OGDEN — Lost within the madness of flashing cameras, screaming fans and the cluttered traffic of parents, supporters and media members surrounding the ladder lifting the Lone Peak Knights to the basketball heavens was someone who, on most occasions, is hard to lose.
At 6-foot-10 and over 220 pounds, Eric Mika stood. An astonished but relieved expression overwhelming his demeanor. The top-ranked recruit in the state, and the 30th ranked player in ESPN’s top 100, had finally done it. He was a state champion after Lone Peak capped the greatest season in Utah history with a 72-39 win over Alta in the 5A championship Saturday at the Dee Events Center.
Climbing slowly, relishing the moment, Mika cut his portion of the nylon net for a keepsake. He raised his arm to the student section, exhaled, and smiled.
“I’ve waited for two years to finally be a starter on a championship team,” Mika, who sat last season after transferring from Waterford, said. “It’s pretty awesome, but I’m happy I got to do it with these guys.
“I still felt good because I practice with them,” Mika explained after watching his teammates cut down the nets in 2012, “but it’s not even close to how it feels right now.”
Mika was named the Deseret News tournament MVP after finishing with 16 points and 18 rebounds. In the four playoff games he averaged 16 points and 13 rebounds.
“He did such a good job last year,” Lone Peak coach Quincy Lewis said. “We had a program set up for him to practice with us, but after practice we required him to go to the gym and work on his individual work. He had a lot of work to do and he did it. He’s come so far in a year and a half — it’s just unbelievable.”
But Mika had revenge on his mind for his coach. Late in the fourth quarter, leading 67-37, Mika pulled up from distance, well outside his range, and missed by several continents.
“He’s actually kind of a goof. We actually played a joke on him a few weeks ago. I acted like I was mad at him — gonna make him run — and he was really scared,” Lewis said. “Then I sent everybody out of practice for the day. So, today the joke was on me when he took the 3 — that’s true. All I could do was call a timeout and laugh at him. He’s a funny kid."
There was only one thing left.
He wandered and toweringly panned the crowd. He had taken the team photos. He had hugged and celebrated with his teammates. There was someone he needed to find. Someone who, unlike Mika, is very easily lost among the masses.
As he approached the painted area, while a young admirer frantically inquired for a photograph, Mika sheepishly grinned. The Lone Peak cheer squad shouted his name, and there he spotted his girlfriend, Gabrielle Gates — a 5-foot-2 cheerleader.
She, too, was smiling ear to ear.
“It just makes me really proud — I’m really happy for him. I know he’s worked really hard through this whole process,” Gates said. “It was just great to see all his hard work pay off, and so it was just exciting.”
Mika stretched his Godzilla sized arm span as Gates jumped into his welcoming arms. The two, like a closing scene in a Disney movie, twirled in circles. Suddenly, the chants of “kiss her” arose and the shy, modest couple turned red. Mika set Gates down, and embarrassedly trotted into the locker rooms.
“Well, my whole family is here. There’s so much pressure,” Mika quipped about forgoing the postgame kiss. “I’ll get her later — she’s shy.”
“I just got nervous in front of everyone,” Gates laughed.
Now, after a dream season, Mika — like the rest of the Knights — waits on the decision of a national championship.
“It would mean the world,” Mika said. “It would really top off the season like we wanted to. It was one of our main goals, so hopefully it happens.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company