Southern Utah fall sports prepare for season


BY SUU ATHLETICS STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION

SOCCER

LOGAN, Utah – The Southern Utah soccer team saw their first bit of action in 2017 Friday afternoon as they made the trek north to take on the Utah State Aggies for a pre-season exhibition match. The new look Thunderbirds were able to keep pace with the Aggies in the first half, but USU used a big second half to take the 4-0 win.

The Thunderbirds showed a lot of energy in the first half, outshooting the Aggies 5-4. Two of those shots came off the foot of junior Devri Hartle, who would go on to lead SUU in shots taken.

Kaitlyn Caldera started in goal for the Thunderbirds, playing the entire first half and allowing just one goal. That goal came early in the half when Rachelle Parrish sent a cross across the top of the box in the 30th minute. The first half came to a close with the Thunderbirds trailing 1-0.

The Aggies quickly pulled away from the Thunderbirds in the second half, scoring two back-to-back goals early in the half. They would make it 4-0 in the 78th minute as Sadie Mertlich sent a header into the back of the net off a cross from the corner.

The Thunderbirds will have a week of practice before launching their regular season next weekend. The team will open in California on Aug. 18 against UC Riverside before traveling to Boise State on Sunday August 20th.

It has been a little over nine months since the 2016 soccer season ended for the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. Since then a lot has changed for the team: four Thunderbirds have graduated, including 2016-17 valedictorian Logan Harker, seven new Thunderbirds have joined the team, and new head coach Fred Thompson has taken over at the helm of the program. Eager to launch a new era of Thunderbird soccer, Thompson and his team will start their brand-new season this Friday in Logan, Utah.


FOOTBALL

CEDAR CITY, Utah – Every position on the football field is important. Even if you don’t see it on a box score, the offensive line is arguably the most important one. For the Thunderbirds, the offensive line is coming together through a few weeks of Fall Camp and the group of young athletes are finding their way.

“It starts with us,” SUU offensive line coach Aaron Fernandez said. “If we’re executing, then our whole offense is going to be executing. If we’re having up and down moments, then our whole offense will do the same. We take a lot of pride of that in the o-line room, knowing that it all starts with us and it all ends with us.”

Fernandez believes that you have to have the right mindset to play on the offensive line, and that starts with doing everything you can for the betterment of the team.

“We’ve got to make sure we have no problem being unselfish, that’s our mindset,” Fernandez said. “At the end of the day, if you’re getting noticed as an offensive lineman that’s a bad thing. We want to not go noticed, we want to do all the little things, and you’ve got to want to do that stuff, you’ve got to want to play o-line. As long as you’ve got that mindset, then you’re not too worried about accolades and getting your name in the paper. We’re trying to go unnoticed, that’s our job.”

Overall, the offensive line for the Thunderbirds is a relatively young group. Looking at the roster there are seven freshmen, four sophomores, four juniors and one senior.

“I love my group,” Fernandez said. “We’ve got a good mix. We have some players that are experienced with long careers ahead of them, and they’re mixed with a lot of freshmen we’re going to count on too. The group as a whole have been working their butts off. They have a hard hat mentality and they’ve been coming to work and learning.”

With the youth movement happening on the o-line, there isn’t a whole lot of experience. However, those that have been given the opportunity have made the most of it and are proving themselves.

“They’ve made a full 360 evolution,” Fernandez said. “You’ve got Josh Anderson and Zach Larsen, those guys started every game last year as freshmen, so with reps and experience their game has turned a new corner and they’re getting better at technical things they weren’t comfortable with last year. Austin Mikkelson is the only guy in the room that has over 20 starts under his belt, and his game continues to improve. He’s a swing guy that’s playing guard and tackle, he’s that versatile. That type of guys is who we’re leaning on right now.”

As far as newcomers go, there have been a number of guys that have caught their coaches’ attention.

“Josh McMillin is doing a heck of a job,” he said. “We moved him in the Spring to left tackle from tight end, and he’s held that left tackle spot down. He’s a very technical player, very smart. Braxton Jones coming out of nowhere as a true freshman has had an excellent camp so far, just learning and he hasn’t had his head spin too much with all of the installs. Dylan Tucker is a guy that can swing from tackle to guard, and Marquez Tucker is a junior college transfer who’s holding the right tackle spot down right now for the ones.”

Coach Fernandez isn’t quite ready to put pen to paper when it comes to his starting rotation, but over the next couple weeks he expects the groups to become clearer.

“We’re trying to see who the dependable guys are, that’s our goal right now, then we’ll start really penciling in who the starters will be,” Fernandez said. “Obviously, those guys that have the experience, we anticipate they’ll be in the starting rotation, but nothing is set in stone and that depth chart is always changing.”


MENS TENNIS

CEDAR CITY, Utah – The 2017 fall season is quickly approaching for the Southern Utah University men’s tennis program and head coach Sadhaf Pucher has announced one last summer signing as she continues to round out her 2017-18 roster.

Jonathan Morales will join the team at the beginning of the fall semester from Ontario, Canada. During his junior career, Morales was ranked as high as 24th in the Ontario Junior Rankings and at one point held an ITF ranking of 1200.

“Jonathan is someone who will develop in our program,” Pucher said. “He is passionate about developing his game and has a strong work ethic. He has trained at Niagara Academy in Canada and has had positive coaches who believe he will grow in the collegiate atmosphere.”

Morales joins a Thunderbird roster that has recently added two other freshmen and two transfer athletes. The five new faces will join four returning players from 2016-17 as the team looks to make their first Big Sky Conference Tournament appearance in program history.


VOLLEYBALL

CEDAR CITY, Utah – With two seasons under his belt as head coach of the Thunderbirds, SUU’s Craig Choate is gearing up for his third season in Cedar City with a retooled roster full of fresh faces and returners that are primed to have a big season.  

Top Returners

This season the Thunderbirds are only returning five players from the 2016 roster.

Two seniors are on the Thunderbird roster this season, with Macky Fifita and McCail Evans both entering their final season at Southern Utah. In 2016, Fifita racked up 129 kills during the season, along with accumulating 210 digs through the year. Despite dealing with an injury through most of the season, Fifita scored 155 points for the Thunderbirds. Evans was a blocking force for the Thunderbirds in 2016, finishing second on the team with 107 total blocks. She also had 144 kills in 2016 while appearing in 105 sets.

“We turned those two, and Sarah Vang into a leadership group, and they’ve done a great job,” Choate said of his leaders. “They’re talking to kids, they’re taking care of business and they’re making the freshmen come up to a certain standard that everybody was too shy to last year.”  

The lone junior on the roster will be Rylee Rogers, who appeared in 91 sets for the Thunderbirds in 2016 as a defensive specialist. She finished the season with 49 digs.

Vang and Alexis Averett both had huge freshmen seasons for the Thunderbirds, and will now enter their sophomore seasons with a year of solid experience to learn from. Vang finished the season with 125 kills and 134 digs, and scored 148.5 points in 90 sets for SUU. Averett broke into the SUU record book with her 2016 performance, finding herself seventh all-time for a single season with 918 assists. She also finished third on the team with 220 digs.

“Last year we hope was a giant learning experience,” Choate said. “Alexis, Rylee and Sarah are all better than they were last year, and in all three cases I would say it’s a big jump.”

Photos courtesy of SUU Strategic Communication

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