Desert Hills coach Jake Nelson talks about the trust that he, his coaching staff and Thunder players have been building the last three seasons. In that charged atmosphere, and critical moment up at Bear River, Nelson demonstrated his trust to his players—and they rewarded their coach.
Deadlocked at 7-7 and the game clock having expired, the two teams headed into overtime, and Bear River scored a touchdown to go ahead 14-7. Desert Hills’ Harris evened the score by passing for his second touchdown strike. Instead of just going for the tying PAT, Coach Nelson elected to go for the risky two-point conversion. The outcome of that crucial play would make the Thunder either lay down on their swords, or make them rise up in a crazy celebration for something they have never earned before.
The Thunder and their fans rose up after Harris found a receiver for the successful two-point play, giving Desert Hills its first ever football playoff win, a 15-14 overtime victory in the 3A Quarterfinals last October.
Though Nelson is speaking about this season, his answer is undeniably relative to that scene last season.
“We do trust them [players], because they’ve been in our system so long,” Nelson said. “And they have put in the time. Anytime kids put in the time and show great dedication to preparing for the season, as a coach, you have to recognize their efforts and trust them.
“We practice and prepare during the week, by the time Friday rolls around, if we the coaches are still trying to coach them, then we’ve done something wrong during the week. Friday nights are for coaches to enjoy, like the fans, what the players have been preparing to do.”
Desert Hills is coming off a 3-3 Region 9 season in 2010 (7-4 overall), and they have shown improvement each year of its brief history. With key players returning for senior seasons, Desert Hills is looking to take another step forward in 2011.
Thunder senior McKay Ericsson is one of the leaders on the team and said the Desert Hills team is a cohesive unit.
“This is the first group that has been here together for three years,” Ericsson said. “We feel that we have a good chemistry.”
Ericsson is one of a handful of Thunder linemen who are second-year starters, giving Desert Hills what every coach likes—experience in the trenches.
“We have so much potential on this team,” Ericsson said. “We have the ability to be successful. We just need to keep our heads and eliminate mental mistakes.”
The Thunder offense should operate with good trust behind the likes of Ericsson, Gunner Forsythe, Kalob Stevenson, among others.
“It’s all for not, if you don’t have a big ole’ line that can keep people away,” Nelson said about the offense. “Our kids didn’t get as far as they wanted to last season so they went to work trying to get better this offseason. The seniors want to make the most of their last high school season.”
Desert Hills’ quarterback Harris looks to be one of the region’s most dynamic signal-callers. He has added maturity, both mental and physical, greater perspective, and he has those returning protectors.
“We have good experience on the line,” Harris said. “That makes me happy. They are the biggest line we’ve had so far. I’m glad to be working behind them.”
Harris said though Coach Nelson has more confidence in the team, the coach has not implemented a relaxed environment.
“He still makes us work hard,” Harris said. “Some of us were puking the other day. He’s expecting us to be the best conditioned players we can be.”
Ericsson, after running some 50-yard sprints, pointed out that there is a simple way to tell if coaches are in players’ corners.
“If your coach is getting on you, you know he cares for you,” Ericsson said. “When you don’t hear your coach—that’s a bad thing. He [Nelson] knows what’s best for us. We know that he cares how we do.”
How the Thunder do will be much about how Harris and running backs Mike Needham and Kevin Webb perform in their senior seasons.
“Porter is a confident young man,” Nelson said. “He did a good job last year of being a leader, but he was still an underclassman. Now he’s a senior and he’s taking charge.
“His teammates, all of them, listen to him and respect what he says.”
Harris packed on a few pounds and increased his speed during this offseason, making himself a better threat, but he will place the football into Needham’s breadbasket many times this season. The duo causes much dilemma for defenses.
“Me and Porter just have this chemistry,” Needham said. “We know what we are going to do before it happens. I can tell when he’s going to keep the ball or when he’s going to hand it to me.
Nelson said successful high school teams usually have those types of players.
“Maybe they do have that sixth sense and feed off of each other,” Nelson said. “They are a great one-two punch. You definitely have to account for where they are on the field at all times.”
Needham is one of those people who seem to have a dual personality. His demeanor outside of the lines is easy going, but inside, he is appropriately aggressive
“Mike’s a quite young man,” Nelson said. “He never draws attention to himself. He’s a great student. He’s going to do his job and help his team win football games.
“He’s not going to boast and pound his chest and seek the limelight. We always knew he was talented. We’ve seen him mature the last few years and he’s a joy to be around.”
Webb is the other Thunder back who will get carries and Ericsson is looking forward to springing the Thunder backfield free.
“I enjoy leading counters with those two behind me,” Ericsson said. “I know if I do my job, those two guys can gain good yards.
“They both can run over people, run through people, we just have to open some holes and help them.”
On the other side, much of the tone of the Desert Hills’ defense will be established by certain seniors.
“Peter Brown was a first-team all-stater, and he pretty much runs the defense,” Nelson said. “Bud Pope is at safety and he and Peter run the show out there.
“They’ve been in this system for four years now and they let me know what they see out there which is great. When you have young men who come off the field and can say ‘coach I think we should try this and I think we can do that’ I give them the freedom to do it.”
Brown led the team in tackles (102) and Pope was third on the team with 62 tackles last season as starting juniors. Pope’s nose for the ball helped him snare seven interceptions, tying him for second in the state in all classifications.
The 6’3 285-pound Gunner Forsythe is looking for a season of redemption and will be a main clog on the defensive line.
“Gunner is a big kid who was hurt last year and he missed the season,” Nelson said. “He’s very very hungry to get at it.”
Desert Hills’ quarterback pressure will also come from a smaller type.
“Nate Brinker is one of our ends,” Nelson said. “He’s not quite as big as the other guys on the line, but he is a football player. He’s kind of like Tim Tebow. You can put him anywhere on the field and he can play any position and he is always going to make something happen.”
The 2011 season could be a year to remember for the fourth-year Desert Hills’ football program.
“We definitely have the tools on this team to win region,” Needham said. “We just have to play smart. We can’t get satisfied when we win a game.”
Last season’s two-point conversion in that first Thunder playoff win up at Bear River was a glimpse of ability by this year’s Thunder team. If their senior quarterback, with help from his team, recaptures some of that performance, the Thunder may rumble overhead in Region 9.
“He knows how to lead a team and he gets people fired up,” Ericsson said. “I know he’s got it in him to be one of the best quarterbacks around.
“He’s pretty under control when in tight game situations.”
2011 THUNDER SCHEDULE
August 19 - Desert Hills 12 Syracuse 14
August 26 - Desert Hills 24 Moapa Valley 0
September 2 at North Sanpete
September 9 Canyon View
September 16 at Pine View
September 23 Dixie
October 7 at Snow Canyon
October 14 Hurricane
October 20 at Cedar