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Cottonwood Heights Journal

The sports accomplishments of Brighton High featured in new Hall of Champions

Jan 03, 2022 02:20PM ● By Jerry Christensen

Some of the 120 state championships on display. (Jerry Christensen/City Journals)

The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, suggested that “life is lived forward but understood backwards.” As Brighton High School rounded the corner of turning 50 years old and as the building itself is rebuilt, a glance backwards reveals some stunning insights.

Lynn Moncur, Brighton’s athletic director, has been a part of the Brighton community for 37 years. He took it upon himself to document the athletic excellence that he saw Brighton achieve year after year.  

“I will always remember the girls and boys state basketball championships and the many great athletes that have come through in all sports, but the story of the Brighton tradition of excellence on the court, on the mats, in the pool and on the fields had never been truly told,” Moncur said. 

As the old Brighton was demolished, Moncur gathered up the scattered state championship trophies. Many were in various degrees of disrepair. His became the mission of not just saving that history of Brighton athletics, but of giving it a home. He created the Hall of Champions, a museum-quality collection of all of Brighton’s athletic accomplishments.  

What was discovered during this curation process was a stunning fact—in Brighton’s 50 years of existence, 120 state championship and 80 second-place trophies were garnered. This is a feat unmatched by any other school in the state of Utah. “Schools with over 100 years of history will typically have 60 to 80 state championships to their names,” said principal Tom Sherwood. The historic discovery begs the question, why is Brighton such a perennial athletic powerhouse? 

Brighton’s former long-time principal and ardent athletic advocate Robert Sproul suggests, “In my opinion the athletic success of Brighton High School is linked to the quality of the academic programs associated with the school over the past 50 years. Families want good, positive and challenging academic programs that will give them an opportunity to be successful throughout their lives. It starts with academics. The co-curricular programs grow out of the challenge of the academic program.”

One means of understanding this 120-championship feat is to view history through the prism of Brighton’s various sports dynasties.

The Gymnastics Dynasty

When Brighton opened in 1969, although there was no sanctioned gymnastics competition, many of the Brighton girls had attended Butler Jr. High where a gymnastic team had competed since 1965. A nucleus team was formed and they worked to compete while the coaches worked to obtain sanctioning. 

Enid Enniss, a woman dedicated to the cause of allowing girls to compete in school athletics on the same level as the boys, was hired at Brighton. Coach Enniss was key in bringing girls competitive sports to Utah. Enniss notes, “The UHSAA’s (Utah High School Athletic Association) Statement of Belief stated, ‘We are unalterably opposed to competition by and between girls.’” 

It was an uphill for the cause of giving girls the same discipline and self-confidence that high school sports builds in boys. “I wanted girls to learn life skills such as confidence, determination, sportsmanship and the idea that they could do anything they wanted if they were willing to work hard enough to achieve it,” Enniss said. She fought the political battle with gymnastics. “We started with the physically demanding sport of gymnastics for girls because it was thought at the time that the girls had enough activity as cheerleaders, pep club members, or being involved in drama, music and home economics.” 

In the first 10 years that Brighton was open the gymnastics teams won 10 region championships, four state championships, and finished second five times, once losing by .01 point. To give an example of their dominance, in 1975 a tri-meet resulted in the scores of Bountiful 15, Bonneville 37, Brighton 256. Many times Brighton was the only school represented on the winning podium for several events.

Thanks to Enniss’ pioneering efforts, Brighton gained early notoriety as an athletic powerhouse, but more importantly she was a morning star in the sunrise of girls sports. “Luckily, the girls of today can and do play any sport they choose, at whatever level they are capable of. Looking back over 50 years, we’ve come a long way. It is very gratifying to see women head coaches, reporters, referees and other officials, positions my generation could only dream about. The gymnasts of the 2020 (2021) Olympics were performing skills that were not considered possible of performing in the ’70s. I’m very proud of what we accomplished, and cheer every time a new sport is added to the competitive schedule,” Enniss said.

The Wrestling Dynasty

Similarly, in 1969 Brighton administration hired a young visionary as its new head wrestling coach, Don Neff. As with many new schools, when Brighton High opened it was not very good in sports. Brighton won only one football game and was mediocre in basketball, winning three varsity games. However, in wrestling it did very well for a new school winning the region championship and placing fifth as a team at state. 

Coach Neff recalls that “attendance at wrestling meets was promoted by establishing a ‘Roto Rooters’ fan club and by originating the Battle of the Axe versus Hillcrest High. Brighton won the first Battle of the Axe and the gym was packed for the event.” 

The Battle of the Axe became the signature event of the year for Brighton and jumpstarted the success for Brighton as a wrestling juggernaut in Utah. In the two decades to follow, Brighton wrestling simply dominated, winning 14 state championships and four second places, including 11 titles in a row—still a record for any Utah high school.

Don Chavis, the founder of Brighton’s American Problems course and a Huntsman Excellence in Education award winner, was added to the wrestling coaching staff. Chavis said, “Brighton wrestling success could be attributed to a vision of what could be accomplished. This vision was shared by wrestlers and coaches who strived to accomplish excellence. They knew that they had to do more than just show up at practice. Many wrestlers at a young age committed themselves to going to wrestling camps, participating in off-season tournaments, and committing themselves to freestyle wrestling. Parents and coaches made this possible by taking these young athletes to many competitions and wrestling camps. This resulted in a dynasty. The wrestlers felt they could not be beaten.”

Brighton student-athletes were forever changed by the discipline and rigor of such a demanding sport. Cottonwood Heights City Councilman and early Brighton wrestler Doug Petersen recalls “being part of Brighton’s first ever championship in 1974 and then repeating in 1975 was not only memorable, but also life shaping.” Such early successes became the springboard to achievements in later life.  

Judd Mackintosh, a longtime Cottonwood Heights resident and 1974 state champion, said, “We were taught never to quit. Not losing was more of a motivation than winning. Perseverance became part of our life skill inventory.” 

Brayden Stevens, a young freshman in 2014 recalls, “I remember walking in the storied Brighton wrestling room and the first thing I did, was go look at all the names of state champion wrestlers. It was at that moment I set a goal for myself that one day my name would be up there alongside some of the greats.” Stevens contributed to the legacy by becoming a two-time state wrestling champion for Brighton.

The Swimming Dynasty

Swimming and Brighton became synonymous after the first decade of the school’s history. Though it had no swimming program nor a pool, the school hired a young swimming standout from Kearns High School who would go on over the next 26 years to become Brighton’s most decorated coach in any sport—Russ Lauber. In a school of outstanding athletes and coaches, coach Lauber was outstanding. “Running a coed program out of the Cottonwood Heights Spa, I built on the community youth program, and by 1980, we were a juggernaut,” Lauber said. “Brighton was no longer known as just a wrestling dynasty, they were now also a state and national swimming force amassing 20 Utah state girls championships in a row (a national record at the time) and 16 of 20 for the boys.”

Lauber’s unmatched results were recognized by the National Federation of High School Sports Coaches. In 2000, they named Lauber coach of the year. This honor is significant because, at the time, there were 65,000 coaches nationwide. 

Ted Paulsen, a 1970’s swimmer under Lauber and currently a lawyer in Draper, said, “Most students didn’t see five in the morning at Brighton unless they were swimmers. Commitment, dedication, and hard work are principles that come to mind when I think of my swimming experience at Brighton. My life was forever shaped by these principles learned by swimming for coach Lauber. My swimming experience provided a baseline of learning that carried me through my collegiate swimming career, my college and graduate education and my profession life.”

Todd Etherington, another beneficiary of Lauber’s Midas touch, took over Brighton’s high-profile swimming program in 2001 and has extended the dynasty to 47 state titles—24 for girls swimming and 23 for boys swimming. 

The Tennis Dynasty

Brighton High’s tennis program has been one of the strongest in Utah for decades. Over Brighton’s 50 years, the Bengals have captured 29 team state championships in girls and boys tennis. Brighton’s first state trophy in girls sports was claimed by the tennis team in 1976. Both the girls and boys teams have had seven-year winning streaks.

 Coach Natalie Meyer, who played for Brighton as a student, deserves a lot of the credit, though she’ll tell you it’s not about winning. “If they can walk off the court and tell me they’ve given 100%, I really don’t care if they’ve won or lost,” she said in a video produced in 2019 to celebrate Brighton’s feat of capturing its 120th team state championship title.

Kristen Stewart played on Brighton’s tennis teams in the halcyon 1980’s era. “While I can’t speak for the students who have benefitted from the program over the years, we know that sports open doors for students. There have been countless athletes whose achievements in sports have paved the way to postsecondary learning and career opportunities that might not otherwise have been open to them,” Stewart said. 

The Soccer Dynasty

Soccer became a UHSAA-sanctioned sport relatively later in Brighton’s history. However, Brighton athletes took to the sport like a duck to water. Brighton produced some of Utah’s most outstanding boys and girls soccer athletes netting 13 state titles and an equal number of heart-wrenching second-place finishes. Legendary boys soccer coach, Russ Boyer, said, “It has been a privilege for me to have been associated with Brighton soccer over the years. Brighton soccer has always stood for excellence and has upheld the highest standards of character and teamwork. It was my pleasure to be involved with so many amazing young men over the years. They were exemplary student-athletes whose many accomplishments on the field were complemented by meaningful contributions in their school and community.” 

Future dynasties

Lacrosse, a newly sanctioned UHSAA sport, is well on its way to add to the tradition of excellence at Brighton. Both the girls and boys lacrosse programs have been successful from the start having won several state titles as a club sport. “Thanks to dozens of dedicated parents and passionate players, Brighton lacrosse quickly made a name for itself. In 2021, in the first (real) year as a sanctioned sport, girls lacrosse went 16-2. We also sent three of our six seniors to play in college,” said Brighton’s girls lacrosse head coach Melissa Nash. “The foundation is strong and we’re excited to continue building the Bengal legacy.”

Philosopher Kierkegaard proves to be prescient. Looking into the past brings understanding and a level of insight that Brighton might have missed in the frenzy of the moment. Penny Petersen has been at the school for 49 years and has witnessed each of those 120 titles. “There were years in the 1980s when we were bringing home eight or nine titles every year. We literally had no space to display all the trophies we were bringing to the circled halls of Brighton.” 

Moncur’s monumental effort of sorting this exceptional athletic heritage and displaying it in the Hall of Champions is laudable. It is also much appreciated by the students who are remembered and memorialized in the permanent display. Joy Christensen, a 1970’s gymnast remarked upon seeing her name engraved on the 1976 state champion trophy now on display in the hall. “I was near emotional to realize that something I was a part of 45 years ago is significant and still remembered,” Christensen said.  

Bryan Kehl, a linebacker drafted by the New York Giants in 2008, offered his response to the Hall of Champions. “I grew up going to Brighton athletics and dreamed of being able to perform on the big stage for the Bengals,” he said. “Being able to compete was a blessing and I look back on those times very fondly. Now, it is a great honor to be remembered all these years later.”