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First-year Hurricane coach is no rookie

HURRICANE, Utah — Hurricane's Steve Pearson might be a first-year head coach, but he's no wet-behind-the-ears rookie.

It's not very often that a first-year head coach takes a football team all the way to the championship game, and perhaps wins a title, but that's exactly what has happened for Pearson and the Tigers this year.

Pearson, a graduate of Cyprus High, has been coaching high school football since long before any of his current players were born.

"I've been doing this awhile," he said. "Plus, we weren't trying to reinvent the wheel. The most important thing of all for Hurricane football is continuity."

Pearson, who graduated from Southern Utah in 1988 and did assistant coaching gigs at Taylorsville and Bingham, started at Hurricane in 2001. Coaching in his wife Linda's hometown was a risky proposition, especially since the Tigers had struggled mightily in 3A against the big boys of St. George, Dixie, Pine View and Snow Canyon.

In his second season, Hurricane administrators tabbed BYU grad Chris Homer as the new head coach and Homer immediately named Pearson, whom he had worked with on the junior varsity team, as his offensive coordinator.

"Steve and I have a great relationship and one of the strengths of that is complete transparency and honesty, not only with each other, but also with the kids and the community," Homer said. "We were, and still are, close friends and confidantes, and that's fostered through mutual respect."

The duo turned Hurricane from a 3A afterthought to a 3A powerhouse. The Tigers played in four straight championship games from 2008-2011, instituting a nearly unstoppable Wing-T system along the way and capturing the 2011 title.

When Homer stepped down early last summer to take the athletic director job at Hurricane, Pearson was the logical choice.

"I had no doubt in my mind that he was the right man for the job," Homer said. "I think there were some people in the community who looked at Steve and doubted that he could do it, but not me. And I'm ecstatic things have turned out the way they have. I definitely give him an 'A' for sure for the job he's done."

Just two years removed from that state title team, Hurricane went 2-10 in a rebuilding year in Homer's final season. But the Tigers had the bulk of the team returning for 2014, so expectations were high in this football community.

Hurricane started the year with a home loss to 4A Skyline but bounced back quickly with a dominant 28-7 win over Stansbury. Then came a puzzling loss to small Nevada school Moapa Valley. In retrospect, Moapa Valley was just an excellent football team — the Pirates are 12-0 and play for the Nevada I-A state championship Saturday — but Hurricane hadn't lost to the neighbors from just across the border for years, and there was some grumbling.

"There have definitely been some ups and downs," Homer said. "The only way you can learn how to be a head coach is to actually be a head coach. Steve knows that. But he's handled it well."

After the loss to Moapa, the Tigers got hot, reeling off four straight wins, including a 34-14 victory over Dixie, their opponent in Friday's 3AA championship, and found themselves in first place in the tough 3AA South.

But that didn't last long as Hurricane got dominated in a 29-14 loss to Pine View and dropped a non-league road game at 4A Logan. A 21-3 loss to Desert Hills dropped the Tigers to the No. 3-seed for the playoffs.

Since then, Hurricane has won three straight, including a road win at Juan Diego (who the Tigers had never beaten) and a payback victory over Desert Hills last week.

"No, I didn't think we'd be in the championship game when this season started," Pearson said. "What's important is that the kids envisioned themselves being here. Regardless of what I thought my realistic expectations were in my first year, the kids believed, and the kids are the ones who go play the games."

Clearly, even with all his years of experience, there was some self-doubt for the coach. But with his staff, he went to work in preparing a game plan that would exploit the aggressive Desert Hills team in last week's semifinal. The plan, which included longer snap counts and new formations, worked brilliantly as Hurricane beat the Thunder 17-14.

"I don't think a lot of people thought we could beat Desert Hills," Pearson said. "They're a great football team. Both teams made mistakes, but we made fewer mistakes than they did."

So the 8-5 Tigers, with a sophomore quarterback and a rookie head coach, will play for it all Friday morning. And with Pearson at the helm, Tigers fans have discovered anything's possible.

Andy Griffin is a southern Utah broadcaster and sports writer and has been involved in covering sports in Utah, including professional, college and high school sports, since 1989. Andy is the sports editor at STGNews.com.