ST. GEORGE — As the 2020-21 athletic season approached, no one knew just exactly how it would look. Fall seasons were being moved to the spring, nonconference games and tournaments were being canceled and official start dates were being pushed back further and further. The COVID-19 pandemic had turned the college sports world on its head, and athletic departments, coaches and athletes had to roll with the punches.
Southern Utah University finally opened the 2020-21 season on Oct. 17 when the men’s and women’s cross-country teams competed for the first time in nearly a year. As more sports joined in and were able to open their seasons, it was clear that the Thunderbirds were more than equipped to handle the challenges they faced.
Despite the constant COVID testing, cancellations, postponements and shortened seasons, Southern Utah Athletics put together one of their most successful seasons in recent memory.
The Thunderbirds won three Big Sky Championships (two team and one individual) and sent two teams and 12 individuals to compete for various NCAA championships. They put 42 athletes on All-Conference teams, won two conference Coach of the Year awards and five conference individual player awards. T-Bird teams went a combined 42-14 (.750) when competing at home, making Cedar City one of the most difficult places for opponents to play.
Southern Utah finished in the top five on both sides of the Big Sky All-Sport Trophy standings, with the men finishing in second place and the women finishing in fifth place.
Each individual team broke records, set new standards and proved that they have what it takes to compete with anyone in the country.
The men’s basketball team won their first Big Sky Conference Regular Season Championship in program history, as they finished the season 12-2 in conference play. Their .857 winning percentage against Big Sky teams blew out their previous high of .450 from the season before, and their overall winning percentage of .864 was the highest in Southern Utah’s Division I history. They also went undefeated (14-0) at home for the first time since 2000-01.
Head coach Todd Simon was named Big Sky Coach of the Year and National Association of Basketball Coaches Co-Coach of the Year for District 6, and he was awarded the 2021 Jim Phelan Award, an award presented annually to the nation’s top Division I coach.
Tevian Jones was named to both the NABC All-District First Team and Big Sky All-Conference First Team, making him the first Thunderbird to ever do so. Jones was the Big Sky’s fourth-highest leading scorer, averaging 17.1 points per game through the course of the year. He also clocked 600 minutes on the season, scored a team-high 377 points, had 91 rebounds, 27 assists and 15 steals.
John Knight III and Maizen Fausett were both named to the Big Sky All-Conference Second Team, and Dre Marin was named to the Honorable Mention team. It marked just the second time in program history that the Thunderbirds put multiple student-athletes on the Big Sky All-Conference teams.
The 2020-21 edition of the Thunderbirds finished the regular season with the best scoring offense in the Big Sky, averaging 84.2 points per game. They also had the highest scoring margin (+15.8), rebounding margin (+9.0), and finished first in the league in defensive rebounds (28.5) and three-point field goals per game (8.9).
The Thunderbirds entered the Big Sky Conference Championship Tournament as the No. 1 seed, but saw their season come to an end in the semifinals, falling to Montana State in overtime.
The men’s cross country team claimed their second Big Sky Conference Championship in program history, knocking off the eventual 2020-21 National Champions Northern Arizona at the Big Sky Winter Cross-Country Championships.
Head coach Eric Houle was named Big Sky Men’s Cross-Country Coach of the Year for the second time in his career, after leading his team to the conference title. Stefan Rasmuson, Aidan Reed, Nate Osterstock and Christian Ricketts all earned All-Conference honors as well.
Santiago Gaitan was named Big Sky Freshman of the Year, after finishing as the top freshman at the conference championship race.
The win gave the Thunderbirds a chance to compete at the NCAA National Championship for the sixth time in the last seven seasons, where they finished in ninth place, their highest finish in program history.
Ricketts finished in 31st place individually at nationals, earning All-American honors for the first time in his career.
The women’s cross-country team opened their delayed 2020-21 season with a bang, taking second place at the Oklahoma State Invitational behind only the eventual 2020-21 national champion BYU.
The Thunderbirds finished in fourth place at the Big Sky Conference Championship race, their fifth top-four finish in the conference over the last five seasons.
Alison Pray finished the race in third place with a time of 17:19.7, earning her All-Conference honors and a trip to the NCAA National Championship as an individual.
Pray finished the National Championship race in 50th place with a time of 21:04.4.
The women’s basketball team finished their 2020-21 season 11-9 overall and 6-5 in Big Sky play. Their .545 winning percentage against Big Sky teams was good enough for fifth place and earned them their first bye in the Big Sky Conference Championship Tournament since the 2013-14 season. It also marked the first time in program history that the T-Birds finished Big Sky play over .500 in back-to-back seasons.
The Thunderbirds finished the season with the best rebounding margin (+9.2) and the best free throw percentage (.783) in the Big Sky. They were also second in blocked shots (4.50 per game) and third in scoring margin (+4.3).
Liz Graves and Cherita Daugherty both earned Big Sky All-Conference honors, with Graves being named to the Second Team and Daugherty being named to the Honorable Mention team.
Graves finished the regular season second in the Big Sky in scoring, averaging 16.9 points per game. She was also second in the conference in rebounding (9.2 RPG) and third in field goal percentage (.485). The senior also scored 34 points in a loss to BYU to set the highest single-game mark in the Big Sky for the season and the sixth-highest single-game total in SUU history.
Daugherty finished the regular season second on the team and 18th in the Big Sky in scoring, averaging 11.8 points per game. She was also eighth in the Big Sky in free throw percentage (.821) and eighth in assists, averaging 2.9 per game.
The Thunderbirds took on Northern Colorado in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Tournament, finishing their season with a narrow 59-63 loss to the Bears.
The Flippin’ Birds earned their eighth-straight trip to the NCAA Regional Championship in 2021, finishing the regular season as the No. 21-ranked team in the country. They also set a new program record for team meet score, scoring a 197.275 inside the America First Event Center against Utah State.
The Thunderbirds were ranked as high as No. 15 on two separate occasions throughout the season, which was their highest ranking since the 2017 season.
Aubri Schwartze was named the 2021 Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference Freshman of the Year at the end of the season. She finished 2021 ranked No. 4 on beam, No. 6 on floor and No. 17 on bars in the conference. Schwartze also earned All-Conference Second Team honors on beam and floor.
Four other Thunderbirds earned MRGC All-Conference honors. Morgan Alfaro was named Co-Vault Specialist of the Year with Utah State’s Mikaela Meyer and also earned MRGC First Team honors on the event. Karley McClain earned MRGC First Team honors on both floor and the all-around, and she was also named to the MRGC Beam Second Team. Rachel Smith was named to the MRGC Vault Second Team, and Shylen Murakami was named to the MRGC Bars Second Team.
The Flippin’ Birds wrapped up their season with a third-place finish in session one of the NCAA Regional Championship Semifinals. The Flippin’ Birds scored a 195.975, their highest score at the regional championship since 2015.
The volleyball team finished their 2021 spring season with a 9-8 overall record, giving them the highest winning percentage in program history (.529). It was just the second time that the Thunderbirds finished a season with a winning record with the only other time coming in 2010 when they finished 16-15.
They also finished Big Sky play with a winning record for the first time since joining the conference in 2012.
The T-Birds won their first Big Sky Conference Championship Tournament game in program history, upsetting No.3-seeded Montana State in the first round.
Stacey Hone earned Big Sky All-Conference Second Team honors and became just the second Thunderbird to ever be named to a BSC All-Conference team in back-to-back seasons. She finished the regular season eighth in the Big Sky in points, averaging 3.45 per set for a total of 183 points. She was also second on the team in kills per set, averaging 2.75 per set and a total of 146 kills.
Hone was also a contributor on the defensive side of the ball, leading the team in total blocks with 43 and averaging .81 blocks per set.
The Thunderbirds took on Northern Colorado in the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament but fell to the Bears 0-3.
The soccer team finished their 2021 spring season with an overall record of 5-3-1, giving them the highest winning percentage in program history (.611). They also finished 3-3 in Big Sky play for the highest winning percentage against conference opponents since 2014.
The Thunderbirds led the Big Sky in goals scored with 22 goals in nine games played, averaging 2.44 goals per game. They also led in assists with 16 and total points with 60.
Kate Schirmer was second in the conference in goals (8), points (18) and game-winning goals (2). Rachael Hunt and Kamryn Farro were tied at the top of the Big Sky in assists with three each and were third and fourth respectively in points.
Jennifer Kovisto finished third in the Big Sky in saves per game (5.38) and fourth in save percentage (.827).
The Thunderbirds missed out on making the smaller-than-normal field for the Big Sky Conference Championship Tournament but ended the season on a four-game winning streak.
The Thunderbird football team finished their shortened spring season with a 1-5 record. Their only win of the season came over Cal Poly when they beat the Mustangs in San Luis Obispo for the first time since 1986. It was also their first road win since the 2017 season.
The T-Birds led the Big Sky in sacks with 18 and in field goals, going 5-for-5 on the season. They also put nine players on the Big Sky All-Conference team with three one the First Team, three on the Second Team and three Honorable Mentions.
La’akea Kaho’ohanohano-Davis, Francis Bemiy and Braxton Jones were all named to the First Team on their respective sides of the ball. Kaho’ohanohano-Davis led the conference in sacks (7) and was also second in the conference in total tackles (57) tackles for loss (9). Bemiy was second in the conference in sacks, trailing only Kaho’ohanohano-Davis, with four total sacks, and Jones was an essential part of an offensive line that led the Big Sky in fewest sacks allowed, only allowing five all season.
Landen Measom, Treyson Johnson and Alonzo (L.J.) Davis were all named to the Second Team, and Justin Miller, Judd Cockett and Manny Berz were all named Honorable Mention.
Kaho’ohanohano-Davis earned multiple national postseason recognitions, earning All-American status from Stats Perform, the Associated Press and Phil Steele while also being nominated for the 2021 Stats Perform Buck Buchanan Award, which is awarded annually to the country’s top defensive player.
Jones was named to the Phil Steele FCS First Team All-America, and Miller earned the first national honor of his career when he was named to the FCS Sophomore All-America Team by HERO Sports.
The Thunderbirds will open their 2021 Fall Season on August 28 against San Jose State.
The men’s golf team combined for four top-three finishes as a team this season and finished runners-up at the Big Sky Conference Championship. Three Thunderbirds earned All-Conference honors with Jake Vincent being named to the First Team, Ali Hameed being named to the Second Team and Tyler Jones being named Honorable Mention.
Vincent was also named Big Sky Player of the Year for the second consecutive season and became the only Thunderbird to ever qualify for the NCAA Regional Championship twice when he received an at-large bid to compete as an individual.
Vincent was the top player in the conference all season long, winning three Big Sky Player of the Week awards and was consistently the top-ranked Big Sky player in the national rankings. He also won his fourth career tournament this season, posting a 201 (67, 67, 67) at the Jackrabbit Invitational hosted by South Dakota State at Boulder Creek Golf Club.
The senior wrapped up his career with a 51st place finish at the 2021 Cle Elum Regional.
The women’s golf team had two top-six finishes throughout the season and finished seventh at the Big Sky Conference Championship.
Chanikan (Pluem) Yongyuan earned All-Conference First Team honors for the third consecutive season in her career, and at one point in the season was the top ranked golfer in the NCAA. She finished the regular season with the third-lowest single-season stroke average in program history and will head into her senior season at the top of the career leaderboard.
The Thunderbird softball team finished Big Sky play as the second-best team in the conference with a 10-8 record, the most conference wins since 2017. They entered the Big Sky Conference Championship Tournament as the No. 2 seed and made it all the way to the championship game, where they finished runners-up.
They won 20 games overall for the first time since 2015 while also leading the Big Sky in home runs (60) and runs scored (259). The T-Birds also set a new program record for single-season slugging percentage, slugging .484 as a team.
Brooke Brown was named Big Sky Top Newcomer of the Year and earned All-Conference First Team honors. Brown broke the single-season home run record at Southern Utah by hitting 17 home runs in 2021. She led the Big Sky in home runs and RBI (53) and was second in slugging percentage (.767).
Josey White and Tyler Denhart also earned All-Conference honors with White being named to the Second Team and Denhart being named Honorable Mention. Denhart was named Big Sky Pitcher of the Week twice throughout the season, becoming the first Thunderbird to ever win the award multiple times in one season.
Kalena Shepherd set two new Southern Utah single-season records herself in both batting average (.433) and slugging percentage (.788).
Denhart, Shepherd and Reilly Williams all earned Big Sky All-Tournament honors at the conclusion of the tournament.
Women’s track & field
The women’s track and field team finished in sixth place at the Big Sky Conference Outdoor Championship and sent two athletes to the NCAA West Regional Prelims in Alison Pray and Alexis McAllister.
They also captured an Individual Big Sky Championship in the long jump as Elizabeth White won the event at the outdoor championship with a jump of 19’ 3.5”. White broke the program record in the long jump earlier in the season with a jump of 19’ 7” at the UVU Collegiate Invitational.
McAllister took home the silver medal in the women’s javelin throw at the championship meet, earning All-Conference honors with a throw of 164’ 6”. She shattered the program record earlier in the season with a throw of 170’ 2” at the UNLV Spring Opener. The senior finished in 13th place at the West Regional, narrowly missing out on a spot at the National Championship.
Pray finished second and earned All-Conference honors in the 1,500m with a time of 4:22.00, the second-fastest in program history. She also set the second-fastest time in program history in the 5,000m at the OSU High Performance Meet with a time of 15:59.63. She qualified for the regional meet in both the 1,500m and the 5,000m, finishing in 29th in the 1,500m and 22nd in the 5K.
Sinclair Watson earned All-Conference honors in both the 100m and the 200m, finishing in third place in both events. She set the second-fastest time in program history in both events, running an 11.81 in the 100m at the BYU Robison Invitational and a 24.19 at the Big Sky Outdoor Championship.
Amy Pouliot earned All-Conference honors in the discus throw, finishing second at the championship with a throw of 160’ 10”. She set the fourth-best mark in program history with a throw of 161’ 4” at the Aggie Invitational.
Haley Tanne set the third-fastest time in program history in the steeplechase at the UNLV Spring Invitational with a time of 10:39.80.
Men’s track & field
The men’s track and field team finished in seventh place at the Big Sky Conference Outdoor Championship and sent eight athletes to the NCAA West Regional Preliminary Round.
Aidan Reed captured the bronze medal in both the 5000m and 10,000m at the Big Sky Outdoor Championship to earn All-Conference honors on both events. He set the third-fastest time in program history in the 10K at the Hayward Premiere with a time of 28:44.68. The senior qualified for regionals in both the 5,000m and the 10,000m where he finished 23rd and 18th respectively.
Chase Clement finished in third place in the javelin throw at the championship to earn All-Conference honors on the event. He set the fifth-highest mark in program history with his throw of 213’ 1” and qualified for the regional meet. He finished in 19th place at regionals, narrowly missing a spot at the National Championship.
Jeff Rowley also qualified for the regional prelims in the javelin throw and threw a season best of 209’ 0” to finish in 16th place.
Nate Osterstock set a new record in the outdoor mile at the BYU Robison Invitational with an altitude converted time of 3:57.35. This was only the third sub-four minute mile in school history and was also a new record in the 1,500m with a converted time of 3:39.79. He qualified for regionals in both the 1,500m and the 5,000m where he finished in 36th and 26th respectively.
Dallin Snyder took second in the high jump at the Big Sky Championship to earn All-Conference honors on the event. His mark of 6’ 10.75” is tied for third-highest in program history and was good enough to send him to regionals where he finished in a tie for 31st place.
Max Spence, Travis Feeny and Christian Ricketts all also competed at the NCAA Regional Preliminary Round as Spence and Feeny finished in 38th and 43rd respectively in the 1,500m, and Ricketts finished in 23rd place in the 10,000m.
Southern Utah looks to continue building momentum in all of its programs and carry it into the move to the Western Athletic Conference in the 2022-23 season.
Written by KYLE BIRNBRAUER, SUU Athletics strategic communication.
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