdin) was supposed to take it and Fuchs was right there. ... It was kind of a cluster there for a second," Franke said.
"I called it and I didn't know who was going to grab it, so I just said I had it again, grabbed it and just took it outside," Fuchs said. "I saw my teammates blocking and I just saw holes open. Just a couple stuff arms I had to do."
The Thunder special teams crew accounted for two of the team's three touchdowns and returned five punts for 70 yards and two kickoffs for 121 yards in the game. With the win, Desert Hills avenged a previous loss to the Flyers and punched its ticket to the title game against Pine View.
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.