As the school year winds down, this is usually the time where year in review articles start to pop up to say farewell to another year passed. It’s often a time to try and estimate what the future will look like, but that doesn’t quite feel right now, given COVID-19’s foreboding presence hanging over the future of collegiate athletics.
The truth is no one can guarantee what the fall will look for Division I athletic programs or the rest of the world.
Instead of worrying about the future, let’s take a look at how Southern Utah University athletics performed in competition this school year, complete with grades for different teams..
Record: 3-9, 2-6
Defining moment: Thomas Duckett’s 54 yard run against Northern Arizona
2019 Season Review:
It seemed obvious that SUU’s football team would need some time to rebuild after winning a share of the Big Sky conference championship in 2015 and 2017. The 2019 season looked like the next step forward after the team finished 1-10 in 2018.
Demario Warren’s squad found a rhythm as the season wore on. The T-Birds pummeled Idaho State and won a nail biter against NAU, 31-30.
Chris Helbig was solid for the T-Birds, throwing for 2952 yards, 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He transferred to Eastern Michigan after the season was over, and finding the team’s next starting QB should be priority number one.
SUU’s defense finished with the lowest passing yards in the conference, but gave up the most rushing yards of any Big Sky team.
Defensive coordinator Brandon Fisher left the team after the season, and offensive coordinator Justin Walterscheid was dismissed. Warren clearly has his expectations set higher for his team.
Still, there were some very encouraging players on the team. Lance Lawson led the conference in receptions. Duckett emerged as a speedy back who is also a threat in the passing game. Former All-Big Sky performers Landen Measom and Jalen Russell will return for their senior years.
While there were some signs of improvement, the T-Bird defense looked overwhelmed at times. Starting the season against an FBS opponent and two top 15 FCS opponents didn’t help things, but the T-Birds left a lot to be desired on the field this season.
The front seven needs to improve quickly, especially with a new quarterback taking the reins this season. SUU has not hired a defensive coordinator, which likely means Warren will have to call the defensive plays as he did in 2018.
Team: Women’s Soccer
Record: 1-15-2, 1-6-2
Defining moment: Makenzie Lawrence’s overtime goal to beat Idaho State
2019 Season Review:
SUU soccer struggled to create goal scoring opportunities in 2019. The T-Birds played their first seven games without registering a goal, and only scored nine goals on the season.
Lawrence scored five goals in her senior season and won the Big Sky Golden Boot Award. Her presence at the top of the formation will be missed.
The season was marred by the dismissal of head coach Fred Thompson before the beginning of conference play. Jonas Tanzer did his best to inspire the team, and they did improve after Thompson was gone.
All four of the other players who scored a goal last season were freshman, and assuming they stick around, they’ll be the centerpiece of the team next season.
Emma Leong, Rachel Wolters and Quincy Pfeffer were solid in the center of defense, and freshman Isabella Whitmore emerged as a starting quality goalkeeper during conference play.
The problem was the T-Birds couldn’t keep the ball for long stretches of time, and often played entire matches on their heels. The midfield struggled to connect enough passes to break through the opponent’s formation, and they’ll need to improve in the middle of the park next season.
Good news comes in the form of Kai Edwards, a former coach for the California Golden Bears who was announced as SUU’s head coach in December. Edwards has the chance to build this program from the ground up, and is an experienced leader and soccer mind.
The T-Birds really struggled in 2019, but there’s hope for the future with Edwards in place.
Record: 15-16, 8-10
Defining moment: Shannon Webb and Stacey Hone earn Big Sky second team appearances
2019 Season Review:
The T-Bird volleyball team exploded out of the gate with a 5-1 start after their first two tournaments. In their fourth game, against Saint Mary’s, setters Alexis Averett and Shadae Cintron both went down to injury.
Things looked bleak as head coach Pete Hoyer was forced to turn to Corrin Peterson, a walk-on sophomore who looked a bit shaky in her first appearance.
Peterson adjusted to her new role as the starter well, and finished third in the conference with 10.54 assists per game. New additions Shannon Webb and Stacey Hone helped lighten the burden placed on Peterson with spectacular play at the edges of the net.
Webb is likely the most skilled player to come through SUU’s volleyball program. She transferred from American University and finished third in the conference in kills per set. Her arsenal of tips, spin and placement shots was vital to SUU’s offense.
Hone showed her strength in one on one situations on the opposite side. She’s a great athlete who hits with a ton of power. She finished seventh in the conference in kills per set in her first year after transferring from Snow College.
Conference play was more of a mixed bag for the T-Birds, but they did enough to finish in seventh place and qualified for the Big Sky tournament for the first time since 2015.
The end of the season was a bit anticlimactic, as the T-Birds were swept in the first round of the tournament by Weber State.
Hoyer led his team to nine more wins in 2019 than 2018, and for year two at SUU, that’s some incredible progress. Replacing Webb will surely be a challenge, but Hoyer has shown his knack for finding hidden gems before. The recruiting circuit will be more complicated in a COVID-19 world, but SUU volleyball is on an upswing.
Given the obstacle of replacing the top two setters on the team, volleyball especially deserves a lot of credit for how they performed this season.
Team: Women’s Basketball
Record: 18-13, 11-9
Defining moment: Rebecca Cardenas’ jumper to force overtime vs Montana
2019-20 Season Review:
Head coach Tracy Sanders made huge strides in her second season at the helm. In the three years prior to this season, the T-Birds won 18 games. In one year, Sanders matched the combined total from the last three. That’s impressive stuff.
Cardenas had an incredible season, earning a spot on the conference’s first team and securing Defensive Player of the Year. She’s one of the most dynamic players to ever suit up for the T-Birds, leading in the conference in PPG and steals.
Sanders showed faith in Cardenas as a primary scoring option, and she delivered. Most of the offense ran through her, and the senior was lethal in fourth quarters all season.
Shay Fano was a revelation at power forward in her freshman season. Her ability to face up against slower defenders, knock down threes and bang in the paint makes her a potential centerpiece for this team.
SUU improved on both sides of the ball, averaging 70.5 PPG (third in BS) and allowed 69.8 points per game(seventh), up from 61.9 and 71.7 PPG last season.
The conclusion of the season was a bit disappointing, but even if SUU had beat Idaho State in the conference tournament, it would have been postponed anyway.
This could be a program defining season for the T-Birds, and it came two years after the team went 2-27.
Replacing Cardenas is no small task, but the program is in great hands with Sanders.
Team: Men’s basketball
Record: 17-15, 9-11
Defining moment: John Knight III’s Game Winning Bucket vs Utah Valley
2019-20 Season in Review:
The men’s basketball jumped to a similarly fast start, beating a Power Five opponent in the University of Nebraska.
There was a lot of offensive firepower on this roster, and it showed during the preseason. The T-Birds pushed BYU to its brink at the Marriott Center and picked up a quality road win at Long Beach State.
Perhaps the most exciting night of the entire school year came in SUU’s last second victory over UVU on December 7. The atmosphere was truly electric, and set the bar high as the T-Birds began conference play. John Knight III made a tough layup with eight seconds remaining, and the crowd was going wild.
The players joined the student section to celebrate after the buzzer sounded. It was a magical night, one the T-Birds were never fully able to follow up as the season progressed.
For the first half of conference play, the T-Birds contended for the top spot in the conference. They fell in close contests at home to Montana and Northern Arizona, but earned a road win at Portland State and pushed the eventual regular season champions Eastern Washington to overtime.
Everything felt like it was leading up the January 30 match up with rivals Weber State. Perhaps the stakes and emotions ran too high, as the T-Birds struggled that night, losing 75-65.
That loss sent SUU into a tough stretch that included two four game road trips, and head coach Todd Simon’s squad battled with injuries. The T-Birds struggled to consistently produce, as evidenced by their clobbering of Portland State 85-57 before losing their next game at Sacramento State 70-55 in February.
The T-Birds slid down the standings and eventually kissed the first round bye in the Big Sky tournament they had been searching for goodbye. All that mattered was their performance in Boise.
They closed out the season on another high note, winning at Montana for the first time in 20 years. Finally, it seemed that the team had found its footing and had some momentum headed into the Big Sky tournament, and then everything was put on pause.
It’s unfortunate in so many ways, but perhaps the most difficult part is that no one knows what the T-Birds could have done in the postseason. The 2019-20 season will forever live on as a “what if.”
Grade: B+, but an incomplete one at that.
Overall, this was an outstanding year for men’s basketball. They finished above .500 for the first time since 2006-07, and had a chance of making a run at the conference tournament.
There were some moments this season where opponents seemed like they had figured out SUU’s offensive attack, and that should be on Simon’s radar moving forward.
Either way, SUU men’s basketball’s success should light a fire under SUU football as the two contend for most popular men’s sport on campus.
Defining moment: Breaking the score record vs Central Michigan
2020 Season Review:
SUU’s gymnastics team was really hitting its rhythm when the COVID-19 shutdowns were unfurled. The Flippin’ Birds set the school record for points in a meet vs Central Michigan on February 7, and almost broke it again two weeks later vs the University of Pittsburgh.
The T-Birds were a near constant presence on the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference performers of the week list. Head coach Scott Bauman had geared his practices so the team would be its strongest as they approached the conference tournament, and they were, but the Coronavirus interrupted.
While the first few meets were more of a mixed bag, the team really picked up steam after posting a 196.600 against BYU at the end of January. They won four of their next six meets and cracked the top 25, reaching as high as No. 19 before settling at 22 at the time of cancellation.
Grade: Incomplete, but oozing with potential for an A overall.
The individual competitors on this squad were incredibly talented, and when they put it all together, they looked unstoppable. Assuming they continued the momentum into the conference championship, the Flippin’ Birds could have landed in the top 20 at season’s end.
Some athletes could have landed the chance to compete at the national championships. Bauman was bringing all the pieces together before it was put to an end.
Teams who we didn’t get to see enough of:
Men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s track and field, softball.
Softball is especially painful here, as the team won three games versus power five opponents as they headed into conference play. Head coach Don Don Williams had won over the locker room, but the T-Birds never got the chance to show their progress against Big Sky teams.
SUU 400m and 800m runner Linnea Saltz had a chance at the Olympic Trials before her season was postponed. The T-Birds finished eighth at Big Sky Indoor Championships, but had high hopes for the outdoor season.
The golf and tennis teams also showed promise before the season ended. Jake Vincent and Chanikan (Pluem) Youngyan had both earned Big Sky Golfer of the Week honors and seemed poised to follow up monstrous 2019 seasons.
There is still significant uncertainty on the horizon, but overall, SUU athletics found itself progressing on almost every front in 2019-20. Football, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball improved their records.
No one knows what’s next, but SUU fans and administrators alike can celebrate the successes they had this season. Hopefully, there will be more to come soon.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos by: Mitchell Quartz