‘The culture he was working to instill was taking hold’
MANTI—On Jan. 8, 2019, first-year Coach Brennon Schweikart watched his team lose by nearly 50 points, and he was happy.
Fourteen games into the girls’ basketball season, Manti walked off their home court with another loss on their record, the ninth on the year.
For a player, fan, or parent, it was perhaps the worst experience of the season up to that point. The undefeated Emery Spartans had not just beaten Manti, they had dominated their way to a 77-34 victory. Emery had gone up 24-6, by the end of the first quarter. It was a game that was over almost before it began.
But Schweikart was still looking intently at the actions of his players all the way into the fourth quarter, and what he saw meant so much more than another loss.
This was the point, crazy as it sounds, when Schweikart knew that the culture he was working to instill was taking hold.
“I walked out of that game and thought, ‘We figured it out,’” Schweikart said. “‘We know who we are and what our identity is and it’s outworking other people.’”
That team scrapped their way through that loss, diving for loose balls against the eventual champion, playing defense like it was the last possession of a 2-point game. The team consisted of two seniors, four juniors and 10 sophomores and freshmen, with much of the playing time going to the latter.
The group didn’t look much different when, a year later, they inserted a Region 14 championship plaque into the trophy case of Manti High’s hallway.
Over the course of three years at the helm of the Manti girls’ basketball program, Schweikart committed to building something that was somehow lost from the Lady Templars on the court. That night, Schweikart saw it for the first time, and it’s been only more prevalent since. The Templars were learning how to win.
In the summer of 2018, Schweikart and his newlywed wife, Jessica, moved to the Sanpete Valley. Schweikart, a native of Seattle, Wash., had recently been hired on the spot to take over the girls’ basketball team at a school only an hour away from where his bride grew up in Sevier County.
Manti has a proud sports tradition in general. Since 2010, the Templars have won two state championships in football, three in boys’ basketball, one in baseball, one in girls’ soccer, and three in softball.
Conversely, the girls’ basketball team, in that time, laid claim to a single winning season, going 11-10 in 2011-12, had a smattering of different head coaches, and their best accomplishment was an out-of-nowhere run to the state semifinals in 2015, a season where they went 9-17 overall.
In nine seasons, the Lady Templars had a 56-135 record. They were coming off a 3-19 season when Schweikart moved in that summer.
Barely moved into a new house, while shopping at the local Walmart, Schweikart was still racking his brain for who to have as an assistant coach, and a very difficult dialogue opened up with Jessica.
Jessica had multiple state titles in her hometown at South Sevier High and had played at Dixie State, though not at the same time as Schweikart was coaching. Basketball wasn’t just how Jessica learned how to win; it was how she learned how to survive.
Jessica found herself divorced in her 30’s as a mother of three children, and suddenly the lessons she had learned on how to win through adversity were critical.
“I knew that, because of sports, I could dust myself off and try harder,” Jessica said. “It definitely was the thing that saved me in the end. The lessons I had learned on the court, even today as a parent, are the lessons that I use with my kids.”
Yes, that does include assigning laps to naughty kids.
It wasn’t part of the plan, but within a conversation that started at Walmart and ended in their new home, Jessica had just become the assistant coach of the Lady Templars.
While the Schweikarts were ordering furniture, Manti had a star in the making in Kassidy Alder, who started for the Lady Templars when she was just 14. Having played basketball since she was nine in rec leagues, Alder was committed to hoops a lot more than she saw in her teammates when she played under a different coaching staff in 2018.
Alder described her practices under her old coach as “all over the place.”
“We did drills that you do when you’re, like, 10, you know, like, in middle school,” Alder said. “As far as the atmosphere, the program kinda had a bad reputation. Coming into that as a freshman was hard….People that were there were more there to stay conditioned for other sports.”
Sure, the Templars had made the semis just a few years before, but Alder and her peers were just getting out of elementary school at that time. Alder got into high school in time to see a team with “no real winning mentality.”
When Schweikart began holding practices with his new team, his primary needs were firstly to sell his vision to Alder and the rest of the sophomore class, and more importantly, to get these girls to think they can do something good.
“That first year was hard,” Schweikart said. “Anytime you’re trying to win or change a culture, the first thing you do is surround yourself with those that you trust that mirror your philosophy.”
Schweikart already had the ultimate assistant coach in Jessica, but he also brought in his brother-in-law, Logan Baker, who won state titles in high school, and Todd Hermansen, who played at Richfield as a deaf man who Schweikart once described as the man tasked with shutting down Shawn Bradley in high school.
In true form to Schweikart’s blunt-force confidence, the 2018-19 team motto was an indubitably sarcastic, “Go Ahead…Tell Me What I Can’t Do.”
Schweikart couldn’t do everything right in just one year. As the 2018-19 season ended, Manti showed plenty of improvement but still finished 6-18 overall.
Yet, just like that loss to Emery, what Manti showed at the end was evidence of things to come. Manti had played their way into the playoff bracket with a gutsy 44-38 win over Grand County, a must-win game that the Templars had not previously had the mentality to prevail in.
Manti had learned how to win.
“[That win] was everything to our program,” Schweikart said. “That game is what set the tone for the following year.”
Manti had precisely one region win in the regular season in Schweikart’s first year. In his second year, Manti had precisely one region loss.
The 2019-20 Lady Templars were the model of hard work. Defensive suffocation and fourth-quarter grittiness defined them. People like Karen Soper, who is now the high school principal, and Greg Sterner, who has covered Manti sports on the local radio station for four years, could see the difference in such a short time.
Soper recalled a conversation she had with her husband, Korry, Manti City’s mayor, during a game, where he said, “What’s interesting about the program under Brennon is that the girls BELIEVE they can win. They believe in what they’re doing.”
“The aggression of the girls, I don’t know how else to put it,” Sterner said. “Brennon has a good system he’s running; the girls seem to know their roles really well.”
Sterner only ever had one conversation with Schweikart, before a playoff game in 2020. Most of the radio and TV coverage goes to the boys’ team, but he remembered very well how excited Schweikart was to have the radio station covering the game.
That excitement has proven infectious to the Manti student body. Manti’s girls’ basketball games were restricted greatly by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic initially, but as doors began to open wider for fans to return to the gyms, a surprisingly large contingent of rowdy Manti students filed in once or twice a week to watch the Lady Templars play.
Manti played with a second region title on the line in 2021 on the road against Delta, nearly two hours away from the Sanpete Valley. They may have lost that game this year, but they lost it, in overtime, in front of a traveling Manti crowd large enough to take up an entire section of bleachers.
As for Alder, the young woman who once felt like an overwhelmed 14-year old on a varsity court now awaits multiple offers to play at the college level.
“They are both very competitive people,” Alder said of Schweikart and his wife/assistant. “They always made practice a competition and built us into good competitors who wanted to go out and compete with other teams. Off the court, they always told us we are students first, athletes second, and that winning in the classroom is just as important as winning on the court.”
“Succeeding doesn’t always mean winning,” Schweikart said. “Twenty years from now, I want them to come back with their families and say [to their kids], ‘This is my coach.’…I want them to succeed in life.”
Schweikart’s team got knocked out of the state playoffs earlier than expected, a first-round loss to the eventual state champion, but work for the next chapter began immediately. A new star waits in the wings in sophomore Heidi Jorgensen, a sophomore who led the team in scoring and shoots with a Kobe-like confidence; a winning mentality.
Things have changed in practice since the start of Manti’s new era. Schweikart saw one of the most promising things in practice this year that a coach could behold, and he told his wife what he saw immediately.
During a practice, some of the incoming freshmen walked from one drill to another. A senior in the program quickly got their attention with a single phrase.
“We don’t do that here.”
And those freshmen started running.