MILLVILLE — What was supposed to be another epic showdown between two of the best football programs in Utah’s 4A classification turned into a nightmare for Ridgeline.
The Riverhawks were hungry to avenge their only loss of the regular season, but those aspirations took a big hit when standout quarterback Kaden Cox broke his leg in the second quarter on a very rainy November afternoon in Smithfield. Sky View ultimately pulled away for a 28-0 victory over Ridgeline in the semifinals of the state tournament en route to its second straight 4A championship.
It was also a rough day for Ridgeline boys basketball coach Kyle Day, who initially thought he would be without his star shooting guard for essentially the entire upcoming season.
“I was watching the stream on TV and I can’t say that I reacted super well when I saw him go down and get carried off the field,” Day admitted. “You know, I wanted him and the football team to have as much success as they could have and I was hurting for him because I thought the way it went and the updates I was getting that it was going to be pretty close to a lost year.”
Likewise, Cox, who is typically a very optimistic person, had similar fears.
“I thought I was going to be out for the (basketball) season,” he said. “I didn’t know how serious a broken fibula could be, but I heard that (I could) be out pretty long depending on how bad it is. But when I got to the doctor, he said ‘about six to eight weeks,’ so that kind of made me a little happier that I’d probably just miss the preseason and get back for region. But yeah, I was pretty scared at first. That’s the first thing I thought of when I was in really bad pain.”
The injury was bad enough the Providence native needed a plate and several screws inserted in his right leg. Fortunately for Cox, he recovered in a hurry. The son of Amber and Travis Cox was able to start practicing five weeks after his surgery and played his first game the following week.
Instead of being sidelined the entire season, No. 4 was able to play in 18 of Ridgeline’s 25 games.
“My surgeon and my doctor said it was one of the fastest recoveries he’s seen from a surgery like this,” Cox said. “He did a great job, Dr. (Greg) Cook did a great job with the surgery. Yeah, I’m just very grateful that it worked out the way that it did.”
Day was also a bit blown away by how quickly Cox recovered. What didn’t surprise the head coach was his junior’s insatiable desire to sharpen his skills even while he was injured.
“He was at practice every year soaking up the mental aspects of the game and then he was on the side shooting constantly,” Day said. “We kind of joked with him and said, ‘Hey, don’t screw up your form shooting with a boot on,’ but he wouldn’t stay away from it. And next thing we knew, I think it was six weeks to the day of his surgery, and he comes in with a big old grin on his face and he says, ‘I’m ready to go, I’ve been cleared, I can practice, I can play,’ and there was no looking back from there.
“But I was shocked and really amazed, and he came back at a time that helped us in some big ways because we had a real gauntlet of a schedule.”
Indeed, the Riverhawks played some quality opponents during the preseason, including eight 5A or 6A programs, plus 4A powers Desert Hills and Juan Diego. Ridgeline took its lumps without Cox in the lineup, but certainly peaked at the right time as it won 12 of its final 14 games.
Ridgeline advanced to the semifinals of the 4A State Championships, where it lost a 66-61 nailbiter to eventual champion Cedar. The Riverhawks came storming back from a double digit halftime deficit to knock off reigning state champion Dixie, the No. 2 seed, 62-60, in the quarterfinals.
Despite never being 100 percent healthy — Cox felt like he was at “85ish” percent at the end of the season — the junior managed to earn first-team all-state honors. Cox played some of his best basketball in Ridgeline’s biggest games and was selected as the 2020-21 Herald Journal All-Valley Player of the Year.
There were a handful of legitimate candidates for this award, but Cox’s well-rounded game, tenacity, leadership, ability to score points in bunches and knock down shots well behind the 3-point line ultimately gave him the edge.
“I think the No. 1 thing really is his competitive fire that’s there,” Day said when asked what makes Cox a special player. “He just cares so much about winning and that’s really the most important thing for him, and that competitiveness drives him to do things that maybe sometimes seem a little bit outside of what’s normal or what’s possible. That combined with a really high basketball IQ and a drive to be great, and I think you get those three things together with his natural touch and shooting ability that’s there, that’s been honed over the years, and you end up with the type of player that he is.”
The 17-year-old led the Riverhawks in scoring (16.3 points per game), 3-pointers (51) and steals (1.5 a game), and also chipped in with 2.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists an outing. No. 4 knocked down 45 percent of his field goal attempts, including 39 percent from 3-point land, and a whopping 92 percent of his free throws attempts.
Cox was a consistent scorer this past season as he finished in double figures in all but one game. He netted a season-high 27 points against Green Canyon, poured in 26 against Logan and Uintah, and tallied 21 in Ridgeline’s noteworthy 60-47 victory over a Bingham squad that went undefeated in its region and lost by one point in the quarterfinals of the 6A state tourney.
The 6-foot-0 guard also did an excellent job of taking what the defense gave him and being a team player. Case in point: Cox only attempted one first-half shot in the aforementioned game against Dixie, but spearheaded Ridgeline’s come-from-behind victory with 15 second-half points. Cox also scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half in a 70-61 triumph over Logan that clinched the Region 11 title outright for the Riverhawks.
“I just like to play the game the right way,” said Cox, who completed 70.6 percent of his passes for 2,756 yards and 30 touchdowns, vs. just interceptions, plus rushed for eight TDs last fall on the football field. “I just let the game come to me. I mean, I just try to do what’s best for the team. I don’t really care about my personal stats. I just like to win.”
With Cox and fellow all-state performer Peyton Knowles returning next season, the Riverhawks should be strong contenders for a third straight region title. Ridgeline shared it with Sky View during the 2019-20 campaign as Cox honored second-team all-state accolades as a sophomore.
The Riverhawks will also welcome back several key contributors from their football team, which beat eventual state runner-up Desert Hills and lost to the Bobcats by three points during the regular season.
Indeed, the future looks bright for Cox and the Riverhawks.
“We’re really hungry,” said Cox, who aspires to play basketball in college. “I mean, we should be at the top (of the pack) for both sports I think this upcoming year. We have a really good shot (at winning state titles). We just need to stay healthy, obviously, and just work hard, keep working every day.”
Day is certainly ecstatic to have Cox back for one more season and not just because he’s a stellar athlete.
“His competitiveness, it’s not just on the football field or the basketball court, it kind of carries over into other places,” Day said. “And he looks out for others in a way that’s really important. We’ve talked a lot in the past about the opportunity he’d have to led groups around him and not only on the court, but in the school. ... He’s stepped up to that challenge and really met that with no hesitance, and I couldn’t be more impressed by him.
“And I’m just excited and really thrilled to be able to be a part of his basketball career at the high school, but even more importantly be one of the people that gets to know him on a different level ... and be a part of his journey as he goes through what has been a pretty awesome career so far, and I think has a lot more to come.”
Jadin Penigar, Sr., Logan
Simply put, this senior was a huge reason why the Grizzlies made substantial strides during the 2020-21 campaign. Logan went 14-7 this past season, which was a far cry from its 8-16 record in 2019-20.
Penigar was a great scorer and teammate, and he was rewarded accordingly. Case in point: The 6-4 forward was named the Region 11 Player of the Year, plus was a second-team all-state selection. No. 33 ranked second among all local boys players in scoring (18.6 ppg), led the Grizzlies in rebounding (5.7 pg), and was also among the team leaders in assists (2.1 pg) and steals (1.2 pg).
Penigar scored in double figures in every game for the Grizzlies, including 20 or more points on 11 occasions, and shot 49 percent from the field — 35 percent from 3-point range. The senior, who can score at all three levels, went off for 25 points as Logan came storming back from a 18-point fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime against Snow Canyon in the playoffs.
“Jadin had a great senior season in all areas of his game,” former LHS head coach Logan Brown said. “He was our go-to guy. I’m so proud of what he has accomplished because he has worked so hard to get where he is. Jadin was always the first in the gym and the last to leave. All his teammates and coaches respected him. I have no doubt he will continue to grow and get better.”
Cole Harris, Sr., Preston
There’s no doubt Harris was an outstanding athlete — he was a first-team all-district performer in basketball and football, plus was a state medalist in the 400-meter dash — for Preston, but what set him apart from others was his non-stop work rate.
That persistence was a big reason why Harris was able to lead all Cache Valley boys players in rebounding, even though he is only 6-2. Harris was also a lock-down defender for Preston, which only gave up 43, 36 and 47 points in three state tournament games. The Indians also put the clamps on talented teams such as Logan (45 points), Century (43 and 44) and Pocatello (36).
Harris was also arguably the most versatile player in the valley as he competed at every position except for the five. No. 5 paced Preston in rebounding (7.9 per game) and assists (3.6 pg), and also contributed with 13.3 points and 1.3 steals an outing. Additionally, Harris was very crafty when it came to driving to the basket and scoring in the low post.
“He was definitely our motor and our heart and soul,” PHS head coach Tyler Jones said. “He can do a little bit of everything. ... He was our only returning starter, so his leadership and experience were huge. He was our team leader that way as well. But yeah, with him being 6-2, I think what made him special more than anything was just his motor, his energy. He just never stopped and (always) hustled, and he just gave you 110 percent all of the time. And that’s why he was such a good rebounder. He wasn’t the biggest kid, but just had a great nose for the ball and would fly around, and was just all guts and all toughness. And you love those guys as a coach.”
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR
Joseph Hunsaker, Fr., Mtn. Crest
It was a challenging season for Mountain Crest, which appeared to be much improved, but injuries to talented players like Tanner Bone and Caden Jones ultimately took its toll.
Nevertheless, the Mustangs were able to identify a star in the making in their freshman sharpshooter. Hunsaker averaged 8.3 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.5 steals a game, blocked a team-high 14 shots and performed beyond his years.
The 6-1 guard scored 10 or more points in nine games, including against quality opponents such as Preston (15) and Logan (13). No. 42 buried a team-best 45 3-points, plus finished with an impressive 45 percent shooting clip from beyond the arc.
“He’s been on a comp team of mine for four or five years and I knew he was going to be pretty good,” former MC head coach Kevin Anderson said. “You know, we kind of took it slow (with him) at first, but he just made enough plays in practice (where) ... he made it easy for us to make that choice to play him. And I remember I put him in at the end of the third quarter in our first game and he ends up with 13 points for the game in basically a quarter, and from that point on we just went with him. And he contributed in a huge way for us.”