The Wasatch High School boys basketball team is in the dance. Since moving up in classification three years ago, and ending up on the outside looking in after all three campaigns, the Wasps have their first-ever date in the first round of the 4A playoffs.
Wasatch is scheduled to face Orem on Monday night at Weber State.
Following a successful stretch during its last half-decade in 3A that earned it regular trips to the postseason and a pair of back-to-back state championships, Wasatch has been trying to grow into its 4A sneakers.
That hasn’t been an easy transition for the Wasps. The black and gold, for the most part, have been outsized and outclassed for the past few seasons in Region 8. Well, that is not the case anymore.
“It’s been a great journey for us so far,” said Wasatch head coach Jason Long. “Each year we get a little more competitive. We’ve doubled our win total in each season and this year it was good enough to qualify for state. We’re excited about that, but in no way satisfied.”
Wasatch was a force in its region this winter. Except for a two-point home loss to Salem Hills during the first half of the schedule, the Wasps were unblemished.
Then with a lot more eyes across the state watching them, they remained tough in the second half, dropping only two more contests, but winning the ones necessary to keep them on the heels of the eventual region winner Maple Mountain.
Going into Tuesday night’s season finale against Payson, the team that could have easily stolen the Wasps’ thunder with an upset, Wasatch needed only a win to secure the second spot in the region.
The Wasps knew they had qualified, but the path to the finals would be much more difficult from just that single place down in the standings.
Payson, on the other hand, needed the win to take that spot from the upstart Wasps, and the Lions did all they could to slow down the high-energy Wasatch club.
The game took on a bizarre feeling from the beginning. After a pregame senior night ceremony before a packed gym, the home team was issued a technical foul following the tip-off after an overzealous student section celebration.
The delay and subsequent two free-throw penalty, along with the loss of four early possessions, seemed to knock the chip off the Wasps’ shoulders and they struggled early on to find their rhythm. As they worked to find their game, Payson came out effective.
The visitors outran the Wasps and took advantage of missed shots to open a 16-9 lead with the first quarter winding down. The Wasps scored consecutive baskets to pull within three, but a Bryce Wiberg trey at the buzzer killed the early rally.
Minutes into the second frame, Payson went into a deliberate slow-paced offense. The Lions frustrated the Wasps with their game of keep-away, and points were not coming in bunches for either team.
Defense, in fact, had become such the dominant theme in this one that the second quarter totaled a mere nine points between the two — all on 3-point buckets. Fortunately for the Wasps, two of those were theirs, one by Eli Ballstaedt the other by Brody Henderson, but they still trailed going into the locker room 22-19.
The third quarter was much like the first. Wasatch eventually found success running the floor and broke the Lions' aggressive defense. With time running out in the period and Payson clinging to a one-point advantage, Kolten Mortenson scored on a bucket inside to stretch the slim lead to three.
On the inbounds pass and the seconds ticking away, Wasp guard Garrett Watts brought the ball to half-court where he launched a shot that hit nothing but net to tie it at 34. The raucous crowd went crazy over the Hail Mary as there was a sense of a comeback in the air.
That sense was spot on as that 40-footer propelled the home team as the fourth quarter belonged to the Wasps. Wasatch 6-foot-10 center Trevin Dorius played firm in the paint, scoring once on a two-handed gorilla slam dunk that blew up the gym.
But it was Ballstaedt, the Wasps’ leading scorer, who took over for his team and cemented the win with pull-up jumpers and drives that sent him to the free-throw line. The junior finished with 21 points — his fourth game in the last five where he scored in the twenties.
Behind Ballstaedt, the home team opened up a five-point advantage with less than a minute remaining and held on despite a Payson 3-pointer with two seconds left. But with no timeouts, the buzzer sounded and the fans poured onto the floor.
“It’s a great feeling,” Ballstaedt said. “This year has just been so much fun. It’s easy to come to practice when you know you’re getting better and winning games and now going to state.”
Even though the 6-foot-5 guard has worked his way into the top 10 in 4A in scoring and assists, he has a budding supporting cast that is firing on all cylinders — and seemingly at the right time.
“A lot of guys have stepped up and filled their roles and helping us win games,” said Long. “Zach Laursen has been amazing lately, and Cooks (Carson Bangerter) and some of the younger guys coming off the bench. The kids are playing great team ball right now.”
Wasatch will prepare hard for Monday’s game at Weber State. Long, even though optimistic and telling his team to enjoy its success, cautioned that there is work to be done.
“Every game will be like this one from now on,” Long told his players. “Nothing will come easy. This is the state tournament now, and only the best teams make it this far. We’ll have to play like we did tonight, but we proved we can win these kinds of games.”
Kenny Bristow is the sports editor and staff sports writer for the Wasatch Wave and contributes to the Deseret News high school coverage for the Wasatch region. Email: email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.