Here’s a look at 10 of the storylines that made high school sports in 2021 notable and memorable.
COVID-19 forces major shake-up at state tournament venues
COVID-19 has been the dominant storyline in our way of life for nearly two years now.
For high school sports in 2021, its continued presence forced the UHSAA to make notable adjustments with its postseason calendar in an attempt for normalcy. UHSAA executive director Rob Cuff said the adjustments weren’t ideal, but better than the alternative.
“Just to be able to have tournaments at this juncture with the surrounding states not being able to play, in some regard, is a blessing,” said Cuff.
The biggest impact was on the winter sports without the availability of the larger college venues. Without the University of Utah or Weber State available for the last three rounds of the 6A and 5A boys and girls state tournaments, those were contested at the smaller Salt Lake Community College arena. Richfield’s Sevier Valley Center hosted the final rounds of all the other state tournaments.
Swimming championships were forced to move from traditional site BYU at the very last minute, and ended up taking place at multiple pools along the Wasatch Front — Heber City, Kearns and Bountiful.
Wrestling state championships were also forced away from its normal location, UVU. The 6A and 5A championships were held at local high schools, while the other four were held at the Sevier Valley Center in Richfield.
The drill team state championships were allowed to still be held at UVU for 6A-3A, but with very limited fan attendance.
In the spring, the only sport that saw a significant change to its venue was the state track and field championships which were moved away from BYU for the first time in decades and held at Davis High School instead.
For the recently completed fall sports, the state championship venues returned to normal. The exception was state cross-country not being held at Sugarhouse Park. That was more a function of the UHSAA determining that it had outgrown the venue.
With the 2022 winter sports state championships just around the corner, the UHSAA is scheduled to return to normal championship sites, but as everyone learned last year those plans could change at any moment with COVID-19.
Lacrosse debuts as UHSAA sanctioned sport after 1-year delay
A year delayed because of COVID-19, boys and girls lacrosse finally had their first officially sanctioned season by the UHSAA in the spring of 2021 as six total state championships were handed out.
The first champs were supposed to be crowned in 2020, but that season was wiped away after just one week because of COVID-19.
The UHSAA used RPI rankings to determine whether teams were placed into Division A, B or C for the state tournament.
The three boys state champs were Corner Canyon (A), Alta (B) and Pleasant Grove (C). The three girls state champs were Park City (A), American Fork (B) and Bingham (C).
“This is what we’ve worked for this whole time, especially last year when the season got canceled, we knew we were looking forward to this year and this season,” said Corner Canyon’s Eric Neilsen.
Next spring the UHSAA is ditching the divisions and going with traditional 6A, 5A and 4A state tournaments.
Former Utah prep stars hit the big time
While Utah athletes showed how great they were throughout the 2021 calendar year, it was some former Utah prep stars that helped bring even more notoriety to the type of athletes the state continues to produce.
Whether it has high picks in the NFL draft, swimming in the Olympus or winning NCAA championships, it was a banner year for some former Utah high school standouts.
On the gridiron, former Corner Canyon quarterback Zach Wilson was the second player taken in the NFL draft by the New York Jets, while former Desert Hills offensive lineman Penei Sewell went No. 7 to the Detroit Lions.
In the pool, former Cottonwood High School swimming sensation Rhyan White, 21, became the first Utah-born swimmer to qualify for the Olympics. She narrowly missed the podium by finishing fourth in both the 100- and 200-meter backstroke. She did earn a silver medal for contributing in the preliminaries of the 4×100 meter relay.
Utah has consistently produced elite distance runners over the past couple decades, and that’s become even more apparent with the success of three former track/cross-country stars.
Former Sky View star Conner Mantz won his second consecutive NCAA cross-country national championship this fall with BYU, while two of his BYU teammates on the girls side enjoyed similar success. Former Millard High multi-sport star Anna Camp won the 1,500 meters national championship on the track back in June, and then in November former Panguitch runner Whittni Orton showed that 1A schools can produce elite talent as well by winning the NCAA cross-country national championship.
UHSAA tweaks format for baseball and softball state tournaments
The UHSAA made a major overhaul to the format of its baseball and softball state tournaments for 6A, 5A and 4A to more closely follow the format of the NCAA’s College World Series.
Instead of just a simple double-elimination bracket that had been the tradition for decades, the new format beginning with the 2021 playoffs became a mix best-of-three series and double-elimination brackets.
The early rounds were best-of-three series played at the higher seeds, until just eight teams were still alive. Those eight teams were reseeded into two four-team brackets, with each quadrant playing a mini double-elimination tournament until the last two teams were left standing.
Those two teams then played a best-of-three championship series to determine the state champ.
The new format made it possible that a team, depending on how large its classification, could conceivably lose up to four playoff games and still win a state title.
That’s not how it played out though as the eventual state champs mostly ran the tables en route to the title.
In baseball, American Fork (6A) and Snow Canyon (4A) both went 7-0 in the state tournament, while Spanish Fork (5A) went 7-2.
In softball, Riverton (6A) and Spanish Fork (5A) went 7-0, while Bear River (4A) went 7-1.
In the previous formats for baseball and softball, a team only needed to win five state tournament games to win a state championship, but the new format requires at least seven victories, and potentially more if a team didn’t get a first-round bye.
Fremont girls basketball gains national recognition
Loaded with elite Division I talent, Fremont dominated the landscape during the 2020-2021 girls basketball season and MaxPreps certainly noticed.
Fremont finished the season with a 26-1 record and a No. 11 ranking in the MaxPreps national girls basketball rankings.
Fremont’s only loss of the season came after winning the 6A state championship at the Geico National Semifinals in Fort Myers, Florida. Ironically enough, it came against the team that ended the season ranked No. 1 in the MaxPreps national rankings — Westlake, Georgia.
Fremont lost 64-54, it but was the third-closest game Westlake faced all season en route to the MaxPreps No. 1 rankings.
Fremont’s average margin of victory in 26 wins against Utah competition was 38.5 points, and its closest game was a nine-point win over Bingham in the 6A semifinals.
Lengthy football streaks come to a close
Heading into the 2021 high school football season, Orem, Corner Canyon and Beaver had won a combined nine straight state championships and many believed they were the favorite to extend their streaks even further.
Despite all advancing to at least the state semifinals, and two the championships, both streaks came to a surprising end in 2021.
Orem came into the year looking to become just the fourth school in state history to win five straight state championships and the first since Skyline (1995-1999), but that bid came to an end losing on the final play of the state semifinals to Springville.
Corner Canyon had won three straight state championships, but a bid for a fourth consecutive title was halted by Lone Peak in the 6A championship. A month earlier, Lone Peak ended Corner Canyon’s 48-game winning streak — which had tied Duchesne (2010-2014) for the state record for consecutive wins.
Beaver’s bid for a three-peat came to an end in the 2A state championship to San Juan, the same team that earlier in the season ended its 34-game winning streak — the fourth-longest in state history.
Lehi coach Quincy Lewis makes splash in return
When Quincy Lewis left Lone Peak after the 2014 season for an assistant coaching position at BYU, he departed the high school landscape with seven state championships — putting him one shy of Provo’s legendary Craig Drury.
Upon returning to the high school scene for the 2020-2021 season, it sure didn’t take Lewis long to keep marching up the record books. In his first season as Lehi’s head coach, he guided the Pioneers to a 5A state championship, its first since 1998.
“I watched them from last year and I knew we had some good players, we had a lot of work to do. The thing I told them is, ‘Hey, we might not be the best July 1 or even Sept. 1, but we want to be the best by March 1. We weren’t the best team Feb. 1, but we are now,” said Lewis.
Lewis is now tied with Drury with eight career coaching state titles,
Bear River’s Olivia Taylor goes viral after insane catch
When Bear River’s Olivia Taylor leapt over the fence and twisted her body to rob Tooele of a home run in the 4A state championship game back in May, instant stardom came with it. It helped that KSL had a camera positioned perfectly in center field to capture the catch in spectacular slow motion, but everything else was all Olivia Taylor.
Thanks in large part to Taylor’s snag, Bear River beat Tooele 4-2 in Game 2 of their best-of-three championship series and then rolled in Game 3 14-6 to claim the state championship.
The KSL video of Taylor’s catch went viral quickly on social media, with ESPN, Yahoo Sports, CBS Sports, Fox News and MLB.com all sharing the story.
“I’ve seen Olivia Taylor make two or three catches this year that were just outstanding,” Bear River head coach Calvin Bingham told the Deseret News. “She’s, to me, our MVP. How she goes is how we go. Yesterday she struggled. Today she got going.”
The athletic outfielder is now enrolled at Southern Idaho and will be playing softball this upcoming spring just a few hours from home.
Bingham’s Tanner Nelson etches name into swimming state record books
Setting state records is difficult in any sport. In swimming, with the compact nature of the state swimming meet, setting them at state is even more difficult.
That was no big deal for Bingham swimmer Tanner Nelson, who did it twice at last year’s 6A state swim meet at the Kearns Aquatic Center.
Nelson established himself as the greatest distance swimmer in state history last year by setting new state records in the 500 and 200 freestyle. Nelson, who is now swimming at BYU this fall, posted a time of 1:38.39 in the 200 free and then a time of 4:30.06 in the 500 free.
His 500 free time was over two seconds faster than the previous record and his 200 free time was .36 faster than the old record.
“Since the beginning of the season I’ve had my mind set on those goals,” Nelson said. “I knew what my goal times were, so I just kept training and pushing through, so when it came to moments like tonight, I knew the training that I put in would pay off somehow.”
Inaugural girls wrestling state championship
Girls wrestling became its own UHSAA sanctioned sport last school year, with inaugural state championships awarded at February’s state meets.
Class 6A and 4A had enough participants to hold their own state tournament, while Class 5A/3A/2A/1A held a combined state tournament.
Westlake’s girls claimed the debut 6A state championship, while Mountain Crest won the 4A title.
Lizzie Shunn was one of Westlake’s individual winners, and she said watching the emergence of wrestling in Utah has been thrilling to be a part of.
“A couple years ago I was the only girl on the team here, in the club,” Shunn said. “Having this big of a team and being able to win as a team, it’s really cool.”
Maple Mountain’s girls won the combined 5A/3A/2A/1A state championship.
“It’s been kind of frustrating the past couple years that I’ve wrestled in the girls’ state championships without it being recorded (as a UHSAA sanctioned sport),” said Maple Mountain’s Abigail Archibald, one of Maple Mountain’s three individual winners. “So I think it’s pretty neat that this is the first year that it’s actually going to be recorded, and I get to be a part of it.”