After waiting weeks,
boys are ready to play
By Matt Harris
After a few extra weeks of waiting, it’s finally basketball season.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a decision by the Utah High School Activities Association to delay the start of the winter sports season, which was initially expected on Nov. 18. Instead, basketball teams around the state of Utah took to the court for their first official team practice on Nov. 24, merely two weeks before they would be able to play their first game.
As such, Sanpete County’s boys’ hoops teams were stripped of a total of four games in non-region play, to say nothing of the effect it had on the cross-country schedule of Wasatch Academy.
With all that now as water under the bridge, the coming week will see the return of Manti, North Sanpete, and Gunnison Valley to the court. One looks to defend a crown. One looks to return to relevance. One looks to catch fire.
Here’s an inside look at each team coming into the 2020-21 season.
MANTI—Only nine months ago, a victorious team of Templars took turns cutting down the nets at Salt Lake Community College in celebration of their third championship in six years.
It was only a few weeks later that the world ground to a halt.
With six departing seniors, head coach Devin Shakespear faces a tough task in a title defense year, replacing four of last year’s starters where the pandemic has limited team practices to having started only two weeks ago on Nov 24.
The experienced Manti lineup was unquestionably the top dog in 3A last year, sporting a 25-1 overall record. Their only loss was to Dixie, last year’s 4A champion.
It is expected in the early part of the season that senior Grady Thompson will be the focal point of the Manti offense. Thompson led the team in scoring, rebounding, and assists last year with a clip of 12.81 points, 6.77 rebounds, and 5.15 assists per game, a slight uptick from his sophomore year in 2018.
“Obviously, this year, there’s going to be more of a focal point, there’s no question, and teams are gonna dial in and be more prepared for Grady than ever,” head coach Devin Shakespear said, “but this is a fun group. I think they come in as more of an underdog mentality as far what they can do.”
Joining Grady on the court is a somewhat inexperienced but well-coached group of five other seniors: Tanner Justesen, Braden and Trace Boggess and Tate Quarnberg. Of those five, only Trace Boggess averaged more than 1.0 points per game.
Manti still carries the faith of voters from the media as they are No. 1 in the preseason 3A poll by Deseret News.
The Templars lost one game from their schedule to the pandemic, their planned season opener at South Summit. Instead, their season began at the Central Utah Basketball Preview in Richfield last weekend.
Manti’s first game of the season was an unexpected loss at the hands of Grantsville, 65-61. Thompson led all scorers with 22 points to go with eight rebounds and four assists. Justesen also chipped in 14 points.
The Templars recovered from the loss with a subsequent victory over San Juan, 89-79. This one looked far more like signature Manti as five different Templars scored in double figures. Senior Austin Cox led with 21 points and an astounding five 3-pointers. Justesen backed it up with 18 points. Thompson scored 17 points, and Larson Pogroszewski scored 11 points. Boggess finished with 10 points to round out the scoring effort. Manti combined to make 13 3-pointers.
After the Preview tournament, the highlight of Manti’s early schedule comes in a title game rematch as the Templars face Richfield on the road on Wednesday. They will return home Friday to face South Sevier.
MOUNT PLEASANT—Despite a lackluster season last winter, North Sanpete boys’ hoops left the court at Salt Lake Community College with two reasons for optimism.
The first was a playoff win against Maeser Prep, 56-50. It was the first time the Hawks had won in the postseason since the 2011-12 season before head coach Cris Hoopes had begun coaching the program.
The second was the Hawks playing a competitive game against the eventual champion Templars in their last game of the season, a 60-44 loss.
“I think we’re capable of anything the boys want,” Hoopes said. “They can definitely get into the state tournament this year and compete.”
As the Hawks have been young at starting positions for several years, they now return a number of seniors with starting experience, including Trevin Morley, Magnus Clawson, and Landon Milne. Junior Landon Bowles also returns to the lineup. Hoopes confirmed that both Morley and Bowles have fully recovered from the injuries they sustained as starters on the football team last fall.
With an emphasis on replicating the focus on depth seen in their Manti counterparts, the Hawks are looking to cycle through a solid rotation of players this year without losing too much in the way of production.
Hoopes knows that in the tough region they play, their previous years of on-court product mean they have to prove themselves to get taken seriously by the top dogs in the region again.
“We think we can play with anybody,” Hoopes said. “We’re just kind of in a year where we have to earn respect. I think that has to be what we do.”
North Sanpete’s first two games, at home against Grand and at South Sevier, were cancelled by the pandemic. The Hawks’ season began at home against Providence Hall, and it couldn’t have gone much better as they came away with a dominant 60-35 win over the typically-strong Patriots. Senior Brady Jacobsen led all scorers with 19 points, and junior Ty Morley chipped in 12 points, as North Sanpete jumped on the Patriots early, 23-8, in the first quarter.
GUNNISON—Last year was a season to remember for Gunnison boys’ hoops.
Despite an early exit from the playoffs in the form of a second-round defeat to North Sevier, 72-66, the Bulldogs had been impressive after years of mediocrity. They posted a 15-7 overall record, bulldozing through Region 16 en route to a 9-1 region mark and a region title.
The best part was that it was a talented junior squad that fueled their success.
By all accounts, 2020 is “go-time” for Gunnison, and voters agree. Deseret News’ 2A preseason poll ranked the Bulldogs No. 6, their highest preseason ranking in years.
“Consistency-wise, we’re where we’d like to be as far as a basketball program,” head coach Ben Hill said. “Last year was a good year for us. We had solid seniors that did a lot of good things for us.”
Returning one of their most talented cores in years, the Bulldogs are led by senior Creed Mogle, who led the team in scoring last season with over 15 points per game. Seniors Janzen Keisel, Harley Hill, and Payton Dyreng look to pace the offense as well. Junior Jack Hansen leads a small group of underclassmen also featuring sophomore Jon Willden.
Keisel committed earlier this year to play baseball at BYU after graduating.
Some struggles may come on the rebounding game as the Bulldogs contend with the graduation of Braxon Silvester and Garrett Francis, but with their returning starters primarily being the go-to scorers of last year’s squad, Gunnison will be expected to be a force in the region again. To do so, they will have to contend mightily with a replenished squad at North Summit, ranked No. 5.
Hill described it as a “collective effort” to continue rebounding effectively this year as they will replace much of their frontcourt, relying on the core four of Keisel, Mogle, Hill, and fellow senior Zach Stewart.
Although the 2012 squad that played for the 2A state championship seems very long ago, the 2020 interaction of the Bulldogs could provide new hope for the Gunnison basketball program.
Gunnison’s first two games were affected by the pandemic, with the season opener against Wayne being rescheduled to this Wednesday, and the home opener with Parowan being cancelled. The Bulldogs’ season began at the Bear River Winter Classic in Ogden, then Garland, then Cedar City last Thursday through Saturday.
Assistant coach Jordan Stewart said he was pleased with how his team responded to the pace they saw playing the 4A-level squads over the weekend.
The Bulldogs started with a 59-52 win over Ben Lomond Thursday night. Keisel scored 17, Willden 16 and Hill 16.
The next day, they lost against the hosts, 4A Bear River, 65-50. Hill’s stat line stood out with 18 points, including four 3-pointers. Mogle and Willden each got into double-figures as well with 15 and 12 points, respectively.
The Bulldogs left Garland with a win as they beat 4A Canyon View in their second game of the Classic, 54-42. Hill lit it up from outside once again with six made threes en route to 21 points. Mogle backed it up with 11 points.
“Overall, we feel pretty good about where we’re at,” Stewart said. “The kinds of things we’ve been focusing on is really being a tough, gritty team, to be the aggressor defensively and out-rebound. All three games, we rebounded really well, we played physical, so we’re happy about where we’re at.”
Gunnison’s home opener is this Wednesday against Wayne, and they will take on 3A Juab this Friday at home.
MOUNT PLEASANT—The pandemic didn’t make basketball easy to play for any team in the state, but for the tournament-hopping Wasatch Academy Tigers, this is going to be one of the most stressful seasons in recent memory.
The Tigers were primed for greatness last March, ranked in the top 5 in the nation by MaxPreps and various other polls, and every member of the starting lineup was committed to playing Division I college basketball the next year. They had a No. 2 seed in the GEICO Nationals, and numerous predictors looked at Wasatch to, at very least, pick up their first national tournament victory in school history.
Instead, the most accomplished team in Wasatch Academy stayed in Mount Pleasant, packed it up, and sent their players home. COVID-19 had cancelled the tournament and ended their season.
After the season was over, the program took another unexpected hit when second-year head coach David Evans resigned from the program. Evans, who never publicly gave reason for his departure, is now head coaching a brand new basketball program at Real Salt Lake Academy, trying to build a second iteration of the Tigers.
So it became that Paul Peterson, a longtime assistant of Evans’, took over as head coach and, despite graduating its entire starting lineup, the team’s future is bright with a plethora of incoming stars.
Along with the return of junior guard Richard Isaacs, senior Brennan Rigsby and senior BYU commit Fousseyni Traore, the Tigers welcomed incoming senior and future Kentucky Wildcat Nolan Hickman.
Hickman joined the program after averaging 17.1 points per game in his junior year at Eastside Catholic High School in Sammamish, Wash. Ranked the No. 61 prospect in the 2021 class, Hickman ranking in the class is only second to last year’s Mady Sissoko as the highest-rated recruit in school history at Wasatch Academy.
Peterson could not be contacted for comment on this story. He was flying back from the Hoophall Classic where the Tigers went 2-0, beating Grayson, Ga., 75-72 in overtime, and Pebblebrook, Ga., 71-62. Traore was the highlight of the tournament with his 21-point outing on 6-7 shooting against Pebblebrook.
Last week, the Tigers predictably swept their games at the Great Western Shootout, dominating Lone Peak, 83-64, and American Fork, 90-58.
Isaacs led all scorers with 28 points, with six 3-pointers, against Lone Peak. Traore and Hickman scored 19 and 15 points, respectively.
Against American Fork, it was Rigsby who led the way with 22 points, while senior newcomer Robbie Armbrester contributed 18 points. Isaacs and junior Matus Hronsky each scored 12 points.
The Tigers’ schedule remains volatile as their national travel could be limited by COVID-19, according to assistant athletic director Travis Madsen. Having faced their old rival Layton Christian Academy last Monday, they will play Dixie in the American Fork Elite 8 tournament. They are scheduled to play Salem Hills at home next Tuesday for their first home game of the season.