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Wasatch Academy celebrates 2A State Championship

Now that Wasatch Academy has yawned its way to a second consecutive 2A state high school basketball championship, it’s time for the Utah High School Activities Association — and the academy itself — to act.

And that is exactly what is expected to happen later this month. The only question is why it took so long.

You know what’s great about small-town (1A-2A) sports? For the most part, they’ve avoided the transfer and recruiting issues that plague big-city schools, at least in part because the small schools are separated by great distances. It’s high school competition the way it used to be. With rare exceptions, the teams are made up of kids from the same hometown, kids who grew up together and dreamed of playing for the local high school alongside their friends and neighbors, competing against teams also made up of locals.

Not anymore. Now a ringer has arrived on the scene, an expensive boarding school located in Mount Pleasant, with a former college and prep coach from Chicago and players from Canada, Nigeria, France, Illinois and Utah.

It’s not a fair fight. It’s an all-star team collected from around the world to compete against boys from Monroe (population: 2,300), Castle Dale (1,600), Salina (2,500), Blanding (3,500), Moab (5,000) and Enterprise (1,752), among others.

Suddenly, after going 136 years without winning a state championship, Team United Nations has put a powerhouse on the court and won three championships in four years — the 1A title in 2011, the 2A title in 2013 and 2014.

In 27 games — which included nine out-of-state opponents — the average score was Wasatch 78, Opponents 44. The Tigers’ only loss was a one-point decision to a school from Florida. They played a pair of 4A schools and beat them — 54-51 over Orem and 82-49 over Timpview. Orem is 15-9, Timpview 20-4, and both schools qualified for the 4A state playoffs.

The Tigers’ average score against 2A opponents was 75-39. Their march through last week’s state tournament was ridiculously lopsided — 74-31 vs. Rowland Hall; 89-41 vs. Gunnison; 63-27 vs. South Sevier (the 2011 and 2012 state champions); and 76-47 vs. Enterprise.

The Tigers are reputed to have at least one Division I-caliber player on their team and probably two more who are underclassmen. You could probably count on two hands the number of small-school players who have played for Division I universities in the past 25 years: Craig and Mark Rydalch (Utah), Ryan Cuff (BYU/Arizona State/Weber State), Shawn Bradley (BYU), and Race Parsons (SUU).

Ignoring talent for a moment, just look at the height difference: The Tigers have just one player under 6 feet and average 6-foot-4½. Enterprise and South Sevier average under 6 feet and don’t have a player taller than 6-foot-3.

This is how ridiculous the situation was: In a regular-season game against the Tigers, South Sevier coach Rhett Parsons ordered his team to hold the ball the entire fourth quarter — while trailing by 17 points. Why? He didn’t want to lose by 40 and he wanted to make a statement. Sure enough, when Parsons' Rams tried to play the Tigers straight up in the state tournament, they lost by 36 points.

The reason for the disparity is simple: As a private school, Wasatch Academy is playing by a different set of rules. The argument for fairness begins and ends with this fact: Wasatch Academy can recruit students and offer scholarships; the public schools cannot.

By rule, private schools can recruit only for academics, not athletics, but that’s a fine line, and do you think it’s a coincidence the Tigers just happened to land students from around the world for their academics who also are 6-foot-8 and possess good basketball skills?

After years of protest from the 2A ranks, which included a meeting of 2A principles this year, it appears something will finally be done about the situation.

A little background: Eighteen months ago Wasatch Academy officials asked the UHSAA if they could simply move their basketball team to a larger classification, but they were told rules would require all of the school’s other sports to move up as well, and that was the end of the discussion (Wasatch’s other sports aren’t competitive, which casts more skepticism on how the school managed to assemble such a great basketball team).

Now Wasatch officials have proposed that their basketball team play as an independent, which means it would no longer compete for a region or state title but would still be allowed to play Utah schools in any classification. This would enable the Tigers to play in more regional tournaments and to accept invitations it has received to serve as ambassadors and teachers of the game abroad. The UHSAA will consider the proposal beginning March 19.

UHSAA director Rob Cuff says it's a win-win proposal, but also notes this will be an important precedent-setting decision. It does not address other potential issues. What if other schools make a similar request and the future of high school basketball is playing regional tournaments, instead of playing for state titles?

Many teams already play out-of-state tournaments. Wouldn’t it have been better to change the rules to allow a school (Wasatch, in this case) to move just one sport up in classification rather than require the same of all its sports? (On a side note, to its credit, Judge Memorial, a private Catholic school, requested and was granted a move from 3A to 4A for all of its teams except football, which is exempt by rule.)

And what about the potential of other private schools, which, like Wasatch Academy, can recruit and scholarship students (who happen to be good athletes)? They could dominate competition a la the Tigers.

Wasatch, which certainly wasn’t benefitting from those 2A routs any more than their opponents, will likely move onward and upward later this month. No one in the 2A ranks will be sorry to see them go.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com