MURRAY— Our next nominee for Athlete of the Year is Hunter Utley, the first dual nominee. He received a nod from both Keith Hodge, head coach of the Murray High Tigers football team, and Dior Curtis, head coach of the Murray High Tiger basketball team.
Utley is a three sport athlete, essentially playing sports for Murray High year-round between football, basketball and baseball. In the history of Murray High sports, Utley could potentially go down as one of the best to ever walk the hallways in terms of overall excellence as an athlete.
“There’s been some guys over the years that have been fantastic athletes for Murray High, and students, and been productive in society, and done so many great things,” Lodge said. “Tim Masthay stands out, Rick Fisher – who didn’t go to high school here but he’s a Murray High coach and was a Murray State athlete – and there’s a lot of people that have come through and have done so many great things at Murray High. Being a four-year starter in all three sports, though, that I don’t know … That’s a very rare thing. How often do you ever see that?
“Especially in football, you try not to start too many freshman, you try to let those guys groom and become athletes and understand the high school level, but (Utley) stepped right up and we couldn’t keep him off the field. He understands the game too much and competes too well to ever keep him off the field in all three sports.”
One might think that transitioning from one sport to the next is challenging, but Utley has been able to do it for three years now and at big impact positions. Quarterback of the football team, point/shooting guard for the basketball team, and shortstop/reliever for the baseball team, are some of the toughest positions to play at a high level but Utley is a competitor and that’s what pushes him to success in each sport.
“I like leading my team, I like the ball in my hands and being able to make a play. I like doing whatever I can to help my team win,” Utley said. “All of the games are similar in a competing standpoint. The things you do in football, like running and cutting, you do a lot of that in basketball. It’s a lot different in some ways, but in some ways it’s also the same.”
Coach Curtis and coach Hodge both talked about the type of competitor that Utley is and said it’s something that makes him so special.
“Hunter is not only a fierce competitor on the court but in the classroom as well,” Curtis said. “He takes his academics very seriously. Hunter is an all-tool guy, anything you can think of, he’s hard-working, he’s dedicated, and he’s always on time for everything. He’s a very coachable kid and he’s a great leader.”
“Number one is competitiveness, being competitive, no matter what sport you’re playing you’ve got to be competitive. You’ve got to stand out when it comes to competing, and he has definitely learned that,” Hodge said.
Last football season, Utley finished with 26 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 2454 yards, three rushing touchdowns, an 8-5 record and two playoff wins. On the basketball court, he led the team with 12 points per game, 41% from the 3-point line, and five rebounds per game.
So Utley has the excellence on the field box checked. In the classroom, he earned a 4.0 GPA this last year, and that’s no small task. Balancing sports and school takes dedication and some helpful reminders.
“My parents help me manage my time wisely,” Utley said. “When I get home from practice, since I’ve been a little kid, they’re asking me, ‘Have you got all of your work done?’ just to remind me, because being a kid you can get distracted with other things. So they’ve always helped keep my head on straight.”
That means we can check the excellence in the classroom box. All that’s left to be nominated for this award is leadership and Utley’s coaches had plenty to say about what they see in their three-year junior starter.
“Hunter has transitioned from a point guard position to an all-around scoring player for us,” Curtis said. “But in football, he’s the quarterback, and on the basketball court, he’s still kind of the quarterback, even though he’s not the point guard on the team. He knows where everybody is supposed to be. He’s a student of the game and I think that his leadership ability from leading the huddle to leading our team is one of the greatest characteristics of Hunter.”
“The overall goal of each sport should be about the same,” Hodge said. “You want to compete, you want to be a good teammate, you want to be a strong leader, and I think he’s able to do that. I think he’s able to take each sport and put it together and excel at all three.”
Coach Curtis also cited a specific example that shows how Hunter has grown from the time he was a freshman to now. Even the small details can prove leadership ability, and Utley has taken something he learned early on and changed because of it.
“Hunter is one that when he was younger, it was my first year being the head coach, so he got to learn the hard way about the way I want practice ran,” Curtis said. “We have a rule that you don’t shoot the ball after the whistle blows, so one time Hunter did that and I ran him and now Hunter makes sure when I blow the whistle and say, ‘Balls on the rack,’ he’s the first person to say, ‘Don’t shoot the ball.’ So he’s a great leader in that aspect. He wants to make sure everything is done like I, as a coach, want it to be done.”
With all the boxes checked, Utley earns a pair of nominations, and it was an easy choice for Hodge and Curtis.
“When it comes to what y’all are doing, he’s the guy,” Hodge said. “On the field, he’s a three-year starter, fixing to be a four-year starter for us, so obviously he’s got more experience than most players do at this time. He has developed into the go-to guy. He’s the guy that as coaches, we talk to him first coming off the field and what he sees and what he’s seeing the entire field.”
As for Utley’s free time – he simply loves sports. That’s his motivation and his main focus whether its in season or not.
“I like to go on the lake, but really just play sports,” Utley said. “If I’m not playing for the school, then I’m outside in my yard shooting basketball or throwing football with my dad or my friends. I love it all, it’s all fun to me, so whatever season it is, I’m spending all of my time with that sport.”
Whether Utley wins this award or not, his legacy is still going to be pretty solid, and that’s because of the time and dedication he puts in to his craft.
“He has worked hard at it. He wants to be a premier player,” Hodge said. “He wants to be the leader, and he’s definitely developed into that role. So this year is going to be really special for him and what he leaves behind. He’s created a legacy for himself and he’s worked really hard to get that for himself.”