I've been doing this a long time and I've never seen anything like that. —Wasatch Academy coach Geno Morgan
Something strange and possibly unprecedented occurred in a recent high school basketball game between the South Sevier Rams and the Wasatch Academy Tigers. At the outset of the fourth quarter, the visiting Rams decided to employ a new strategy:
They did nothing.
They held the ball.
For virtually the entire fourth quarter.
They placed players in each corner of the half court and another player at midcourt and stood there watching the minutes drain off the clock. They didn’t dribble, they didn’t pass, they didn’t attack the basket. They just stood there while Wasatch’s defense remained packed in a zone around the basket. Some fans left the game or yelled, “Play ball!” Some players carried on a conversation with opposing players, waiting for the game to end.
Oh, there’s one other detail: The Rams — the team that was stalling — trailed by 17 points.
They finally made a couple of passes and attacked the basket — with 15 seconds left in the game. Final score: Wasatch Academy 52, South Sevier 35.
We’ve heard of stalling by a team with a lead — but who does that when they’re losing? By 17.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never seen anything like that,” says Wasatch Academy coach Geno Morgan, who considered coming out of the zone and attacking the Rams’ four-corners stall — but why would he do that when his team has a 17-point lead?
What was going on? “I’ve heard they were trying to make a point to the state about us,” says Morgan.
It turns out that was exactly what was happening. The small-town schools that comprise 2A competition are exasperated with the emergence of Wasatch Academy, a 139-year-old private boarding school in Mount Pleasant that is beating Utah teams by an average score of 78-42. A cinch to defend their state championship, the Tigers are 19-1, their lone loss being a one-point decision to a team from Florida. The Tigers are so good that they have trouble filling out their schedule with Utah teams because, given the option, no one wants to play them; nine of their games have been against out-of-state schools.
After watching his team lose to Wasatch Academy 48-23 eight days earlier, Rams coach Rhett Parsons set several team goals for last week’s rematch — fewer than 18 turnovers, hold the Tigers to fewer than 60 points, outrebound Wasatch, score more points than they did in the first game. Winning wasn’t even mentioned. After trailing by only 10 points at halftime, the Rams fell behind by 17 in the third quarter, so Parsons told his players to sit on the ball the rest of the game.
“I didn’t think they’d sit back in a zone and let the clock run out, which was fine with me,” says Parsons. “We’d met our goals as a team; I don’t see any sense in losing by 40 points, which is what they are winning by.”
As Parsons talked, it became clear there was more to the weird strategy than that. “We were trying to make a statement to everyone,” he says. “They’ve made a mockery of 2A, small-town basketball. We’ve got these kids who have dreamed of playing for a state championship with their classmates since they were playing on the playground in elementary school. Now we have this team that is just dominating things.”
It’s not that the Tigers are dominating that irritates rivals; it’s how they are dominating. Traditionally, 2A (and 1A) competition consists of schools in small towns whose rosters are filled with players who live in their boundaries. This is dictated by the vast distances between schools, if nothing else. Now along comes Wasatch Academy, an expensive private boarding school with players from Canada, Nigeria, France, Illinois and Utah.
As a private school, the academy lives by a different set of rules than public schools — namely, the Tigers are free to recruit students and offer scholarships. By rule, they are not allowed to recruit students as athletes, but who can tell the difference? The upshot of all this is that the Tigers are reputed to have three Division I-caliber players on their team. Most 2A schools have never had a single D-I player.
The day after last week’s strange game, 2A principals met at the offices of the Utah High School Activities Association to discuss Wasatch Academy specifically and private generally.
“There are some who feel like (Wasatch) has abused the rules,” says Rob Cuff, the UHSAA executive director and a former 2A basketball star. “They wanted to see what had been done and they thought that maybe if there were violations they wouldn’t be in the (state) tournament. But we haven’t found anything that would go against our bylaws. We have done our due diligence. We have visited the campus, opened up files and researched and have not found anything. They’ve been very open with us.”
At the 5A and 4A levels, such issues are commonplace but equally emotional. As Cuff says, “This is a new thing to 2A. They feel like everyone should be from the same community.”
Wasatch Academy, which won only three games in 2009, has thrived since the arrival five years ago of Morgan, a former college and high school coach from Chicago. Wasatch won its first state championship in 2011 as a member of the 1A classification. After moving to the 2A class because of increased enrollment, the Tigers won another state championship in 2012 — a title South Sevier won the previous two years.
Ask Morgan if there are some inequities in 2A competition with Wasatch’s emergence, he says, “There’s definitely some truth it. It’s the whole private school situation, something the state is in the process of looking at. The argument is not with us, it’s with the state. We play by the rules they give to us. We are not out here trying to do anything illegal.”
Parsons agrees. “I’m not blaming Geno and the school. I don’t have a problem with the team. They are great athletes and they seem like good kids. And the school gives kids a chance to get an education and get a scholarship. I’d love to see them play (5A powerhouse) Lone Peak, but what does (Lone Peak) have to gain?
“Geno’s kids are not getting any better playing 2A basketball. He knows that. This has been going on a while and the state has turned a blind eye to it. If this were going on up north, they would’ve done something by now. Small-town basketball doesn’t make enough of a squeak.”
Referring to last week’s meeting of 2A principals, Parson sides with Wasatch. “They’re trying to kick Wasatch out of the state tournament this year. That’s wrong. How do you kick them out now?!”
Morgan denies that the school recruits athletes and, as he notes, they don’t have to recruit anyway because success perpetuates success, luring other top players to the school. Certainly, the team reflects the student body, which consists of kids from 34 countries and 26 states, according to Morgan.
As for last week’s bizarre game against the Rams, Morgan says his players were confused. Some of them told him afterward that they hoped he’d never ask them to quit playing the way South Sevier did that night. Curiously, in the Tigers’ lone loss this season, they trailed Dillard High by 16 points in the second half before launching a big comeback that left them just one point short. Whatever message Parsons was sending was certainly mixed. On the one hand, he’s telling the state to do something about private schools; on the other hand he’s telling his players to give up.
“My kids struggled with it,” says Parsons. “I struggle with what I am teaching them. We could play that team again (in the state tournament); I hope to play them again. We won’t hold the ball again.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]