The Dixie Flyers became the equivalent of a March Madness Cinderella team in the state tournament last season.
If it wasn’t enough for Tyler Bennett to drain a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Bear River in the quarterfinals, Dixie followed it up the next night with a quadruple overtime win against Desert Hills in the semifinals.
Dixie’s run through the state tournament in February had everything except a perfect ending.
The Pine View Panthers held off Dixie, 46-43, in the state championship game to win it all. They had the final celebration, even if Dixie created all the “coolest” memories from that tournament.
“It was a great experience and we have a hunger to get back there,” Bennett said. “Anything can happen in basketball. You just have to play until the very end. It was fun to see how excited we got about how the games ended and fun to see how we executed.”
Bennett’s 3-pointer, in particular, came from the sort of execution only dreamed about when coaches draw up plays. With 2.9 seconds left, R.J. Wilgar inbounded from the opposite baseline to Richard Guymon at mid-court. Guymon swung a pass over to Bennett, who lifted off from the hardwood and knocked down the buzzer-beater to win against Bear River, 43-41.
The next night, the Flyers put their endurance to the test in a grind-it-out showdown with region rival Desert Hills. The No. 3 seed Flyers upset the second-seeded Desert Hills Thunder, 79-72, in quadruple overtime.
But they ran out of gas against Pine View — last year’s team of destiny.
Now, the Flyers are back with a renewed enthusiasm from the returning players. They’ve had a chance to let the 2015 Boys 3A State Basketball Championship tournament soak in, and the frowns of defeat turned into smirks of enjoyment.
“It was a fun tournament,” Bennett said.
And it set the stage for the latest version of the Dixie Flyers to take the court for the first time this season Thursday in Richfield.
“Experiences are what you get when you don’t get what you want,” Dixie coach Ryan Cuff said. “Playing in the state championship game is the experience we needed, and it made us appreciate what it takes to get there.”
The returning players have a taste of it, Cuff said, and that helps spread excitement to new players. Among the players who was on the junior varsity squad last year and got to be part of the state tournament run with the varsity team is James Eardley.
Cuff compared Eardley to Izaic Blazzard from last year’s team — a tough player who stepped into a leadership role to carry the Flyers.
“His leadership doesn’t go unnoticed,” Cuff said. “James is like a coach on the floor. He had the attitude after last year that he wanted to be part of this and did everything we asked of him. He’s defensive-minded, but can score when we need him to.”
Eardley said these seniors leading Dixie are hungry.
“It’s the one year we’ve been preparing for our whole life,” he said. “We’ve played together forever and always had good chemistry.”
Senior guard Malachi Otis looked strikingly different than he did last year. Otis trotted into the gym and grabbed a basketball off the rack while greeting coach Cuff on Monday afternoon. His shoulders and torso are bigger than when he played as a junior sixth man a year ago.
“He worked on his body this offseason,” Cuff said of Otis. “He’s in great shape, plays defense, and it was a huge benefit for us having him in our system last year.”
Otis is a starter now, and the players all look to him as one of the team leaders.
Dixie opens the season in Richfield at the 2A/3A Preview tournament, playing alongside four other Region 9 teams against the northern schools in 3A. It’s the beginning of a preseason schedule that includes opponents like Logan, Springville, Viewmont, Green Valley (Las Vegas, Nevada) and Riverton, among others.
Dixie’s first home game is Friday, Dec. 11 against Spanish Fork.
“What we do early on will determine how the rest of our season goes,” Cuff said. “This is a fun group to coach. The other coaches and I have seen a lot of positives so far, and we have a great schedule to get us ready for our tough region, which is always close.”
NOTES: Dixie High School last won a basketball state championship in 1970. That team was coached by Don Lay.
Follow Richard Briggs on Twitter, @BriggsRich. Call him at 435-674-6233.