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High school football: Red Devils' defense, running game guns down Hawks in 4A semis

SALT LAKE CITY — A great offense is always a lot of fun to watch but, when it comes right down to it, a great defense is awfully darned tough to beat.

Springville High School showed just how true that statement is Friday afternoon.

The Red Devils' defense shut down a high-scoring Alta attack that had been averaging over 51 points per game, and Springville's ground-gobbling offense got 239 yards and a touchdown from Payton Kelepolo and four 1-yard TDs from quarterback Jantsen Thorpe in an impressive 42-14 victory over the Hawks in the 4A semifinals at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"Coach (Willy Child) loves to run the ball, and that's what I love, too," said Kelepolo, a workhorse senior running back who had 33 carries — averaging well over 7 yards per carry — and capped the Red Devils' victory with a 4-yard touchdown burst with 2:41 remaining in the game.

"People were saying they didn't think we could do it, but our defense is really good and I think that's why we're winning football games."

With the win, Region 8 champion Springville (12-0) advances to next Friday's 4A championship game against powerhouse East (13-0), which walloped Maple Mountain 64-13 in Friday's earlier semifinal game. The Red Devils lost to the Leopards in last year's 4A semifinals, 42-14 — the very same score they won by on Friday.

"They're a really good team, obviously," Child said of the Leopards. "We saw 'em last year and they took it to us, and we know we've gotta play our best game. We've gotta have a great week of practice and prepare for 'em.

"We're excited for the opportunity. These kids made the goal last year when we lost in the semis to get back here and to finish, and we felt like we had unfinished business. And we're excited to have the opportunity next week."

Region 7 champ Alta (11-2) came into Friday's showdown with an explosive offense that ranked No. 1 in the entire state, and the Hawks hadn't scored less than 32 points in a game all year long.

But Springville's defense repeatedly slammed the door shut on Alta's offense in the first half while building a 28-0 halftime lead on the strength of three short TD runs by Thorpe and another one by receiver Bennett Hullinger.

"We knew that Alta was a great team, but we had a lot of confidence in our defense and our offense as well," said Thorpe, who wound up with a net rushing total of just 1 yard but had four 1-yard touchdowns on the day.

"Hey, I do what my coach says and I like touchdowns. I've gotta do what I've gotta do."

Thorpe said the Red Devils' rushing attack, which accounted for 401 of their 442 total yards, has been their calling card all season long.

"That's what we put all of our cards on all year. I mean, that's who we are," he said. "We're a physical and strong team and that's what we do."

"That's who we are," Child said. "We love to run the ball; we love our offensive line, defensive line. We knew it wouldn't be easy, and our guys played really well."

Another 1-yard plunge by Thorpe made it 35-0 in the third quarter before Alta finally got on the scoreboard on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Will Dana to London Rockwood late in the third period.

The Hawks pulled within 35-14 early in the fourth frame when Dana flipped a 24-yard TD toss to Landon Maxfield.

But Springville's Viliami Kolomalu came up with his second big sack of the day on Alta's next possession, and the Devils sealed the deal on Kelepolo's touchdown in the closing minutes.

"Our coaches came up with a great game plan, and we just followed it and did what we were supposed to do," Kolomalu said of the Devils' dynamic defense, which also got big plays from Griffan Slavens, Jackson Murphy, Cole Bowers, Bradley Nicol and Brennen Rymer, whose interception deep in Springville territory stopped Alta's biggest scoring threat of the first half.

"We shut 'em down," Kolomalu said. "We just had to follow our assignments ... We were prepared."

"Our defensive staff and our defensive players, they take a lot of pride in our defense and they knew that Alta's a special team with some really good players," Coach Child said. "And we had a great game plan and they executed it.

"Our offensive and defensive lines have been great all year, and our defense has continued to get better and the key was our ability to keep the clock running and score each time we had the ball. And our defense got stops early, and that was big."

For Alta, Dana threw for 279 yards and the two scores, with Zach Engstrom his top target with six catches for 109 yards. Josh Davis' record-setting prep career came to an end with 94 yards rushing and 162 all-purpose yards.

Alta coach Alema Te’o was emotional after seeing his team's terrific season come to an end. But he gave Springville all the credit for making that happen.

"They played a lot of man-to-man and they did a great job, no excuses," he said of the Red Devils. "They did a great job up front. ... They were just much better up front than us.

"That’s a well-coached team. They’re not (12-0) for nothing, alright. They’re pretty good. The best team won tonight.

"I wish our kids would have performed better," Te'o said. "We came out, we were slow, for some odd reason — a little uncharacteristic of us. We tried to get it going the second half, just a little too late."

And while Alta's season comes to a disappointing conclusion, Springville moves on for the title showdown with East.

"East is a great team," Thorpe said. "We played 'em last year. We want revenge, and we think we can do it. They've got a big target on their back, and that's what we want."

So, are the Leopards unbeatable?

"I guess we'll find out next Friday," Thorpe said.