Cottonwood’s football team ends season winning one for the seniorsJan 05, 2024 01:10PM ● By Brian Shaw
The Cottonwood High football team under first-year coach Donovan Malmrose. (Photo courtesy Donovan Malmrose)
It had been a tough season. Nine games, eight of those losses. According to new Cottonwood head coach Donovan Malmrose, none of that mattered in the minds of his players.
“They were focused, excited; they didn’t care it was raining,” said Malmrose of the mood before the home finale versus Murray. “They just wanted to end the regular season playing hard for each other and win that game for the seniors.”
So, they did that Oct. 12, 2023 on Senior Night, galloping to a 17-0 first quarter lead and a 32-16 win.
The Colts won the previous Friday against their other rivals—at Hillcrest. In that game Oct. 5, 2023, Cottonwood trampled their crosstown foes, 37-7.
For whatever reason the scheduling gods had for not including Cottonwood [2-8] in this year’s 4A state playoffs after ending the season with a two-game win streak, it was hard not to be a tad bitter about it.
“Regardless of what our final record said, this was a special group, with the little experience we had they were able to find a way, and I wish we had a few more games because they were starting to gel, learn, and put things together,” said Malmrose, who refused to be more spiteful.
In his first year as Cottonwood’s head coach, Malmrose had good reason to be more spirited in his reply; his kids finished the season on a two-game win streak.
Malmrose added that the Colts were close earlier in the season to flipping a switch at Tooele [they came back from 21 points down, cut it to six and lost 52-27]. And at Jordan, a 55-35 loss required the other team’s best receiver to set a state record with six TDs to win it.
The program Malmrose agreed to take over last spring was on the verge of dying as an independent last year. He was there as well, an assistant on a team that once dressed 26 players for a varsity game. In a sport that has an ambulance parked in the entryway closest to the stadium just in case, there is a very real possibility that one of these players could end up strapped down inside one.
Yet Malmrose gladly accepted the position when it was offered. Himself a Cottonwood alum and ex-wide receiver, Cottonwood’s new head coach immediately reached out to fellow Colts alumni and players near and far, NFL/college playing experience or not.
Dozens came calling, including John Martinez, who starred at CHS and USC and played in the pros. AJ Jones was another CHS alum/ex-college player who was a successful entrepreneur who took time off to spend several hours a day as a hall monitor convincing kids to try Cottonwood football on for size.
And so this once-proud program came roaring back this year from 70 players down to stage a comeback not just in guys on the roster of this team in a reimagined Utah’s Class 4A—but in high school football, period.
But the new coach said he wasn’t angry at those state playoff scheduling gods. All Malmrose wanted to do was talk about his coaches—too many to shine a spotlight on here but all just as important as the next: Donnie Beck and Alec Febo worked with the bigs and on strength and conditioning; Sione Finefeuiaki came over from Bingham, offering his expertise on both lines. And Hunter Workman (CHS class of ’19, Alabama) worked on many parts—as did alums/coaches Kyle Delaney (CHS ’97), Kobe Grover (’19), John Durkin, Chris Chidester (’06), and Bret McCormick (’05).
“We’re blessed to have these awesome coaches giving their time and energy for our kids,” said Malmrose. “This last group of coaches makes that difference in our program.”
A look at seven key players
According to Malmrose, there were seven guys this past season who epitomized what he and his staff were trying to build.
One stood out despite having limitations that others might have found. Asher Danner was only 5-foot-8 and 202 pounds soaking wet. In Malmrose’s eyes, however, Danner was one of Cottonwood’s player-leaders. It was a philosophy that Malmrose picked up from former Colts coaches Casey Miller and Bart Bowen: finding non-traditional kids who possess smarts on and off the field.
“Asher Danner was an undersized offensive lineman for us. He’s not the strongest, fastest, quickest, but he knows our blocking scheme inside and out,” said Malmrose of Danner, a member of Cottonwood’s prestigious Academy of Math, Engineering and Science, or AMES. “He’s always helping the other linemen with their responsibilities and understands how to use angles to his advantage. Always grades out as one of the top offensive linemen week in and week out. Excellent grades and just an awesome teammate.”
And then there’s Ryan Nielson, he who went viral thanks to the fair catch-free kick he made last year, upsetting Jordan in Cottonwood’s last year as an independent. This year, the senior showed he can do other things—like play wide receiver. Nielson played the position so well that he had 19 catches for 297 yards receiving and three TDs. And Nielson still fulfilled his kicking duties.
Another senior leader: Cooper Post. The player with arguably the most football-like name on the roster had 21 tackles for the Colts to go with one interception was all-in. “Cooper even chose to stay home from a family vacation to stay and work with his brothers,” said Malmrose.
Finally, there was Gabriel Bricio, who was the only junior of the seven the team appointed as leaders. Like Danner, Bricio was undersized at 5-foot-9-inches along the offensive line.
Malmrose is turning the program around so far with this formula, which produced results by the numbers, too: three rushers had 350 or more yards, two QBs threw for 500-plus yards and three TD and four receivers ended the 2023 season with at least one TD and 150 or more yards.
And that was just on offense.
On defense, 12 Colts finished the season with 18 or more tackles. Nine guys had at least one QB sack. Add that six players had one or more interceptions, and you’ve got something special in the mix, according to Cottonwood Athletic Director Greg Southwick.
“He’s got something going,” said Southwick of his new head coach. “He’s got support in the community and he’s really leaned heavy into what this program used to be when it was winning region championships.”
To turn around any program, you usually have to start on the defensive side of the football.
But, coach Malmrose had a nice head start in 2023; he already had the guy to lead the Colts as they charged into Class 4A.
“Dominic Chidester has been our guy and leader on that side of the ball. He has a great work ethic and bring us a lot speed to our secondary,” said the coach of his senior co-captain who had 41 tackles, three interceptions and one return for a score. “Per game he was one of our leading tacklers, most interceptions, and pass break-ups on the season. He’s the player we rely on to always play to his assignment.”
Chidester (pronounced KI-Duh-Ster) is not new to Cottonwood; he also led the Colts in tackles (89 total) last year for the team in its last year as an independent. In fact, Chidester was among the top tacklers across all classifications in that category.
Normally, that’s not a good omen for any player in the secondary. It means the other team’s offense has surged past your front seven and into the clear.
But Chidester’s spent twice as many snaps at one position: free safety. In Cottonwood’s defense this year due to a much larger roster, the senior still leads the Colts in several categories regardless, said Malmrose.
That assignment usually includes slowing down the other team’s best player. But Chidester has been closing on tacklers faster than he was before. It’s a part of his play that the first-year coach attributes to how other coaches on Cottonwood’s staff have molded him—a position Malmrose called “field safety” in which the senior will “make tackles” and “break on routes” opposing receivers are running.
Xavier Yazzie was a senior two-year starter for Cottonwood [2-8] who played on both sides of the line. This season, Yazzie racked up 15 tackles and had one sack. He doubled his output from the first two years he played. “His presence in the weight room, practice, lunch room…does not matter where he was but you could never miss him. He was always pushing himself to the limits,” said Malmrose. “He loved and accepted everyone and was a true leader for us in the trenches.”
Finally, Damien Stonehocker is another holdover from the days when Cottonwood was fighting for football legitimacy as an independent. Stonehocker spent his previous three years at The Wood playing both sides of the ball; this year, he was able to play exclusively on defense.
To put it mildly, Stonehocker shined. The senior had a team-high 65 tackles and three sacks.
“Damien is one of my favorite kids, ever. He has so much stacked against him in his life, but he wanted to be a football player and did everything he could to learn everything we ever taught him,” said former Cottonwood head coach Casey Miller, who added that Stonehocker has enlisted his help in finding a college. “He was a tackling machine for four years. Led the team in tackles on varsity for at least two years, and I know he was the leading tackler on the sophomore team before that.”
For Malmrose, his final wish for his guys was one that was both simple and selfless: that this newspaper had more room.
“Love these kids,” he said, “and wish we could talk about everyone!” λ