Coaches are fond of saying that defense wins games.
Ironically, not every player wants to commit to the kind of defense that can actually make a difference. That's because playing tough defense requires a lot of intensity, effort and commitment, while being willing to allow others the spotlight that comes with big offensive numbers.
This year's Deseret News Defensive Players of the Year were talented athletes who were willing to contribute to their team's success in the most unselfish ways. They evolved their games, changed their roles and acted as leaders in difficult situations.
LAYTON — There really isn’t much Alissa Atisme couldn’t do for the Layton Christian Eagles.
But it was her athleticism and ability to anticipate passes that helped the Eagles earn fourth place in the 1A state tournament.
“She’s always been good with steals,” said LCA head coach Lewis Lofton. “Her strength is her defense off the ball. She’s very aggressive away from the ball.”
It’s not just that she does a good job with her defensive assignment, she is one of those players who picks up on what the opposing team is doing and finds ways to counter it.
“She can read the offense, even away from the ball, and that’s why she gets so many steals,” Lofton said. “She’s quick and smart.”
Her abilities forced opposing coaches to be creative — and vigilant — when they faced the Eagles.
"Alissa is probably the quickest, most explosive player in the state," said St. Joseph head coach Joe Cravens. "She created her own offense out of her defense. You had to always be conscious of where she was because of her great defensive ability and the amount of steals and havoc she created defensively."
Atisme was an unselfish player content to contribute in whatever way the Eagles needed. Her hard work and good attitude helped the team gel, especially during the playoff run.
She averaged 11.32 points, 4.32 steals, 5.5 rebounds and 2.91 assists per game.
RICHFIELD — Sammi Beck had one of the state’s best players, at any level, in the paint, which could have meant taking it easy now and then on the perimeter.
Instead, Beck became the perimeter compliment to Megan Bean’s defense in the paint.
“I hated it,” said San Juan head coach Justin Moon of playing against Beck. “What was amazing about her is that, yeah, she was on that great team, and having Megan Bean behind you, it would be easy to say, ‘Oh, that makes life easier.’ She very well could have had a terrible attitude, and said I want to be the kid who scores. But she was unselfish and willing to play defense. She could guard against any position from point guard to post. She made life miserable for us opposing coaches.”
Beck was so capable, she could have contributed in any number of ways, but her team needed her to stop the other team’s best perimeter player.
“She understood her role, and she was content with that,” said Richfield head coach Marc Peterson. “She’s just gutsy, hard-nosed and her defensive style is just aggressive. She’s just a tough kid.”
Both Moon and Peterson acknowledged that Beck’s role was to harass the opposing team’s best players.
“Sammi took on the number one defensive assignment every time we took the floor,” Peterson said. “Sammi's ability to play up in the face of opposing guards helped Richfield to achieving its best defensive year ever. This was the best defensive team that I have coached and Sammi was a major part of that. Her effort on defense encouraged the rest of the team to step up their defense as well. She is a great athlete and proved that over and over again on the basketball court.”
ST. GEORGE — What Caroline Lantor does for Dixie can’t be accurately captured on a stat sheet.
“Her greatest strength is just her competitive nature,” said Dixie head coach Ken Robinson. “She just refuses to lose. She just goes out and finds a way to get it done. She never takes time off; she is into every play.”
Lantor is a smaller post player at 5-foot-10. But once she found her place in the paint, she found her purpose. Her defense was key in the Flyers post-season run that ended with a thrilling victory over Region 9 co-champ, Deseret Hills.
“Defensively for them, she became a lot better when they moved her inside,” said Thunder head coach Chris Allred. “She was more effective, more physical.” Robinson said Lantor, who grabbed 130 rebounds, 47 steals and tipped 61 balls away, was the person they called on to contain the other team’s best player.
“She takes it up on herself that she needs to make a difference,” Robinson said. “She always seems to be involved defensively. I think some of her biggest stops were defending much bigger posts players who were the main part of an opponents offense.”
Lantor also led the Flyers offense with 12 points per game.
“Her nature, and just her competitive attitude really helped us, especially in the second half of the season,” said Robinson. “She just had a knack for getting her shoulder around and her top foot over, so she could deflect the ball rather than just waiting to defend. She took defense as a personal thing and did whatever we needed her to do to win.”
SPRINGVILLE — Whatever Savannah Park lacked in height, she made up for in hustle, intensity and athleticism.
“For her size, she had more of an impact than you would expect,” said Orem head coach Dave Gilchrist, whose Tigers faced Park twice in Region 8 play. “She was really good at intercepting passes on the wing. That created a lot of offense for them … And when she and Malia (Nawahine) would get going, they really complimented each other and it would just become a track meet. They created a lot of offense off of their defensive pressure.”
Whenever they faced the Red Devils, Gilchrist said his team had to prepare to deal with Park’s defensive strength.
“She’s an intense player,” he said. “The kids know they’re in for a long night when we play them. She is a really hard worker, which is usually the key to good defensive players, and she definitely had a motor that wouldn’t quit.”
Timpview head coach Casey Cooke Sundquist said Park “uses her size to her advantage.”
“She’s quick, she’s smart, she’s fiery, she’s fierce, she just gets after you and causes a lot of grief,” Sundquist said. “Her defense was huge against us in the state tournament. I’m ready for her to graduate.”
Springville head coach Nancy Warner said it is Park’s force that makes her such a great defender.
“She is relentless,” said Warner of Park who averaged 14 points, 3 rebounds, 4.3 steals and 2.2 assists per game. “She just kind of frustrated our opponents. Because she is smaller, I think she’s able to get her hands on the ball a lot more, whether it was stepping into a passing lane or stripping the ball away.”
She said in the team’s semifinal win over Bonneville and championship victory against Timpview, it was Park who led the defensive effort that helped the Red Devils finish the season 24-0.
“Her ability to anticipate, it was huge, and it showed itself in the state tournament,” said Warner.
KAYSVILLE — The first two games of the season, Jessica Richardson fouled out leaving her team without much of an inside game.
So Darts head coach Anne Jones sat her senior center down and told her just how critical it was that she learn to play smart while staying aggressive in the paint.
“She rarely came out of a game after that,” said Jones of the senior who averaged 14.4 points and 8.8 rebounds this season. “She did not get in foul trouble. And she guarded the other team’s best player, held almost every one to under their average, and yet she stayed in games. Mentally, she just made the adjustments necessary to be this presence on the floor. She was the defensive anchor and rock on this team.”
Her effort helped the Darts to a region title.
Weber head coach Rick Stoeckl had to try and stop Richardson in region play, and said it was an almost impossible task.
“She was such a threat on both ends,” he said. “Defensively, she was just all over the floor, rebounding, guarding the perimeter — she’s just tough, just a tough kid.”
No matter what was happening on the floor, the Warriors knew there was one play they never left — Richardson.
“We didn’t ever come off of her,” he said. “She was just a big presence, but her strength was her toughness.”