SALT LAKE CITY — Dear Rice-Eccles Stadium, we've missed you. It's been 363 days since our last appearance in the 3A semifinals and we haven't forgotten. We look forward to seeing you once again. Signed: Desert Hills and Spanish Fork.
In 2011, the Thunder and the Dons both experienced the semifinals but, in the end, neither coveted the championship hardware and left empty-handed, along with 25 other programs in the classification. Since then, both have traveled the long returning road by capturing at least a share of the region championship and No.1 seeds.
Spanish Fork (11-1) is vying for its first title game, whereas Desert Hills (8-3) is trying to avenge a 21-0 loss to Hurricane in last year's championship game. When the two meet Thursday at 6:30 p.m., once again, one will join the rest — empty-handed.
"It would mean a lot to our boys," Spanish Fork coach Kirk Chambers said. "All of our seniors were contributors last year, so I think it's been a driving desire that they want to be the first team in Spanish Fork history to even make it to the (title) game. We feel like it's a big challenge for us but then again we also feel by stepping up to this challenge we can see how good of a team we are."
Desert Hills garnished strong attention in preseason polls and continued throughout the season. That's the luxury of playing in Region 9, often regarded as one of the deepest regions in any classification, and winning it. The Dons, despite outscoring 3A competition 358-90 in nine wins, have been nothing more than a blip.
"We're not saying that Region 9 teams are the best in the state, we're saying that Region 9 teams are quality teams except maybe Canyon View," Thunder coach Carl Franke said. "If you got to go through Dixie, Pine View (and) Hurricane, these teams are normally ranked in the Top 10 every year and usually three of those are in the Top 5 throughout the year — it's a grind."
"We're not really the best until we start winning more championships," Franke added. "I think Region 9 has only won one championship in the last 10 years."
Chambers, while acknowledging the lack of press clippings was preferable, understands the lure 3A's version of the SEC has.
"We understand Region 9 has been getting all kinds of hype and they probably deserve (it) because they've been to the finals and won it," he said. "We give them the respect, definitely; however, we feel we can compete with anyone in the state regardless of what region they come from or what classification they are. That's the type of mentality we have to have."
Spanish Fork's offense is money driven — literally. Sophomore quarterback Jason Money and his cousin Cameron, a senior, that have developed a symbolic relationship on the field. Cameron has developed into a big-play specialist, averaging 19.62 yards per reception with 12 touchdowns. Jason has accounted for 2,582 yards of total offensive production with 27 scores.
The Money tandem isn't the only option on offense with Braxton Argyle, Colton Olsen, Gunnar Beus and Logan Jensen all reliable contributors.
"That's beauty of our offense. We have many weapons to go to that if they want to shut down one we'll go to the next one until they realize that it's not as easy as they thought," Chambers said. "If Desert Hills wants to shut that down, we'll just go to our next option. That's our offensive setup, we've got players that will step up."
Jason has endured sophomore slumps at times. He's thrown for 11 interceptions and in four games thrown for two or more. The Thunder, notoriously known for exotic blitz schemes, will bring added pressure while mixing man-to-man and light zone coverage.
"I feel they're up to the challenge up front. We definitely see their pressure, (that) I think we have to manage in order to be successful. And Jason has to be smart with the ball," Chambers said. "He can't just sit back there and hold it and stare down receivers, that sophomores tend to do.
"He needs to be on his game as well, it's a joint effort, but that's what we have to do is manage that pressure. On film, that's all they do — throw guys at you."
Desert Hills is equally explosive on offense and behind quarterback Ty Rutledge has averaged 40 points in the last five games. Rutledge has thrown for 1,896 yards and 21 touchdowns and ran for 1,119 yards and 14 TDs but has struggled with ball security (12 INTs), also.
"He can throw the ball really well and is a duel threat with his legs. He's a very underrated quarterback in the state. I think he's an incredible athlete and does a lot of good things for us," Franke said of Rutledge.
"We're efficient enough to run the ball and throw the ball when they stack the box against us. That's what makes us tough to defend, we have athletes all over the field and we're not one-dimensional," Franke added. "We can do both; we're pretty balanced. You just have to pick your spots and take what the defense allows you to take. You can't put yourself in third-and-long situations and you have to be able to pick up some third downs along the way."
The Dons provide a stiff test defensively as one of the stoutest units in 3A. This year, they've secured 17 interceptions and found the quarterback 19 times.
"I think Spanish Fork does a great job, especially in the backend with a lot of their athletes. They're really similar to what we do," Franke said. "The team that doesn't turn the ball over and the team that can convert on third down and move the sticks is probably going to come away with the win on this one."
Sp. Fork vs. Desert Hills
Thursday, 6:30 p.m.
Parry's Power: D. Hills by 3
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company