ST. GEORGE — Desert Hills didn't follow the typical script for first year schools last year — it won three games. Sure one of the wins was against fellow first-year school Salem Hills, and the others were against rebuilding programs Uintah and Canyon View, but the bottom line is the Thunder tasted a bit of success.
That year of experience, not to mention an extra year in the weight room could make a big difference this year.
"We had so many young kids last year playing. They went from playing freshman football to varsity football, and the speed of the game and the size and strength of the kids was a whole (different) world," said coach Jake Nelson. "Now a year later, you can see the confidence you can see the experience because they're bigger stronger and faster."
Nelson is taking over as Desert Hills' head coach after serving as the defensive coordinator under Kevin Cuthbertson last year. Cuthbertson returned to his native Wyoming in the offseason, and Nelson said he was eager to take the job.
"I enjoyed the time off relaxing last year but I'm excited to be back," said Nelson, who was Dixie's head coach for six years from 2002 to 2007.
In losses to schools like Dixie, Snow Canyon and Logan last year, Desert Hills was simply overmatched.
"We played some of those big schools last year we just didn't have the size and experience to compete with them, but I think we can compete with anybody this year. I'll never guess on wins and losses, but we can compete," said Nelson.
The Thunder returns roughly 10 starters, seven of who started both ways last year.
Defense should be the strength, at least early on while the team adjusts to a new offensive coordinator. Butch Hatch, Casey Schaffer and Berkley Ward are returning starters at linebacker, whereas Taylor Fox and Corbin Fitzgerald are returnees on the line.
Offensively Nelson wants to see his team evolve into the same type of smash-mouth football team he coached at Dixie for six years. An offensive line that returns three contributors, and the return of Hatch in the backfield after he rushed for six touchdowns in 2008 is a solid foundation to work with.
"Our kids have always played tough football, control the ball and play good defense," said Nelson.
Desert Hills once again has a favorable preseason schedule, and a 3-0 start isn't out of the question.
Desert Hills Thunder at a glance
Coach: Jake Nelson is in his 1st year at Desert Hills. This is his seventh overall year as a head coach in Utah with a 35-31 record.
Key Players: Butch Hatch will be the Thunder's featured back while also anchoring a linebacking core that includes Casey Schaffer and Berkley Ward. Chase Webster is a returning starter at quarterback. Defensively the team will count on returners starters in the secondary like Brennan Adams, Nate Stevenson and Merrick Reynolds.
Strengths: This team is bigger and more experienced this year and it should make a huge difference. Jake Nelson taking over as head coach will be a huge boost, as he also brings head coaching experiencing in Southern Utah to the table.
Concerns: Despite all of the growth the program went through last year, the reality is that Desert Hills is competing in a very difficult region with numerous established programs. Even though the team is running the same offense, Desert Hills has a new offensive coordinator and the players are trying to learn the new terminology of the offense.
Last year: 3-7, lost to Logan in the first round.
Predicted Region 9 (3A) finish: Third.
Postseason possibilities: Desert Hills will qualify for the playoffs assuming it can edge out Canyon View. Any type of win in the postseason would be a bonus for the second-year school.
Aug. 21 — at Uintah, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 — SALEM HILLS, 7 p.m.
Sept. 4 — at Emery, 7 p.m.
Sept. 11 — at Pine View, 7 p.m.
Sept. 18 — DIXIE, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 — Bye
Oct. 2 — at Snow Canyon, 7 p.m.
Oct. 8 — at Cedar, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 — CANYON VIEW, 7 p.m.
Oct. 23 — HURRICANE, 7 p.m.