It's been a long road for Utah Valley to the top of the WAC standings

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 29 2014 6:40 p.m. MST

“Here we’ve obviously learned we’re going to get on a plane and fly,’’ Hunsaker said. “Whether you go an hour on a plane, or two and a half hours on a plane or four hours on a plane, it’s not a big deal. We have played through that and we feel like the proximity of the new WAC is very tight-knit compared to the Great West.’’

The WAC, which is nothing like its original days with BYU and Utah, includes nine schools in nine different states. For Hunsaker, "tight-knit" means being able to travel to Moscow, Idaho, or Bakersfield, Calif., or Las Cruces, N.M., instead of Newark, N.J., or Grand Forks, N.D.

In the early days of their Division I transition period, the Wolverines had to find games wherever they could. It could mean playing back-to-back games against Indiana-Northwest or going to North Carolina to play Warren Wilson College or to Bethany College in California.

The latter was a game Hunsaker has never forgotten.

“The walls were about six inches from the baseline and I remember telling my team, ‘don’t go for loose balls.’ You almost had to turn sideways to throw the ball inbounds. But it was someone we had to play back then.’’

Another time, Hunsaker was playing a game in the Midwest and had to pay the officials. No, it’s not what you think.

“It was after we got home and I had to pay for the refs,’’ he said. “The school we played sent me a letter and I had to personally pay the athletic director so he could pay the refs.’’

Hunsaker credits his own former athletic director Mike Jacobsen for his commitment to the basketball program through its growing years.

“He made sure that we were treated right,’’ he said. “We’ve always traveled well.’’

Orem, Utah, isn’t exactly a place where top high school players are dying to play.

Hunsaker understands there’s a pecking order when it comes to recruiting and that his school probably ranks sixth among the six Division I schools in Utah. But thanks to his 37 years in the coaching business, Hunsaker has contacts all over the country and keeps a sharp eye out in his recruiting.

“We get players from wherever we have contacts — New York, Philadelphia, Florida, New Orleans, Georgia, everywhere,’’ he says. “We try to get kids that are the right fit. We look for kids that are hungry and developing. You have to keep digging and scratching.’’

One of Hunsaker’s first players was Ronnie Price, a Texan who transferred from Nicholls State in Hunsaker’s first year. By the time he was a senior, Price was third in the country in scoring at 24.3 ppg and later went to the NBA, where he has played the past nine years, including a four-year stint with the Utah Jazz.

Another top player was Ryan Toolson, who finished in 2008-09 when he ranked eighth in the nation in scoring and scored 63 points in a game, the most-ever by a Utah collegian.

“So many great players are developing,’’ he said. “Ronnie Price and Ryan Toolson weren’t scholarship players. They didn’t have other options. There are so many like that. But players develop.’’

While it’s a challenge to recruit four-star players, Hunsaker said it’s not hard to sell teenagers on Utah Valley.

“It may sound like a Chamber of Commerce speech, but it’s really a nice place,’’ he says. “People are nice, it’s clean, it’s a good environment for all kids. There are three things in recruiting — athletics, academics and social life — and at Utah Valley, we can sell all three things.’’

While he’s often had high-scoring stars like Price or Toolson, this year Hunsaker has a well-balanced group with five players averaging between 10.2 and 12.1 points per game.

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