ST. GEORGE — The Dixie High basketball teams enter the season under polar circumstances. The boys team had a successful preseason against upper-echelon opponents to start strong in a bid for a repeat state championship. The girls team, which played sub-.500 basketball a season ago, will try to recover not only from a losing season but playing only three preseason games due to a slew of COVID-19 cases in the program. They are now just trying to play catch-up on the fly as the region season starts.
Here are the outlooks for Dixie basketball in Region 9.
Does a team that just won the state championship have anything left to prove? For Dixie head coach Tyler Roberts, the answer is an absolute yes.
The Flyers lost their biggest piece and one of the top defensive players in the state in Noah Lemke to graduation. But they still have a spoil of riches that keeps them at the top of the conversation, he said, of which teams are not just the favorite for the region but the state crown yet again. They aren’t content with just the one they already have, and Roberts said motivating his team to push for a championship again hasn’t and won’t be an issue.
“Because it’s over. We enjoyed it. It was fun, right, but it’s also time to go back to work,” Roberts said. “Our group that we have right now has been together since fourth grade. So it’s still unfinished business for them.”
A large portion of the group already has the ring. But they’re seniors now, and they want another.
Isaac Finlinson, the leading scorer for last year’s team and Region 9, is back again and will play an even more central role. Roberts said they call him the “Silent Killer” because he isn’t vocal, isn’t particularly animated, doesn’t appear imposing physically with his lanky 6-foot-6 frame, but he just scores baskets. In the preseason, Finlinson bottomed out at 17 points, a mark many players would be more than content with. He shot 59% from the field and posted 188 points in eight games to kick off his senior campaign. He also came down with 7.3 rebounds a game and more than five in the defensive end.
Finlinson is co-captain with Ethan Bennett, another top-end ball mover in Region 9. Bennett scored 13.6 points a game in the preseason and also shot 59% from the field. The third captain, Carson Forsey, only averaged 7.6 points a game but led the team with 4.8 assists through the first eight games. Jeff Cox, assuming a post role in Lemke’s wake, nearly averaged 10 points a game. All four players mentioned are all above three assists a game.
Sharing the ball and distributing is one of Roberts’ tenets. It’s easy when you have scorers in all five positions.
“If you’re playing together and you share the ball, for any team, you’re tough to beat,” Roberts said. “One of the
challenges I gave them was to share the basketball. We have a lot of guys that can score, but I want to make that extra pass and get everybody involved.”
Alessio DeHart, another senior, is on the mend from an injury but his 6-foot 9-inch build will make him another post option when he is ready to go. They also have sophomore Kean Webb of the same height getting into some action early.
Roberts said that as good as his team is at scoring, Region 9 is going to be an offensive-dominant league and so has focused his team on improving its defense. He said keeping other teams off the board is the biggest key to success this season.
“Right now our biggest focus is on defense,” he said. “We have to be able to get stops because we can’t trade baskets, so we have to buy into defense and continue to get better at defense.”
The Flyers went 6-2 through the preseason. They held their own but were also humbled against nationally-ranked Wasatch Academy, falling by 13, and played within six points of class 6A Lone Peak, which came within two points of reaching the classification’s state championship game a year ago. Even with those two tough games on the calendar, the Flyers averaged 70 points a game, outscoring their opponents on an average of nearly 20 points.
When you win a state championship, you’re going to be the favorites regardless of what changes your roster underwent. The loss of Lemke is substantial, but nowhere near enough to drop expectations for them. Now it’s time to see how the Flyers do with the biggest target on their back possible.
Dixie travels to Hurricane on Jan. 6 to kick off Region 9 play.
Region 9 has been mostly fortunate to avoid major COVID-19 outbreaks, which occurred at the collegiate level on a near weekly basis, but prep sports have mostly avoided shutdowns following the two-week pause in November.
The Dixie girls team has been the exception. Every team in the state and possibly the country has dealt with interruptions due to the pandemic, but no other team in Region 9 has been impacted to the extent the Flyers have. When they played San Juan on Dec. 28, it was the first time every player on the roster was available all season, including pre-competition practices. The team has avoided the severe medical implications the novel coronavirus can have, but it lost numerous practices and preseason contests as a result of at least 13 positive COVID-19 tests in the span of two weeks. In their three early games in December, they were missing some players due to even more positive tests. In the days following that trip, three players and two coaches including head coach Ryan Forsey tested positive.
Everyone is playing catch up, but no one is doing so to the same extent as Dixie.
“We have not had a single practice this season yet without significant, varsity people missing,” Forsey said. “We are super simplified. There’s really not a lot I can call out there because we didn’t have an offseason and we haven’t had practices. We’re playing a lot of younger girls that just don’t know.”
Forsey said he hopes the COVID-19 positives are in the rearview mirror because he already had a lot of work to do replacing a senior core and an up-and-comer that has a collegiate future. Joslyn Bundy and Sina Schwalger were No. 1 and 2 in scoring for Dixie a year ago and have since graduated. Another senior, Mel Alo, was No. 4. If that wasn’t enough, No. 3 on the leaderboard, then-sophomore Enid Vaifanua, now wears Desert Hills Thunder colors.
Even with the losses, Dixie still has talent in the ranks. Seniors Katie Mills and Addy Shaffer will brunt the ball-moving load for the most part. Freshman Kealah Faumuina brings size to the center role. Emily Tauillili and Chloe Elison both have multi-sport talent and have contributed through the first three games, but Forsey describes them as “raw.” Jaide Bundy and Rees Lorentzen will be bench options. Forsey also noted that he has some seniors that were banking on the offseason and preseason to reach the next step in their development and become role players at the varsity level, and that the COVID-19 circumstances have really hurt them.
He said his team is built from good athletes, just not necessarily basketball players. He thinks that once they start getting organized and play as a unit under the leadership of Mills and Shaffer they can start to take strides toward being competitive.
“If you get a team to follow that lead and buy in, especially in girls’ athletics, you’re going to have a chance most nights,” Forsey said. “If you get girls that buy in together and play hard, whether you’re undersized or outgunned, you can put yourself in positions to give yourself a chance. That’s all you can ask for. “
Dixie begins play on Tuesday, hosting Hurricane.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.