By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Shane Marshall and Kurt Johnson
For a school that has only been around now for seven years, success has already piled up for Desert Hills. Since the St. George school opened in 2008, its football team has never missed the postseason and it has become a regular visitor to Rice-Eccles Stadium.
In just their fourth season, the Thunder reached the 2011 state championship game, where they lost to Southern Utah rival Hurricane. A year later, Desert Hills returned to the state championship venue, but lost a high-scoring semifinal against Spanish Fork.
All of that was just setting the stage for 2013, when the Thunder won their first state championship in just their sixth year of playing football. That win over Pine View established Desert Hills as perhaps the model program in Utah Class 3AA football.
You would think that all the early success would go to their heads, but the Thunder have remained steady through it all. Head coach Carl Franke, who served as the team’s offensive coordinator from 2009 through 2011 before taking the top job for the past three seasons, believes the program’s focus on the big picture is a key to continued success.
“You see the Bingham’s where they’ve got all the talent in the world but they also have a coach that can steer them in the right direction and have them goal-driven,” Franke said. “They check their egos at the door and we’ve tried to emulate that as well.
“The one thing that we always talk about is the Thunder family. It’s something that we created when the school opened and the football team and its coaches originated that. It has kind of kept us humble as a program that’s seen success early in school history. It’s something that kind of keeps us focused and kind of see the big picture and not just what’s in front of us at the moment.”
This year, Franke and his charges have dealt with a new challenge now that Desert Hills is the hunted and no longer the hunter. He has asked his team to ignore the press clippings and the things happening outside of the program and focus on that Thunder family.
“We’re not used to ever being in the limelight or being ranked No. 1 in the state and we’ve been able to do that this year,” Franke said. “I thought out kids have handled it pretty well. We’ve gotten everyone’s best game, week in and week out, and our kids have held true to that one game at a time attitude. The state championship last year basically put us on the map. Now we have to prove that we can have that success and still be humble and execute and play week in and week out, play everyone’s best and be successful on the field, but also in the classroom and in other things.”
New Year, New Leadership
The mentality of the 2014 Desert Hills football team is a bit different from the one that took home the trophy a year ago. The coaching staff embraces those differences, and according to Franke, some of them have even helped him as a coach.
“Each year is different, where each team kind of takes on their own personality from year to year,” Franke said. “Last year was a little bit more serious group. This year is a little bit more laid-back group. It’s not that they don’t work hard, but they have more fun, I would have to say. It’s kind of nice to see because some teams can get too uptight with things and then they play like that, and they don’t play loose and don’t have fun. They help me stay loose as well.”
To many outside observers, the Thunder are a team that thrives because of defense and special teams. While their coach does not dispute that, he knows his squad is about much more than that.
“I think we’re a well-rounded program,” Franke said. “I know our defense is what people talk about, but I think we’re pretty balanced. We’re not going to throw the ball 60 times a game. We like to run the ball first, but we are a three-phase program.
“We don’t lean on one thing. We pride ourselves in all facets of the game. We pride ourselves in the turnover battle. We pride ourselves in trying to limit mistakes. The thing is, Desert Hills football wants to do everything as well as they can do.”
And that desire carries over to the things the Thunder players and coaches do off the field as well. They find value in being solid citizens and in being out in the community doing good. Recently the team invited Ethan Mendenhall, who was battling Stage IV Neuroblastoma, into the Thunder family.
“Outside of football is just as important as their head coach and mentor,” Franke said. “We do a ton of activities outside of football where we help do community things. We took him (Ethan) in, he’s from Mesquite, Nevada, and I thought it would be awesome for the team to bring someone into the Thunder family that hasn’t had a chance. This is a kid that was struggling with Stage IV cancer and we just lost him the other day. We’ve been kind of upset about that, but it teaches lessons. The kids understand how important every day is to them and what it means to be able to step out onto the football field and do things other kids can’t do. It gives them again that big picture of what it’s all about. That’s important.”
Winning the Title
Championships are won by great teams, but so many things go into a magical season like the one Desert Hills enjoyed in 2013. Having great players is critical, but then there are things for which a coach cannot account.
“One thing is staying away from the injury bug,” Franke said. “We’re a 3A team and we don’t have 60 guys on the sideline that we can just plug in. Then there’s having the ball bounce our way a few times. You’ve got to get lucky. Look at the Juan Diego/Pine View game a year ago. They throw up a prayer, three guys hit the receiver, they all fall down and the kid goes in the end zone. That just doesn’t happen. You’ve got to get breaks like that sometimes. Against Dixie we had negative passing yards and still won that game.”
So the Thunder continue to work hard on the things they can control, like defense.
“Tucker Cowdin’s one of those kids that’s done an outstanding job of understanding the system and learning the system, and now he’s leading in sacks and tackles and all these other things,” Franke said. “Then you have Gabe Sewell that plays more of a safety role for us. That’s a kid that doesn’t light up the stats because he does play safety, but he’s a kid that basically deters offenses from throwing in the middle of the field.”
And on offense, Nick Warmsley has come a long way as the quarterback, but it still all starts with the running game and Bridger Cowdin.
“Bridger is a guy that’s been very consistent ever since his sophomore year,” Franke said. “Bridger is a kid that’s got great ability out of the backfield carrying the ball for us. He’s got great vision and immense quickness, explosive capabilities of taking any normal play for us and making it a big one.”