MOUNT PLEASANT — The old polished hardwoods in the movie "Hoosiers" provide an iconic symbol that resembles a gym in Utah. It’s a feel, an atmosphere. It is the home of the Wasatch Academy basketball program. It’s where basketball is tinkered with on a global level and bookwork is granular as can be.
Wasatch Academy will play in the Geico National Championship Tournament April 4-6 in New York City as the No. 6 seed in what is labeled the strongest field in the history of the 11-year-old event. The private and independent school from Utah will take on No. 3-ranked and No. 3 seed Montverde Academy (Florida) in the first round. All games will be televised on ESPN’s family of network programming.
Absolutely. Only the top eight teams in the country are selected out of more than 40,000, and most experts say that during the next few years Wasatch Academy (26-3), will be even better than this year’s team. When this team plays Utah competition it turns into a dunk fest.
Coach Dave Evans left a Utah high school powerhouse for an elevator ride going up when he departed Lone Peak High for Wasatch Academy late last year. He’s in a whole new orbit with this small school located in the backyard of Utah’s Wasatch Front, near Moroni and Ephraim, just a beautiful canyon drive east of Nephi between Fairview and Spring City. Next month, the stakes are colossal for this school.
It’s by far the most dominant high school program in the state. Hence, it doesn’t play — and opponents do not want them to play — in any of Utah’s six divisions. Instead, Evans takes on an independent schedule that has taken this squad 24,875 miles this season — from California and Las Vegas in the West to Florida, Maryland and Georgia in the East.
This is unlike anything at Lone Peak, American Fork or anywhere else in Utah.
“I think the biggest thing is that the issues you have at a school like Lone Peak are different than the issues you have here,” said Evans, whose experience coaching at BYU-Hawaii and in Europe helped prepare him. “But even this is different.”
His players practice, study and are bunked in a dorm together, spending nearly 24 hours a day with each other. Their academic regimen is intense. He holds two practices a day, the first before sunrise. One of his sessions is weight training and once a week the state’s training guru, Dave Stroshine, shows up to supervise a session. They travel to his Pleasant Grove facility once a week when schedules allow.
“I don't know that I was prepared for it, but I've been learning, so that's great. You always want to be learning and growing," Evans said. "A boarding school is a different issue than a public school.”
It also allows recruiting. Evans will soon leave for the Czech Republic to check out a prospect. His roster has a pair of players from Mali, West Africa, and several from Brazil, including 6-foot-9 forward Bernardo Da Silva, a BYU commit.
Evans was cruising along at Lone Peak with a 2017 6A title under his belt when the Wasatch Academy job opened after Curtis Condie suddenly left in the offseason. A private boarding school can recruit across the world, and Evans spent his first year adjusting to the playbox. Now he’s dealing with a national stage and title on the line as the regular season winds down.
Wasatch Academy’s only losses of the season came on the road to the nation’s elite, Vashon (Missouri) 70-58, La Lumiere (Indiana) 53-51, and a 74-47 blowout to Rancho Christian (California) Jan. 25.
Dusty Litster of Deseret News Rewind, covered Wasatch Academy seven times this season, witnessing the fabric of this talented team while inspecting Evans’ work close up.
“This year David showed just how good of a coach he is,” Litster said. “He didn’t take over the program till the middle of the summer. He changed everything these kids knew and only dropped three games while playing one of the toughest schedules in the country. That demonstrates his ability to teach the game, but it really shows his ability to reach his players and to get them to buy into his program.
“David is a fiery guy. The tie is loosened, sleeves are rolled up almost 30 seconds after opening tip. What I appreciate is that while he possesses that stereotypical coach's drive for perfection that can’t quite be obtained, he has the willingness to openly praise and love his guys. He will give you specific growth spots for each of his players both on and off the court, and he doesn’t just save sharing them to guys like me when I ask. He shares them with the individual players too.”
At least 80 Div. I coaches, including Kansas coach Bill Self, have visited Mount Pleasant, the sleepy rural town that houses Wasatch Academy. In his three years at Lone Peak, Evans only had three Div. I recruiters visit. They were from BYU, Utah State and Cal Irvine.
One of Evans’ many gems is senior windmill dunker Tristan Enaruna, a 6-foot-10, 190-pounder from the Netherlands. Enaruna can play all five positions and holds offers from Duke, Kansas, Georgia Tech, Creighton, Texas Tech, Illinois and Texas.
“Enaruna grabs the headlines because of his offers from Duke and Kansas. But what impresses me is that Tristan holds the offers and he doesn’t force his role in a game. He plays both ends of the floor, and he makes impact plays every single night. He has the best in-game dunk that I have personally witnessed,” Litster said.
But there are other standouts, too.
“Tre Williams is an absolute leader. My favorite story from the season is during a big game a teammate had a hot hand, and Tre wasn’t on his game," Litster said. "There was a foul shot that needed to be taken, and Tre looked at coach Evans and told him to have the other player take the free throw because he was feeling it.
“Richie Saunders (Riverton) has grown the most out of every player that I have seen this year at Wasatch Academy. Growth comes from the schedule that they play, but Richie has grown because of the talent that he practices against every single day. Richie will be one of the most sought after shooters in the country by the end of next year.”
Caleb Lohner, a junior from Dallas and son of former BYU player Matt Lohner, may be the highest-ranked high school player who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is a 6-8 guard/forward and is drawing attention from not only in-state schools but national programs, too.
Utah’s Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is from the Mount Pleasant area, says Wasatch Academy and other sports programs in the state are the front porch to the state and provide great exposure. After a recent Academy game, Cox was courtside helping with the broadcast and quipped, “I’ve never seen so many dunks in my life.”
When Evans took the job and saw the roster and understood the talent, his first thought was that his biggest challenge might be helping players get along with each other, but that wasn’t the case.
“They do (get along). They're not all best friends, but they all get along with each other," he said. "So that part of the equation was less hard than I thought because they do care about each other. Some of them talk about going to college together and they're happy for each other when they get an offer.”
One would think a team comprised of global talent would fight self-agendas and self-promotion in this day of social media where highlights, clips, and tweets dominate the culture. But this team has done the opposite. Guys will explode with big scoring games at times, but the norm is to spread out points among many contributors.
“We try to preach that, especially this day in social media. Don’t bring attention to yourself, share a clip of a teammate, be excited that Bernardo signed, be excited that Tre Williams is going to Minnesota, that Tristan got offered by Duke and Kentucky and Kansas. Getting the team to buy in and play together was a little easier at Lone Peak because they were raised together to play with one another. But the last 10 games or so, we’ve played like a complete team and that is so fun to coach and watch.”
Over the years as Wasatch Academy basketball grew in talent and reputation, there has been pushback from other Utah high schools when they played as a 1A or 2A program. That isn’t the case now as an independent. The school's website has received high praise for its style, organization and content.
“Something that the public needs to understand is that Wasatch Academy knows exactly who they are,” Litster said. “They don’t try to hide it. They are an independent boarding school that happens to have a top-tier basketball program that recruits and develops DI basketball players. The school’s academic prowess is what drives the basketball program.
“The reason they are successful is that the basketball program is built on the foundation of a top-flight academic institution. They provide the college experience of separation from family, dedication to the difficult class schedule, and morning and evening basketball practice. This program will only get better because they have an identity and principles, and they stay true to them.”
That academic element is demanding. A select group of handpicked instructors put all the students through the rigors of a program that stretches and enlightens. This is a selling point for parents, who see their kids housed away from malls, megaplex theatres, distractions of city life. In Mount Pleasant, distractions are kept to a minimum. So, the focus is on study, homework, academic progress, ACT and SAT testing and preparation for college.
Evans’ players are still teens, at a critical stage of life and development, yet they are away from parents, relatives and friends, isolated in a place where there are more turkeys than humans.
Do they get homesick?
Evans tries to keep on top of it.
One day early this season, Mike Saunders, a high-level player from Indiana, was not performing and just looked sad. “So I grabbed him and said, ‘Mike, what’s going on.’ He said he was so homesick, that he missed his mom and missed his family.”
Evans told him, “Let’s work on it and figure this out.”
He spent more time with Saunders, taking him to his home to be around his own children, adding a different element.
“He then just became more dialed in. I think there are freshmen that go away to college that go through the same thing. These kids just have to deal with it earlier,” Evans said.
“The rest of the kids haven’t really been homesick, though. I would have gotten homesick if I’d come here as a high school kid, but they’re really focused here and try to get it done for themselves because they want to get a Div. I scholarship.”
This is what a boarding school is for: the focus.
Wasatch has been in many national tournaments over the years, including this one for a national championship. American Fork High was on the bubble to be invited. Evans is telling his players that he wants them to approach it differently this year, that it just isn’t a goal to be there; the goal should be to win it all.
The top four seeds in the tournament have been ranked the top four in the country for the past month: No. 1 La Lumiere, No. 2 McEachern (Powder Springs, Georgia), No. 3 Montverde Academy, and No. 4 IMG Academy (Bradenton, Florida). The No. 5 seed is Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Virginia), which checks in at No. 18 in the FAB 50. Wasatch Academy is No. 13 in the FAB 50 and owns a win over No. 7 seed Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Aire, Kansas), which is No. 9 in the FAB 50. The field is rounded out by No. 8 seed University School (Fort Lauderdale, Florida), which is No. 10 in the FAB 50.
Evans gets it. Basketball is putting a spotlight on Wasatch Academy, but he knows the entire situation has been created because of its unique place in academics for a high school athlete.10 comments on this story
The two players from Mali came to the academy because some eye doctors took a charitable trip to West Africa, met the kids and believed they could further their lives, education and basketball careers here, and they made it happen.
“I think a lot of times the school itself gets overshadowed by basketball, but as far as the school itself, my kids are all excelling from being at school here," Evans said. "And the teachers are great. The headmaster and the support is great. It's just a really neat school down here. It's built like a little college.”
Correction: A previous version of this story had captions that incorrectly listed Wasatch Academy as a No. 8 seed in the national tournament.