1 of 3
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Shirsten Wissinger, left, leads Copper Hills in scoring this season.
We’ve always been an underdog, and now people are realizing what we can do. It just proves that Copper Hills has a lot of pride, and they’re willing to do the little things to be there. —Sophomore Kate Sisler

WEST JORDAN — Benjamin Morley thought he knew what he was in for when he took over the Copper Hills girls basketball program six years ago.

“I knew what the state of the program was because I looked at it before I applied,” he said, smiling. “But I relish the challenge of changing things. I’ve always been that type of coach.”

It wasn’t until the team’s first game that he realized just how Herculean the task was that he had taken on. Turns out, he had no idea just how abysmal the Grizzlies’ program was.

“Our first game was against Judge,” he said. “We were down 34-2 at halftime. That was sort of the moment I understood.” It turned out to be a multiyear project that required more commitment, more sacrifice and more patience than he ever imagined.

“To be honest, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” said Morley, who spent nine years coaching boys basketball, as well as football. “There was no tradition, no anything. They basically handed me a bunch of deflated balls and old uniforms and said, ‘Hey, turn the program around.’ I knew there would be work, but to be honest, I didn’t quite know how much.” Morley quickly diagnosed a number of issues. First, he was new to girls basketball so he wasn’t even sure if his experience would translate.

“I didn’t know how to evaluate talent,” he said. “I didn’t know what other teams had. I didn’t know Bingham was a powerhouse program and that they were getting all of the great athletes in this area.”

So how do you go about turning around a program that’s never really gotten off the ground?

“Our strategy was, we’re going to keep it positive,” he said. “And we’re never going to get outworked. We didn’t talk about region championships or even winning region games. We just talked about always being the hardest-working team.”

He said they celebrated everything from great rebounding to a player’s first points in a varsity game.

“I want the championships like everyone else,” he said. “But when you’re building from the ground up, you have to learn to celebrate ... little things. Just keep it positive, keep it going. We just had to build it brick by brick.”

He started with what he knew.

First, he knew his players needed more time on the court so they began playing in spring and summer tournaments. When he arrived, he didn’t have a single player participating in any kind of club or summer program. Now most of them play together under Morley’s guidance.

“This past summer, this group of girls played over 60 games together,” he said. “I didn’t anticipate that. ... I’m gone weekends a lot during the spring and summer. That’s been hard to adjust to. But it’s one of those sacrifices that if you want to win, you’ve got to put in the time. It’s not a magical formula. The girls have got to get on the court and play.”

Second, he organized camps for elementary-age students that would build a tradition and secure the future of the program.

“My first year I sent out a letter to every single family who had a girl who was elementary age — fifth or sixth grade,” he said. “We barely charged them anything; it was like $10 or $15 for a full week. We just wanted to get them here.”

He said they gave away T-shirts and tried to build excitement around the program in the hearts and minds of the girls.

“As stupid as it sounds, you build a brand,” Morley said. “Where these girls have that memory to cling to so that when they get into eighth grade, and they’re deciding (where they’re going to high school), they’ll decide, hey, maybe I’ll go to Copper Hills.”

Two of those little girls who attended those initial camps are this year’s team captains — sophomore Kate Sisler and junior Mikelle Magalogo.

“I did a lot of camps,” Sisler said. “It was kind of one of those things where I was younger and the older girls made me feel a part of it.”

She said there was never any doubt that she’d play basketball (and soccer) for the Grizzlies. “I was going to be part of something great,” she said. “We were starting something new.”

Morley creating an attachment between the program and the players was only part of the equation. Changing expectations turned out to be a much more significant challenge.

“I thought it would be exciting,” he said. “It’s been a process. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’ve had a lot of help.”

Some of that help has come from assistant coaches like head softball coach Jentry Johnson, who led the school’s softball team to its first state title in 2013.

“It was actually Coach J who told me one of the smartest things I’ve ever heard from another coach,” Morley said. “And that’s that you set the expectations and the athletes will adjust — no matter where they are, as long as they’re reasonable.”

And as the team has had more success each season, those expectations have become loftier. This season, they are ranked in the statewide top 20. They are tied for first in region play with a legitimate shot at the school’s first ever girls basketball region title. A squad without seniors, they’re led by junior Shirsten Wissinger, who averages nearly 20 points per game. Their goal is to do what no girls basketball team has accomplished at Copper Hills — win a state title.

“It’s important to me because it’s important to them,” Morley said.

Sisler said they’re starting to make believers out of other people with each win.

“We’ve always been an underdog, and now people are realizing what we can do,” she said. “It just proves that Copper Hills has a lot of pride, and they’re willing to do the little things to be there.”

The team’s third captain, Baylee Leiter, said this group wants to give the community a reason to cheer.

“Before it was all about boys basketball, but now people are coming to our games, participating in our events,” she said. “It’s so much fun.” Morley said he has no regrets about taking on the challenge of building something special at Copper Hills.

“Coaching girls basketball,” Morley said, “has been the toughest and most rewarding thing in my professional life.”

Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: [email protected]