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The City Journals

Brighton High: 120 sports titles in 50 years

Jan 02, 2020 10:51AM ● By Julie Slama

The Brighton boys soccer team storms the field excitedly after capturing the 5A state championship. It was the boys soccer team’s seventh state title and 120th for Brighton High School. (Photo courtesy of Kirsten Stewart)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When Tom Sherwood was a teenager, he admits he hated Brighton High.

The then Bingham High football player said, “They were always good. They seemed to win the Deseret News All-State trophy every year, so in my youth, Brighton was the team to beat.”

Now, the Brighton High principal and former Brighton teacher is complimenting the Bengals.

“Brighton has maintained the high level of athletic success for 50 years, acquiring so many championships,” Sherwood said, adding that the Bengals have continued winning championships, faster than any other Utah high school.

One hundred twenty sanctioned state championships in the school’s 50 years, to be exact. 

And that doesn’t include Brighton’s club titles in sports such as water polo, hockey and lacrosse.

The titles are from baseball, football, boys and girls basketball to boys golf, volleyball and gymnastics, which was a sanctioned girls sport in Utah from 1973 through 1989.

While a 2017 study by the National Federation of State High School Associations shows high school sports participation increased for the 28th straight year to its all-time high of more than 7.9 million student-athletes, only 495,000 high school athletes compete in the NCAA, the collegiate organization reports. 

Of those athletes, “just a select few within each sport move on to compete at the professional or Olympic level,” the NCAA reports. Specifically, 1.6% turn pro in football. 

Yet, Brighton has had five alumni — Gordon Hudson, Bryan Kehl, Reno Mahe, Cody Barton and Jackson Barton — go on to play in the NFL. They also had Trevor Lewis, who plays pro hockey for the LA Kings, and Tristan Gale, who become an Olympic gold medalist in skeleton in the 2002 Games.

And since graduating from rival Bingham, Sherwood has become a fan.

“When I first arrived, I was impressed with the high expectations,” he said. “It’s not pressure, but expectation to put into sports and academics their best effort. Many of our student-athletes work in the off-season to improve themselves and have that desire for personal growth. And success is contagious, so the more successful they are in sports, it will help them in other levels. Many of our athletes have returned to coach our teams, so now they’re successful. If our student-athletes don’t win a title, they’re still winning by becoming the best they can, both on and off the field or court — in everything, as many of them are our top students as well as athletes.”

Former Brighton state doubles tennis champion Natalie Meyer said many of her current players have organized their time to complete their homework around their time on the tennis court.

“They learn to make the most of their time, multitask, work on calculus when they’re not involved in the match and excel in all kinds of arenas,” she said. “A lot of these players I’ve taught math to in my classroom. They know, regardless of where they are, there is a certain level, an expectation, to do their best. It’s a behavior, a mentality, to represent themselves and the school. It’s a school culture that was created and we’re keeping it going.”

As a result, Meyer said many of her student-athletes have earned all-academic region and all-academic state awards on top of 14 boys state championships, including seven in a row from 2006 to 2012, and 14 girls championships, including seven in a row in the 1980s.

Meyer is not only impressed with the number of titles, but understands what they mean.

“It’s awesome to see the hard work. We’ve had great players and great coaches. It was second nature to walk in and see so many trophies. It’s nice to stop and appreciate what has been done and appreciate the purpose of sports and have that good attitude if we win or lose. If we go out and have given it our best every single day, played our best, then we celebrate our best,” she said.

Meyer said that for her, growing up in the tennis world was a family affair — and it still is as she coaches with her brother Jason Newell and her parents volunteer at the tennis matches. The same atmosphere she tries to create for her student-athletes.

“We create a family with our team. They’re here working together, spending time together, having fun, watching each other play. I’m coaching kids of parents I played with and it’s fun to see the culture of the team, supporting each other, cheering for everyone, being proud of our accomplishments. Last year, we celebrated second…but we’re very hungry this year,” she said.

In 2018, coach Tessa Italasano said their dance routine was undefeated heading into state, where the Brighton drill team, which has two state championships, ended up taking second place overall.

“We want each girl to give their heart in every performance, every competition, everything they do,” she Italasano.

Then junior Sophie England said the bonding of their team kept them going.

“There are days that are just exhausting, but the love of dancing and of each other made it enjoyable. As long as each day we gave our best and put our heart into it, it makes it worth it,” she said.

Brighton swim team also spends a great deal of time together — not just in the pool, but before and after swim meets, with dinners, giving service to the community, and doing activities.

“It’s a peer group, where they belong and support each other, like an extended family,” said coach Todd Etherington. “They’re friends and hang out together.”

Some of them have also swam together on the year-round Cottonwood Heights Aquatics team that Etherington coaches, building that unity amongst the team that sets goals to succeed.

“We commit to be the best we can be. Academics and swimming go hand-in-hand so rarely have we had one who excels in swimming struggle academically.” Of his 85-member team, about one quarter of the swimmers earned a 4.0 grade-point average last trimester, even with spending a dozen or so hours in the pool per week.

Many Bengals before this year’s team understand that commitment, as the boys team has 23 state titles and the girls team has 24, including every title in the 1990s, plus eight championships leading up to that decade and two afterward.

Etherington also knows this firsthand, after spending his share of time in the water and earning state titles in the 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke as well as helping his medley relay win first at state. 

“Russ Lauber was my coach and he built a dynamic community and high school program, which we keep wanting to move forward and get better,” he said. “What we thought was our limits, we learn aren’t really limits.”

This includes his state records.

“If they were still there, then we wouldn’t be improving, learning new things. There’s an attitude here: we want to be better both in and out of the pool. I’m sharing with them things I’m learning, and they’ve set a goal to be fast, but they have to maintain a certain grade-point average to swim. Trimester to trimester, we look at test scores, attendance, grade-point average, classes, what they post on social media, all those things to help them for college,” he said.

Caring about athletes is appreciated. In 2018, then Brighton High sophomore Tyler Sunde got a concussion at practice.

“I was in the hospital for a while, and it was hard to understand how serious it was,” she said then. “My head always hurt.”

That concussion ended her swim season, but not the support she received from then first-year Brighton assistant coach Jordan Fletcher, who was honored as one of Sandy City Youth Council’s outstanding teachers that year.

“He cares more about the swimmers than the sport. He knows us, the athletes, as people. He knows if something is off and can help us. He asked me about school and how I was emotionally (dealing with the concussion). I knew I could talk to him,” she had said.

Jerry Christensen, who graduated from Brighton in 1978, also remembers the demands of being a student-athlete.

“As a student in the ’70s, we had a collection of exceptional coaches and teachers and there still is a level of excellence today,” he said. 

Christensen wrestled under coaches Don Ness, who started the Brighton wrestling program, and Dave Chavis, who continued the successful program. From 1978 to 1988, wrestling won every state title. Overall, the program has 14 titles.

“In ’78, it started our dynasty, 11 years in a row, but what isn’t shown in the record books is that we were second in ’76 and ’77, and many other years we were always second, third and fourth,” he said about the teams that then attracted more than 100 student-athletes each year. “It was a very rigorous sport, practices twice per day and on Saturday. It was a huge commitment and physical challenge.”

Later, Ness moved to nearby Hillcrest High to begin the wrestling program there and the rivalry with the Battle of the Ax was born. With it, Christensen said, was the understanding they had to give it their best each time they were on the mats.


Current Brighton athletes carry on the excellence in athletics tradition, with the Jan. 2019 win of the 50th annual Battle of the Ax between Brighton and Hillcrest high schools. (Jerry Christensen/Brighton High School Legacy Center)

 

“In the middle of our success, we lost a dual match with Hillcrest, the Battle of the Ax, so there’s a green stripe right in the middle (of the ax handle symbolizing the Huskies’ win). We learned we weren’t flawless,” he said.

For Christensen, the privilege of wrestling for the school came with doing well in the classroom.

“Dave Chavis was a Huntsman Award (of Excellence in teaching) winner; he was a master teacher and that moved over to the mats. His American Problems class was a rite of passage for many seniors at Brighton,” he said. “There’s an academic prowess here.”

Christensen, whose children have been successful Brighton athletes and who is now an assistant wrestling coach as well as the legacy committee chair, credits the trimester system that gives Brighton students an edge, both in academics and athletes. Christensen said it aligns perfectly with the three-sport seasons in a high school year, as well as allowing teachers to teach students daily, not every other day, on the block system.

“Athletics brands a school, gives it a profile,” Christensen said. “At Brighton, it adds to our highly academic standards, making it attractive and giving us a sense of pride.”

Chavis may have given up his coaching position after nine titles and taught his last class after 30 years, but he hasn’t walked away from Brighton’s wrestling room. He regularly helps with meets and offers coaching lessons.

“If the goal is to be state champs, it’s important that they put in the hard work,” said Chavis, who was inducted into the Circle of Fame of the Utah High School Activities Association, which honors outstanding contributors to the state’s high school activities and athletics.

And that hard work doesn’t just mean the wrestlers hitting the mats, but the coaches as well.

“We developed a wrestling camp, had freestyle wrestling in the summer, they worked in the weight room in PE or outside of practice time, so we didn’t waste practice time,” Chavis said. “We’d drill escapes, pins, takedowns. We made it simple: drill, drill, drill. If we taught too much, it didn’t work. They needed to get good at what they were doing.”

The wrestlers also needed to be able to come together as a team and listen.

“They were good kids. They learned discipline; they learned to build character being out on the mat alone. They sacrificed and put the team first; they learned to listen. At times, we had to juggle the lineup to match up with our opponents, and they learned team came before individual. They learned strategy on not burning out in the first period, but to be in great condition for the total match. The kids were coachable and willing to listen to how to be a better student, how to be a better athlete, what to do and not to do,” said Chavis, who has the Brighton graduating senior Excellence in Wrestling award named after him.

Chavis said he often scouted other teams at their meets so he also could be the best coach for his wrestlers.

“I didn’t relax. I guess you could call me ‘obsessive, impulsive,’ but it was my passion,” he said. “I also was a history buff and wanted the best for my students.”

Not only is he proud of his American Problems simulation class, but also of the Model UN program that he built which continues to win state titles and is invited regularly to participate at nationals.

“It’s important to recognize kids on a team as equals amongst themselves. Have them understand the vision, where the program can be and work for a goal. We emphasize discipline in wrestling, but it also is in their classroom work which prepares them for the rest of their lives,” he said. “There was respect.”

That was apparent as a crowd of former wrestlers gathered with their coaches this past summer, celebrating the school’s successes.

“It’s been an honor to be part of it,” he said.

That’s how Russ Boyer feels after helping the Bengals boys soccer team win two titles as the assistant coach in ’99 and ’00 and winning two as the head coach in ’08 and ’09.

This past spring, under coach and former Bengal player Brett Rosen, the boys team won the school’s 120th state championship in an overtime win over Olympus High. It was the boys soccer seventh title; the girls team has six.

“There’s a rich tradition of excelling at sports,” Boyer said. “There are good players who work hard in the program so good things happen.”

Like many other sports, many of the soccer student-athletes play club sports from a young age, so Boyer and other coaches have well-trained athletes who have played together or against each other, but need to merge into one team.

“Some years, it was seamless, and they united; other times, there was some pushback. We preached ‘team first’ and everyone had a role to help the team succeed, but not everyone gets to play all the time. If they’re willing to unite for the common goal, then they understand what a team is and what it is that makes each team better and to come into a program and win a championship — or put forth that effort to have a winning program,” he said. “Overall, the school has a culture where they expect to win and carry themselves that way.”

Boyer, who went on to coach at Corner Canyon High for a couple years, knows what it’s like to be on top of the world — and not. In 1993, his Brighton team won the state championship. As a junior, he was part of a Bengal team that was a heavy favorite to win, but lost in the playoffs to Highland High. 

“You learn about yourself as well as the team,” he said. “My coach, Tom Cushing, was a huge influence in my life and the way I coached. He approached the season and the team with a strong work ethic. He knew and we knew we were the hardest working team on the field each and every game.”

Cushing spent about 24 years coaching Brighton boys’ soccer, first as head coach, then as Boyer’s assistant, then as head coach again. Even now, he is known to show up to some games.

“We taught them how they could become a solid team and good teammates,” Cushing said. “They had focus and discipline that carried over from the soccer field into the classroom and other parts of their life. They were self-motivated.”

However, Cushing said there also was sacrifice.

“There were expectations, demands on their effort, their commitment, their time, especially as warmer weather came around and spring break, and there may have been other things they wanted to do, but they were there, training,” he said.

That dedication — the time on the field, like those on the court, track, pool and other athletic facilities — was rewarded, Cushing said.

“It was so much fun; it’s the greatest feeling seeing the kids at the top and it’s a coach’s dream,” he said. “It was a privilege to coach the great kids, be part of their families and this tremendous school.”