Like many teams, last season ended with a big unknown for Dixie State.
The third-seeded Trailblazers were slated for a first round Division II NCAA Tournament matchup with sixth-seeded Colorado School of Mines before the coronavirus pandemic scrapped the event. It extinguished a season that had seen 23 wins and a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference regular season title in DSU’s second full season in the league.
“It was really weird to end the season like that. For us not having that closure, that kind of irritated everybody. There’s like a, ‘well, what if?’” said Trailblazers rising senior guard Dason Youngblood. “We had made the tournament, what could we have done? We could’ve made the Final Four, the championship...there are so many unknowns.”
Unlike many other teams, though, the Trailblazers go from one big unknown to another — in addition to the general uncertainty in college sports at the moment.
DSU is one of four Division II programs making the jump to Division I for the 2020-21 season, whenever that may take place. On July 1, the school located in St. George, Utah with an enrollment of around 11,000 joined the WAC, making official a move that befits an ambitious athletics program.
Just 14 years ago, the Trailblazers were an NCJAA program at a university that had just begun offering four-year degrees six years before that. DSU transitioned to the NCAA and Division II in 2006, joining the PacWest conference, where it would win six regular season titles and make eight NCAA Tournament appearances. The Trailblazers then made a brief, two-season stopover in the RMAC — grabbing that regular season title last year — before the upcoming move up the ladder.
Dr. Jason Boothe, DSU’s athletic director, spoke to the St. George News about the big dreams driving the move.
“It’s huge, just for more of a national presence and to get the university out there on the national stage,” Boothe said. “I don’t know that we’ll really be able to know the true impact until we get into it. Down the road a few years when we’re playing in NCAA tournaments and seeing that full exposure, we’ll really see the full impact. We know it’s going to be positive, and it’s going to have a big impact on the university and the town.”
Like many bright-eyed teams making the Division I jump, the Trailblazers hope their rapid rise in college athletics leads to that moment on the grandest stage for mens basketball. But the harsh reality is that veteran players leading that charge into Division I, like Youngblood, won’t be around for that potential magic because of the four-year transition period that wipes out NCAA Tournament eligibility.
That doesn’t make those players any less important.
Youngblood first heard the Division I rumors when he was being recruited by DSU in 2017 as a freshman at Skagit Valley Community College. He said he didn’t really think anything of it as he signed with the Trailblazers, a move which brought the South Jordan, Utah native closer to home, and placed him in a program that his brother Daylor had played for for three seasons.
DSU announced the move in early 2019, as Youngblood came off the bench for a team that went 18-9 (16-6) and finished second in its first season in the RMAC. With the curtain set to close on the Trailblazers’ brief stint in Division II, Youngblood flourished into a starter and all-league honorable mention pick last season on a team that tied its most wins (23) in its NCAA era. He’s now in the unique position of playing out his career without NCAA Tournament eligibility, while nonetheless remaining essential to laying the foundation to reach the heights the program is dreaming about.
That isn’t lost on him as he embraces his role as a leader.
“My mindset is kind of being there just to teach guys little things, to get them comfortable as fast as possible with our coaching staff since we have a lot new guys,” Youngblood said. “I want them to be focused and take it one day at a time, because we’re still playing basketball. That’s what I’m going to reiterate: we’re going Division I but we’re still playing basketball. We’ve all played against Division 1 players, we’ve all played AAU, we’ve all competed against high level players. It’s just playing another game of basketball.”
It’s been just basketball for several teams in DSU’s position over the past few years.
The Division I debutant holding its own right away has become a bit of a theme. Last season, Merrimack wasted no time planting its flag in the NEC, becoming the first program to win a regular season championship in its first Division I season. The Warriors announced themselves right away, knocking off Northwestern on the road in November behind a huge performance from senior guard Juvaris Hayes (19 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists). Led by Hayes, the Warriors then rolled off a 14-4 conference season to capture that inaugural title.
The former Division II All-American racked up the accolades in his lone Division I season, landing on the NEC’s all-league team and taking home the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. Hayes and fellow seniors Jaleel Lord and Idris Joyner, all of whom played at New Jersey’s legendary Saint Anthony’s, engineered that breakthrough despite being picked last in the NEC’s preseason poll.
“It means a lot knowing that we were picked last,” said Hayes. “We didn’t really talk much, we just kind of let our game prove everyone wrong.”
And while the NCAA Tournament wasn’t on the table, the trio helped put hardware and a ferocious defensive pedigree in Warriors’ coach Joe Gallo’s back pocket that he can use on the recruiting trail.
But the Trailblazers don’t need to look across the country to find that sort of example. In their own backyard, a familiar foe has already built its own brand of winning basketball immediately at the Division I level. California Baptist, which joined the WAC for the 2018-19 season, finished second in the WAC last season (10-6) and won over 21 games overall. That followed a solid 16-15 (7-9) debut season that was fueled by an explosive offense led in part by senior Jordan Heading, who had been a star for the Lancers in Division II and carried that over up a level.
The Lancers are a program that DSU knows well from its PacWest days, having won 10 of the teams’ 16 all-time meetings. Their last was a 68-65 Trailblazers’ overtime win in Jan. 2018, just as DSU was off to its short stay in the RMAC and the Lancers were wrapping up their final Division II season. That game saw over 4,000 fans pack into Burns Arena, a 4,779-seat facility that won’t be out of place in the WAC.
That fan support may itself be a boon to the conference, and a sign that DSU has the bones to compete in Division I. The Trailblazers had the second-best average attendance (2,325 per game) in all of Division II in 2019, injecting life into a conference whose average attendance hovered around that same number (2,841 per game), but was buoyed by New Mexico State’s massive Pan-Am Center and Grand Canyon’s sellout factory.
On the sidelines, the transition is overseen by longtime coach Jon Judkins. The 15-year DSU coach was on campus for the transition to Division II in 2006, and did nothing but build a consistent winner over the next 14 seasons. The Trailblazers made nine NCAA Tournaments and won seven conference titles over that span.
Despite a lot of new faces, Youngblood thinks people will see a clear identity as DSU settles into its new home.
“They’ll see a lot of physicality. We usually play inside out, and try to get as much high percentage shots as possible and take open shots, and I think with our team we share the ball extremely well,” he said. “I think they’ll see just that, a lot of sharing that ball, a lot of inside out, a lot of unselfish play.”
The then-junior was at the heart of DSU’s fluid offense last year, averaging 10.1 points and 3.4 assists per game for a team that finished 15th overall in Division II in assists per game. The loss guard Jack Pagenkopf will sting, as the senior had a brilliant season (15.1 PPG, 6.0 APG, 6.0 RPG) that landed him the RMAC Offensive Player of the Year award.
Judkins has bolstered the team alongside Youngblood and fellow rising senior Hayden Schofield with a bevy of recruits. The class runs the spectrum from standout Salt Lake City prep wing Andrew Mulibea, to JuCo guard Cameron Gooden to Division II transfer guard Isaiah Pope (Humboldt State).
However the rotation is pieced together, that initial team will look not only to make its mark in the WAC, but also Utah’s jam-packed Division I basketball scene. The Trailblazers are the latest to a party that includes surging mid-major programs in Utah State and BYU, a traditional mid-major threat in Weber State and a now-conference rival — and former JuCo rival — in Utah Valley. The program also recently announced a three-game series with nearby Southern Utah.
It’s an energy Youngblood — a Salt Lake City area native — is excited to tap into.
“I love the basketball scene in Utah. It’s a different energy, a lot of those players I played against growing up, it’ll be fun to play against them and I think those rivalries will be great for the state of Utah, Dixie State and the community as well,” he said.
DSU also brings a unique history to that scene, one that will be firmly in the spotlight for other reasons. The university is named after the region of Southern Utah where it is located (“Dixie”), stemming in part from the region’s early cotton growing industry. However, the name’s either ancillary or overt ties to the Confederacy — which is debated by historians — is facing renewed scrutiny in the wake of the national conversation on race. In any case, university leaders are reportedly in the “early stages” of exploring a potential name change. The school did change its mascot from the Rebels in 2007.
Whatever direction that conversation leads or whenever the 2020-21 season is actually played, it’ll be a big moment for Youngblood as he tries to help make the Trailblazers the latest team to make an instant impression in their new home. Laying that foundation is an opportunity he relishes.
“It’s pretty special being the first class,” he said. “I’ll always have that on my resume: I was the first class to go through here, first senior class to play Division I and set that mentality for the rest of the student athletes here.”