Desert Hills was a bit of an afterthought heading into the 3AA semifinals at Rice-Eccles Stadium this week.
The Thunder lost to both Pine View and Dixie in region play, and the 20-point loss to Dixie in October had many wondering how competitive Friday’s semifinal rematch could really be. Desert Hills coach Carl Franke really liked his team’s chances, though.
In his mind, that earlier loss to Dixie never happened.
“Those weren’t our kids when we were playing Dixie. I thought it was a hangover from the Pine View loss the week earlier,” said Franke.
Basically, Franke said his kids weren’t mentally tough enough against Dixie the first time around. That certainly wasn’t the case in Friday’s rematch.
Even though Desert Hills couldn’t get much of anything going offensively, Desert Hills dominated defensively and scored a pair of special teams touchdowns on its way to an impressive 21-14 victory over defending 3A champion Dixie.
“We live five miles from Dixie, and coach (Blaine) Monkres and I are really close, and admiration and respect all the way across the board with that program, they’re amazing and they’re true champions,” said Franke, whose team advanced to its second title game in the past three years. “To be able to be here and play well with them and get a ball bounce our way and win today is special because we really look up to those guys a lot.”
The Thunder will next try to avenge its other region loss against Pine View in next Friday’s 3AA state championship.
“I’m thrilled at another shot at Pine View,” said Desert Hills defensive lineman Jake Wagner, who finished with two sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble.
Wagner’s outstanding defensive performance was par for the course from the Thunder. Wagner and his teammates sacked Dixie’s quarterback six times and harassed him all game.
Dixie never had an answer for the pressure, finishing with just 175 yards of total offense.
“Last time we played Dixie we didn’t get a very good pass rush, we focused more on the run, but this time we got after their quarterback more, helped out secondary so they didn’t have to guard the receivers as long,” said Wagner.
Dixie’s defense was just as good though, holding Desert Hills to just 121 yards.
As bad as the Thunder were offensively, with the game tied 14-14 early in the fourth quarter, it finally put together a drive of substance. Capitalizing on good field position, Desert Hills drove 58 yards for the go-ahead touchdown as Bridger Cowdin scored from a yard out, giving his team a 21-14 lead with 6:38 remaining.
Dixie’s hope for a dramatic comeback like Pine View the day before never materialized as its final two drives against the top-ranked defense in 3AA both ended in interceptions.
“I knew defensively we would have to play our best, and we did,” said defensive back Braden Reber.
Desert Hills needed a dynamite special teams performance, too.
Reber gave the Thunder a 7-0 lead on the final play of the first half, returning a punt 48 yards for a touchdown.
Dixie quickly regained the momentum in the second half, though, as Shad Pulsipher set the Flyers up with great position with a sack and forced fumble at Desert Hills’ 6-yard line. Two plays later, Ammon Takau tied the game with a 5-yard touchdown run.
With seven seconds remaining in the third, Dixie took a 14-7 lead as Konner Aitken burst through the middle on a 12-yard touchdown run.
The momentum was very short-lived. Zach Fuchs took the ensuing kickoff and raced 92 yards to tie the game at 14-14, and the Thunder never looked back from there.
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