Thunder Ridge High School
Conference: 5A District 5-6 Conference
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Head Coach: Jeff Marshall
Years as Head Coach: 1st Season
Previous Experience: 5 Years as Hillcrest Head Coach
Record Last Year: New School
State Titles: None
Incoming impact players:
Dalton Cook, QB, 12
Trey Howell, WR, 12
Ares VanKirk, DL, 12
Connor Belnap, RB/LB, 11
Kayden Toldson, WR, 11
Connor Isom, LB, 11
Kaysen Isom, RB, 10
Written By: Matt Harris
It’s not very often in eastern Idaho that a new school is built and new sports programs are started. In fact, the last time it happened to a public school was the fall of 1999 when Century High School opened in Pocatello. In the Idaho Falls area, Hillcrest’s opening in 1992 marked the last time a new public school opened.
In those 26 years since Hillcrest came into existence, a lot has changed in the area. What once was a rural area has rapidly developed into a continually-growing suburb that has no plans on slowing down anytime soon. One thing that hasn’t changed has been the passion for high school sports.
The passion for anything and everything related to the new Thunder Ridge High School has been at a feverish level. And that passion will only continue to grow once the “Titans” begin play in various fall sports.
On the football field, Thunder Ridge turns to Jeff Marshall to build their program from the ground up. Marshall, who previously served as head coach at Hillcrest for five seasons, comes to the Titans looking to establish a solid culture that will benefit the program for years to come.
“The opportunity to start a new program and implement some new ideas as it pertains to leadership and team building was alluring to me,” Marshall said when asked why he chose to take the head coaching position at Thunder Ridge.
In essence, he is basically starting from scratch. The players that will form the first ever Thunder Ridge Titans team previously attended rival high schools, Bonneville and Hillcrest. However, Marshall says that his team hasn’t had any problems when it comes to developing friendships and forging bonds between teammates.
“It’s been great seeing the camaraderie develop between the players. We taught several classes on leadership – “Earning Influence With One’s Peers” was a big part of those lessons,” he said. “That combined with the hard work that they shared during summer workouts has been instrumental in building a team atmosphere.”
Aiding in the building of the program will be a coaching staff with plenty of experience, including a few coaches who played in the college ranks and spent time on NFL rosters. Having that support system in place for a crucial first season is a major help for Marshall, who said that there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes to try and get the program off the ground.
“Starting a program is quite a process,” he said. “Ordering all of the equipment and supplies you need and finding resources to obtain the things you would like to have to start a season is the first hurdle to overcome. Then finding and recruiting a knowledgeable coaching staff that shares your vision and finding coaches that work well with kids would be the second hurdle to negotiate. A third hurdle is finding a place to train in the summer when your school facility it not ready to roll could be considered a difficulty. All in all though, it’s pretty exciting and challenging.”
Thunder Ridge’s first ever official fall practice didn’t even happen on their school grounds. The Titans traveled northward to Iona Elementary to hold practice on the morning of August 6th. As the final touches are put on the school and the surrounding fields, Thunder Ridge will finally begin to feel more at home.
The Titans have 14 combined juniors and seniors on their inaugural roster that will have an impact in 2018. Among them, senior quarterback Dalton Cook will lead the way in Marshall’s spread offense with fellow senior Trey Howell being a target for Cook from the wide receiver position. Sophomore running back Kaysen Isom and junior running back Connor Belnap will see plenty of action on the field while junior wide receiver Kayden Toldson will work with Howell to create a 1-2 punch in the passing attack.
“We have several receivers with good ball skills,” said Marshall. “Our understanding of the blocking schemes and passing concepts will improve as we get more reps and more coaching. That will be key for us.”
He added that the work they put in over the summer break was critical to getting off on the right foot.
“Our summer camps were very important in getting our base offense and defense installed. We now need a lot of work with the minutia.”
Defensively, Marshall anticipates the defense to improve greatly over the course of the season.
“We only have one player with varsity experience on the defensive side,” he said, noting that they plan to play a base 3-4 defense. “I believe that we will have exponential improvement in all phases of our defense.”
The lone senior on the defense is lineman Ares VanKirk, who will be looked upon to lead a very young core of linemen to tackle a big task defensively. Marshall added he expects junior linebackers Connor Isom and Connor Belnap to have an impact. Certainly, the newness of the program will allow for different lineup combinations and experiments with players at different positions which could build depth on the squad, which has a host of sophomores on the roster.
Marshall said that the development of those sophomores over the course of the season will be their biggest factor in their success as a team.
“The leadership of our juniors and seniors towards our underclassmen will be paramount,” he said. “But we all are very excited about our team’s attitude in starting a new program.”
Spirits are high at Thunder Ridge in this year full of first-time milestones. And they will have the opportunity to see the fruits of their labors on Aug. 24 when they play in their first ever football contest as a school when they travel to Bonneville. The next week, they officially open Thunder Ridge Stadium in a non-conference contest against two-time defending 4A state champion Skyline.
The September slate of games begins with a Week 3 matchup on the road in Blackfoot, followed by another away contest against Idaho Falls on Sept. 14. Thunder Ridge will then host Kuna of the 4A Southern Idaho Conference on Sept. 21 before opening conference play against the defending 5A state champion Highland Rams on Sept. 28.
Thunder Ridge continues conference play to open up October when they travel to Madison and Rigby in consecutive weeks. The Titans then finish the regular season slate on Oct. 19 at home against Hillcrest.
When asked which non-conference games stood out to him the most, Marshall provided three different perspectives.
“For some of the kids, the early game with Bonneville will stand out. For other kids, the late game with Hillcrest will stand out. For me, all of the games stand out.”
Every game is an opportunity to build the Titans program, brick by brick. As a new program, some people may not expect much out of them: the players and coaches have heard it. But they’re not letting what other people say about them determine the things they can or can’t accomplish in year one.