WEST VALLEY CITY — Nearly two weeks ago, the Granger girls basketball team was upset by Region 2 foe Taylorsville High.
The program that has not had a winning season in 28 years, and has had only three of them in team history, is suddenly a favorite, fighting for the top spot in the region standings.
That transition — from west side pushover to league title contender — is largely due to the vision of one man: head coach Aaron Cousins.
A native of the Bay Area and a graduate of a high school with a diverse population, Cousins wanted to be teaching and coaching at a school like Granger, and Granger wanted him.
“I did my entire interview over the phone,” said the coach, who had been working in Kentucky when he applied for the position in the spring of 2006. “The guy who hired me said, ‘There’s just something about you that we need you here.’”
To illustrate what the new coach would be taking on, Granger's athletic director sent Cousins the roster of the season that had just ended.
There were six names listed.
All of the other players had quit or had been dismissed from the team due to academic ineligibility or disciplinary reasons.
“So I came in and that first year I had 11 seniors because I only had 22 girls try out,” Cousins said of his inaugural, 2006-07 season. “The program was just in disarray.”
The Lancers won four games that year, more than they had in the previous three seasons combined. The next year, however, was winless: 0-21. On the court, the coach needed athletic bodies — “I was pulling in cheerleaders who looked athletic; I went and raided the soccer team; I went and begged volleyball players — anybody that would come play” — and off the court, he needed to change the attitudes that doomed the Granger girls basketball program.
“When I got here, the principal told me, ‘We just want to see you compete. We don’t want to get blown out,’” Cousins said. “First, I had to get the girls to understand that we could compete.”
So, during his first year at Granger, the coach compiled every piece of statistical information he could find, resolving that he and his players could not know where they were going until they knew from where the program had come.
Cousins created a list of Granger’s all-time scoring leaders, a complete coaching history, and the win-loss records against every team the team has ever faced. He discovered that, prior to his arrival, the Lancers had known 13 different head coaches across just 32 seasons — a change every 2 1/2 years — which helped partly explained why Granger accumulated losing records against a large number of schools across the state.
“These are some of the things that I’ve put together to try and change a culture, to try and let the kids know where they are," Cousins said.
He also put together workouts and activities, and he established incentives to motivate girls to join the team. Soon, talented basketball players who lived within the Granger High boundaries tried out for their home team, and the tide started to turn for the Lancers.
“That’s one of the reasons Jessica (Matheson) is here,” Cousins said, “because she liked what had been going on.”
Matheson, a junior guard, is one of those gifted, West Valley City-bred players who knew she wanted to be a Lancer after watching those before find success on the team.
“It’s not, ‘Well, I’m at Granger,’” Cousins said. “It’s, ‘Yeah, I can play like fill-in-the-blank.’ The girls like that. They’re program-changers.”
Matheson is becoming one of those program-changers as she fills a major role in pushing the team to new heights. She has already cracked into the top five on the Granger all-time scoring list and is currently at the top of three different 5A Deseret News leaderboards: second in scoring with 18.1 points per game and 343 total points; first in assists with 5.1 per game, an average 1.5 better than second place; and first in steals with 4.3 per game.
But as impressive as her individual accomplishments have been, the focus, even for Matheson, remains on the continued improvement of the Granger team culture.
“I’ve looked at the box scores. I don’t look at the (leaderboards) much,” she said. “I don’t pay attention to that. It’s about the team.”
Along with attracting more players, Cousins’ efforts have also intrigued a handful of coaches who themselves are experienced players and add depth to the overall team strategy. Sitting on his bench this year are four former Utah high school basketball players who played with or against one another before moving on to play in the college ranks: Murray High graduate Keisha Catten, who played at Salt Lake Community College and then Westminster College, and Taylorsville High graduates Shawnee Slade Smith (BYU), Ande Miller (College of Eastern Utah), and Taesha Higbee (Snow College and Montana Tech).
“To have all that experience, it just brings a wealth of knowledge to what we can bring to the girls,” Cousins said. “They are where these girls want to be. They’ve been where these girls are.”
And it doesn’t hurt that the coaches can still show their players what the game should look like.
“We wanted to see what they had, so those four coaches got together and I was the weak link basketball-wise,” Cousins said. “We scrimmaged the girls, and they still got it.”
The assistant coaches also appreciate the chemistry and camaraderie their previous relationships have brought to their current team.
“I’ve learned a lot from her (Smith) all growing up, and now coming in here,” said Miller, a special education teacher. “It does help having a relationship. ... We all just click and are on the same page.”
Smith, who is in her fourth year with the team, said the addition of Miller and Higbee has positively impacted the team’s on-court game strategy while Cousins’ program overhaul has resulted in a change in the players themselves.
“I think the biggest thing is character-building,” Smith said. “In general, they’re good kids. We don’t have to really worry about them not being where they’re supposed to be or not doing what they’re supposed to do. We really are lucky with the girls we have right now and it’s a lot of what he’s put into place, just certain expectations, and they’re living up to them.”
The efforts to improve the culture are beginning to have an effect, both on and off the court.
“We went from four wins that first year to zero wins to five wins,” Cousins said of his first three seasons. “And then we went eight wins, nine wins, 10 wins, 11 wins, and now we’re at 14.”
There have been just two other seasons in Lancer history when the girls basketball team reached the 14-win milestone — 1980-81 (14-9) and 1985-86 (14-8) — and it is a feat it matched with a win over West High on Friday. The Lancers are currently 14-5 with two regular-season games left to play.
“It’s gone from where I’m begging people to where, this year, I actually cut good players. We had 68 girls try out,” Cousins said. “It’s a huge difference. You can say that’s the school just being bigger, but I think people just want to be part of a program that’s successful.”
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company