By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Kevin McInnis
The Lone Peak High football team was coming off a huge signature win when it arrived at Rice-Eccles Stadium to face Herriman for the 2015 Class 5A state football championship. In their 26-9 win over powerhouse Bingham in the semifinal round, the Knights had put their ability to combine physical football with big-play offense.
Two big pass plays to Jackson McChesney allowed Lone Peak to overcome some early jitters.
“They came up and manned me up, three yards off with a linebacker so I just gave my quarterback a signal to tell him I’m just going to run as far as I can, throw me the ball,” McChesney said. “That happened two times that game and it kind of put us in front. That was the first time I’d played Bingham and we were all a little scared for the first little bit because they came out hard and we didn’t get anything done the first drive, but after that, after we started rolling, we thought we can do this.”
The title contest with Herriman was also a rematch from the regular-season Region 4 finale when Lone Peak pounded the Mustangs 30-0. Herriman put the Knights on their heels early only to see their lead disappear, but a late, frantic drive delivered a Mustang win and a crushing end to the hopes of a perfect season for Lone Peak.
The Knights come into Friday’s state championship game with Bingham with both of last year’s tournament contests in the background, but they believe they are better for the experience.
“Adversity is a huge part of football. They could rename it adversity,” said Lone Peak head coach Mike Mower. “I think at first kids don’t understand that. Adversity is always part of football and I think once kids understand that, you can always embrace that adversity and use it as a positive, knowing that if you get through it, you’re going to be stronger. That’s how we indirectly used that championship loss – the kids wanted to get back.
“It’s not like we talked about it every week. We literally didn’t talk about it all that much. It’s always been in the back of our minds, the kids have had an intense desire and it’s been their goal to return there, although we’ve emphasized daily practices. You’re not going to get any better unless you walk up that hill and tell yourself I improved in that aspect of the game today in practice and we’re continually reminding them of that.”
Mower’s players echo that sentiment. Having felt the highs and the lows that come with football, they know the difference.
“(Our approach is) Work every single day because we don’t want to feel that feeling again,” said receiver Tyler MacPherson. “That’s one of the worst feelings we’ve ever felt, so coming into this year, we worked to work as hard as we could in the off-season to get ready for this season because we knew we had a great chance to win a state championship again.”
“Getting to the carpet will take care of itself if we’ll have a great week of practice every week and that’s really what we’ve emphasized, but in the back of our minds, you bet we’ve had a burning desire to return,” Mower said. “We knew it’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to know how to go about it and going about it was on a weekly basis, a daily basis and getting better.”
The 5A title game is a classic match between two programs that have become the pre-eminent football schools in the classification. Mower has been in the middle of that transformation for Lone Peak, but he is quick to deflect the attention and the credit.
“Some of it is what we inherited. Tony McGeary is just an outstanding coach,” Mower said. He’s the one that really brought it to the high level. (He’s) got to be given a lot of credit for it. We’ve had great athletes. You’ve got to have great athletes, you’ve got to have great assistant coaches, which I do. I’ll put my staff up to anyone in the state. I have some tremendous assistant coaches and they’re the ones that really deserve the credit – the athletes and the assistant coaches are the ones that have really got it done.”
Mower and his coaches have done great work in finding balance with this group of players. There are players on this team that could put up monster numbers in certain systems, but with the Knights they are all-in on a structure that spreads the load, and therefore the numbers, around.
“It’s a fine line, it really is. A lot of it comes down to what the defense is going to give you,” Mower said. “What made us such a good team last year, and we’ve tried to follow the same principle this year, is having so many kids, for example, to throw the ball to. We don’t have just one dominant receiver. Now, at the end of the season, none of them have really good stats because we spread the ball around so much, and the kids understood.
“At first, some of the parents didn’t, but the kids understood. That’s what’s made us good. We’re a true team, we’re not reliant upon one guy. So, that’s what we’ve done this year. We could probably give (Jackson) McChesney the ball every time, but ultimately that’s not going to work because the defense is going to catch on and we do have other weapons, other guys that do a good job. It is a fine line. The bottom line, we try to get our athletes out in space, give them a little room to maneuver. How’s the best way to do it?, and then let them do their thing.”
The Team Concept
It’s so team-oriented that the team has accepted exceptionally well the postseason return to football of safety Seth Corry, who had sat out the entire year until the team’s quarterfinal game. Mower says that attitude starts with his senior quarterback.
“In the society we live in today, it’s a me-me kind of attitude, and that’s the great thing about football, it promotes that team unity and what’s going to be best for us, not me,” Mower said. “I think that’s a great lesson for kids to learn. It’s not about me, it’s about all of us, it’s about that team and I think that’s been our strength last year and this year.
“Kota Hansen’s played a big role in that. He’s the glue that holds the offense together and I really like the way he’s improved each game. He’s just a great kid that’s very competitive. He never complained about (not playing QB last year and waiting his turn). He always had the team first and foremost in his sight and now that he’s had the opportunity, he’s taken it and he’s ran with it. I can’t compliment him enough. We’re just hoping he can have his very best ballgame this Friday and I think he can.”
The Knights are a close-knit group and that creates an atmosphere of team that drives them.
“I’ve been playing with these guys ever since like first grade,” said safety Ammon Hannemann. “All of us just play for each other. None of us care who scores the touchdown as long as we score the touchdown then everyone has a touchdown. We know when we play our best and when we’re at our worst and our best is when we’re loose and just have fun.”
Mower is serious when he talks about the role his coaches play in this team’s success story. He has input in offensive strategy, but he leaves the play calling to offensive coordinator Bart Brockbank, while Jared Harward coordinates the defense.
One position group that has become very dominant over the past couple of years has been the Lone Peak defensive line. Coaching has been a huge difference-maker there as well.
“First of all, you’ve got to have good athletes,” Mower said. “Second of all, my defensive coach is just incredible, Ryan Denney. He played for BYU. He played pro ball. The technique he teaches kids is just outstanding and he teaches it in a way that they understand. It’s not above them. He teaches so they can execute it. He’s a great motivator. He’s very positive and great with kids, the same with Coach Hansen, my linebacker coach.”
That this Lone Peak program is reaching the kind of heights where it sits alongside Bingham is a tribute to everyone involved. It’s a culture, an expectation of success.
“You’ve got to have kids that are hungry, that are willing to embrace the system and trust the coaches and just throw themselves totally into it,” Mower said. “Thank goodness we’ve been able to do that. We’ve been able to convince the kids, ‘You can have confidence in the coaches, you can have confidence what you’re being taught is quality material,’ so good things have happened. You’ve got to have that unity. You’ve got to have that chemistry and that trust. We’ve been fortunate to have that.”
The players recognize that groups of talented players like this don’t come along every year and MacPherson points to the big guys up front as difference makers in particular.
“This group is special. We have a lot of great athletes coming through right now,” MacPherson said. “The best thing about this group right now is our linemen and how big (they are). Lone Peak is usually known as fast and kind of small. This is the biggest line we’ve ever had, the best line we’ve ever had. That’s a big strength, offensively and defensively.”
After winning that playoff game a year ago, the Knights came up short the last time they saw Bingham, in Week 3 this season. Since that 42-21 Miner victory, a season worth of changes has come into play.
“Last year, we were so well prepared and had a full season of film to look at and get really prepared for that game and see how we could attack them,” said Lone Peak quarterback Dakota Hansen. “This year, they caught us off guard. It was early in the season and the team’s not really molded together yet and they took it to us. You can watch whatever film you want on Bingham but they just show you what they give you. They don’t really disguise too much so it just comes down to who wants to win the matchup, getting our athletes a chance is big for us. They’re going to bring their best against everyone and if you’re not ready, they’re going to run over you.”
The Knights feel like they’re much better now and they hope that comes into play Friday afternoon.
“We’ve obviously improved. It takes a while to get a grasp on your kids’ talents. It takes a while for kids to mesh together,” Mower said. “It takes a while for coaches to figure out what you can and can’t do with those kids, what’s effective and what isn’t. I think that’s part of it. I think coaches had to figure out here’s what’s going to work, here’s what isn’t going to work, here’s what we need to do to improve, here’s what we need to do to increase the unity on the team.
“We’ve improved abundantly since Week 3 and I know Bingham has too, there’s no doubt about that. Bingham’s a great football team. That’s what makes this opportunity so sweet – we know we’re going against a class program, a terrific football team and we have respect for them, not just because they’re a great football team, they’re a great program, they have great coaches. Coach Lambourne is first class, a great competitor. That’s what makes the game so fun is you know you’ve got an opportunity to play your best game against the best.”
Humble and Hungry
All season long, Lone Peak’s coaches have been preaching humility and being hungry as the keys to this campaign. Now, those are the two things Mower hopes have prepared his young men to chase this state championship.
“We’ve emphasized two things this year as a coaching staff – being humble or coachable, not a wimpy type, but be willing to learn, to soak it in, and being hungry, being able to apply those things you’ve acquired through humility, that’s what brings confidence and that’s what bring the hunger,” Mower said. “I think the kids have really bought into that. It’s not an arrogance, it’s just a confidence. We feel like we just want to have our best ballgame. We’ve got great respect for Bingham, but at the same time, we feel like if we can give it our best game, we’ll see if we’ve got a chance to win it in the fourth quarter.”
His quarterback feels it is even more important for the team to start out strong, and then maintain that level of play throughout the game. He learned that in Week 3.
“(We have to) Attack early, not be on our heels and be the aggressors out there,” Hansen said. “We came out pretty aggressive against them (Week 3), but as the game went along we got more tentative.”
The matchup features two programs and schools that have the highest of expectations and on Friday, something has to give. The Knights plan is that it won’t be them.
“We just love winning,” Hansen said. “Winning has always been the expectation for us since we were younger and when we lost to Bingham earlier in the year, it really hurt us. Winning is the expectation for us, no matter who we’re playing.”
“I feel like it’s just an expectation, every year we have to be the best,” McChesney added. “It’s not like we (just) have a good year, we have to be the best every year. They’ve (Bingham) got the same expectation we have, to be the best and there can’t be two bests. We know how hard it is to beat a team twice, so we’re hoping to be on the other end this year. It won’t be given to us. We’ve got to play our game.”