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About Utah: Wasatch Academy boasts international flavor

Published: Friday, Feb. 4 2011 1:21 a.m. MST

Wasatch Academy's boys basketball team has players from all around the globe.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

MOUNT PLEASANT, Sanpete County When the Wasatch Academy basketball team takes the floor, you don't just need a program, you need a map.

Here's the starting lineup: the point guard is from Lithuania, the shooting guard is from Canada, the small forward is from Croatia, the power forward is from Bulgaria and the center is from France.

The first guys off the bench are from Madison, Wisconsin, and Mount Pleasant, Utah.

The rest of the players are from Taiwan, Mali, China, Illinois, California, New Hampshire and Ft. Duchesne, Utah.

Welcome to the United Nations of basketball. Every time first-year head coach Geno Morgan — who's from Chicago by way of Alaska — tells his guys to huddle up he's got two hemispheres, four continents and nine languages staring back at him.

"It's interesting," says Morgan. "But I'll tell you basketball is so universal that it just works out and I can't even really explain how it works out."

So far it's worked out to a No. 1 ranking for the Tigers in 1A, Utah's smallest classification. Among Wasatch Academy's triumphs is a win over Copper Hills, a 5A school. If all goes according to plan, the Tigers could end the year with the school's first-ever state basketball championship.

That would be beyond momentous, given that the boarding school has been around for 136 years.

The school was started in 1875 by a Presbyterian minister named Duncan McMillan, who declared, "Let it endure like the Wasatch Mountains; call it Wasatch Academy."

The Presbyterian church ran the school for its first 100 years, until 1975. It's been privately controlled ever since. It almost died 25 years ago, when enrollment dipped below 100 students, but the school, not to mention Duncan McMillan's quote, was rescued by concerned alumni and teacher-turned-headmaster Joe Loftin, who continues to lead the way.

"A lot of people in Utah aren't even aware we're here," says the good-natured Loftin, sitting in his office above a snow-covered quad surrounded by red-brick dormitories. If you didn't know better, you'd think you were at a boarding school in New England instead of smack in the middle of a central Utah Mormon farming town.

Current enrollment is 265 students — "Every bed is full," says Loftin — and they come from everywhere: 32 countries and 27 states. About 40 students are from Utah.

Tuition isn't cheap. It's $41,000 for a year, including room and board, although Loftin points out that many students are awarded scholarships and other financial aid.

Nowhere is the diversity better reflected than on the basketball team, where east meets west, and north meets south, at every practice.

No one on the team was recruited to play basketball. The school is traditionally stronger on smarts than it is sports. Just two years ago the boys team finished 3-15. But this is the year the basketball fates decided to smile on the school that has gone 136 years without a championship. Suddenly, Wasatch Academy looks like the Duke of small-school basketball.

Shooting guard Jarryn Skeete from Toronto, Canada, is the star, a legitimate Div. 1 college prospect. Senior point guard Fred Krajacic, from Zagreb, Croatia, could also attract a college scholarship. The sophomore center, Insa Kaba, a Sengalese from Paris, France, is 6-7 and improving with every game.

To give the team a Hoosiers touch, there's hometown kid Garrett Crosby, a deadly outside shooter and the team's valuable sixth man whose mom works at the school.

Besides Crosby and Chase Blackhair, a Ute Indian from Ft. Duchesne, none of the Tigers players look up during games and see their parents in the stands.

If it's true that the best place to coach is an orphanage, that means coach Morgan has found the next best thing. The players' parents care — no one could argue that when tuition is $41K — but they're not here. It's a long way from Mali.

"It's really a perfect job," says Morgan, a former college player who won a state championship coaching high school ball in Alaska before working as an assistant coach at Emory College in Atlanta. "This school is a hidden gem, one of the top boarding schools in America, we get kids who want to come to America for a really good education and prepare for college, and . . .

And?

". . . no parents who think their kids might be more talented than they really are constantly looking over your shoulder."

That's more than enough to negate the language barrier.

Besides, the coach has found a language everyone understands.

"When I yell," he says, "everybody listens. When my voice goes from a 2 to a 10, they know something's not right and we need to start picking it up. It doesn't matter what language you use. They get the message."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. e-mail: benson@desnews.com.

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