The rise of Wasatch Academy: How a small private school in central Utah became a national basketball power
Jody Genessy Originally
MT. PLEASANT, Sanpete County — Five decades after attending Wasatch Academy as a student, Dave Huls returned a year ago to be a film instructor for the private boarding school and a videographer for its sports teams. The 1970 alumnus laughs recalling the first time he entered the off-campus gym — a quaint, historic building with plenty of character and stories to tell — where the boys team now plays its home games.
“For me to come back here many years later and walk into this gym, it was kind of an odd feeling in the first place,” Huls said from the top row of the bleachers while positioned behind a streaming setup that included a video recorder on a tripod and a MacBook laptop. “This is a lot different from what I remember.”
For one thing, the Brunger/Wilkey Center on State Street used to be part of the old North Sanpete High School, most of which is long gone. A trophy case in the gym’s foyer displays trophies, plaques and black-and-white photos of players and coaches to highlight cherished moments of the Hawks’ hoops history from the 20th century. The building, a reminder of relocated North Sanpete’s past, has also been renovated in recent years, getting freshened up but keeping its old-school charm.
“It’s a really wonderful venue,” Wasatch Academy headmaster Joe Loftin said. “It feels a little bit like Hoosiers.”
For another thing, the roster makeup, talent level, playing style and quality of team that now occupies this small arena, across the highway from the Big Pine Sinclair and down the road from the Basin Drive In Theatre, is vastly different from those old North Sanpete squads.
In a sense, similar differences exist between the gym’s current occupants — a skilled team that plays energetic, excellent and entertaining basketball — and the rest of the varsity basketball teams around the Beehive State.
Like the Hawks who preceded these Tigers in this gym in another era, other Utah teams pursue goals of claiming region titles, going to state and winning their classification.
Wasatch Academy has its eyes on a bigger prize. “Our goal,” third-year head coach Curtis Condie said, “is to win a national title.”
Things have indeed changed in Mt. Pleasant over the years.
From doormat to dominant
Ty Kennedy, Wasatch Academy’s assistant head of school for student life and former head coach of the basketball team, chuckles while talking about how it used to be. Legendary Dugway coach George Bruce’s dominant Class 1A teams routinely seemed to beat the Tigers by 40 points, he recalled. The private institution rarely made it to the state playoffs and never won even when getting to the tournament when it had about 100 students.
“We always struggled,” Kennedy said. “We had a no-cut policy. If you wanted to play, you were on the team.”
While that was a benevolent and inclusive policy, it’s not necessarily a formula for success in the competitive world of sports.
For perspective on how times have changed at Wasatch Academy since then, consider that the school now has:
- Four boys basketball teams that compete at various levels, including the one that’s gained Nike Elite status and funds;
- A young player with NBA potential in Mady Sissoko, an athletic 6-foot-9 sophomore from Mali who’s a beast despite having only played basketball for two years;
- A Top 100 recruit and University of California-bound small forward in Matt Bradley;
- A 7-foot starting center (Bryan Penn-Johnson) with intriguing upside;
- All-expenses-paid invitations to participate in top-tier basketball tournaments, including the Bass Pro Tournament (this past weekend) and the exclusive and ESPN-televised Dick’s Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions;
- Elite athletes from around the globe reach out to express interest — or are referred by coaches or contacts with international ties — leading to a current lineup composed of players from Africa (Mali), Europe (Netherlands and Serbia), South America (Brazil) and North America (Canada, California, Texas, Nevada and even a contributor, Corbin Zentner, from Mt. Pleasant, Utah);
- Recent alumni placed at Arizona (Emmanuel Akot), Utah State (2017 MWC freshman of the year Koby McEwen), Santa Clara (Josip Vrankic, 11.2 points per game), Cal State Fullerton (Jackson Rowe, 2017 Big West freshman of the year), Weber State (Cody John), Idaho State (Geno Luzcando), Buffalo (Jerryn Skeete) and Gus Navickas (Bethune-Cookman).
- Consistent national exposure, including a current No. 14 ranking in USA Today’s most recent compilation;
- Even more publicity after point guard Damion Squire’s buzzer-beating, game-winning three-quarters-court shot went viral on social media and ended up on “SportsCenter’s” Top 10 this past weekend at the big tournament in Springfield, Missouri;
- And a program that has become so well-respected in recent years that 11 coaches with Division I coaching experience were among the impressive group that applied for the head coach vacancy after tragic circumstances led to the job opening two-and-a-half years ago.
That’s quite remarkable considering that Wasatch Academy, founded in 1875, went 3-15 and had never won a state playoff game just nine years ago.
‘We need a basketball guy’
It was after the 2008-09 season when Kennedy and Loftin, the head of school for 30 years, decided it was time to get serious about the sports programs. The academic institution thrived with doctorate-level instructors teaching science, math and English but depended on adjunct coaches for some sports. The administrators agreed that the school needed a similar “model of excellence” in athletics as it had in academia.
Kennedy’s thoughts on the matter: “We need a basketball guy, not just someone who likes basketball. There’s a difference.”
To begin the process, Loftin had Kennedy reached out to the University of Utah to see if anyone could recommend a possible coach.
“I looked at him like he’s crazy,” Kennedy said.
And then he dutifully sent a blanket letter to every email address at the U. he could find. At first, Kennedy only received two responses from people who didn’t know him or anyone who’d be interested in coaching a small private school in the middle of rural central Utah. Two weeks later, Barret Peery, then-Utah coach Jim Boylen’s assistant, gave them hope with his reply. Kennedy and Peery, a Payson native who’s now Portland State’s head coach, began to form a relationship. That led to a meeting between the Wasatch Academy leaders and Utah coaches. Boylen and Peery had a name for them: Geno Morgan, an assistant coach at Emory University in Atlanta.
Loftin and Kennedy were impressed.
“He was a basketball guy and everything we were looking for,” Kennedy said. “We called him immediately after the meeting from the parking lot to try to get him at our campus.”
Morgan accepted the invitation. Long story short: It was a match made in heaven.
The ensuing six years before Morgan’s untimely death at the age of 49 were magical for the Wasatch Academy basketball program — and the whole school, really.
“Geno came out there and looked around and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do this,'” Loftin said. “He immediately turned everything around. It was an amazing work on his part.”
Morgan’s infectious personality and leadership skills were just what the talented but underachieving Tigers needed. In his first season as head coach, Morgan took a three-win team and turned it into an 18-3 team. Wasatch Academy still lost in the first round of the state tournament — some habits are hard to break — but a solid foundation had been laid. Something special was happening in this small town of just over 3,000.
“It was fun to see,” Kennedy said of the transformation. “He really changed the culture of athletics at our school.”
Morgan helped students understand that athletics were a privilege and that sacrifice was necessary for anything that’s worth having in life, Kennedy said. He taught them life lessons. Players responded on and off the court. Wasatch Academy didn’t just win its first tournament game the following year; the Tigers won the Class 1A championship.
The academy grew in size, so the sports programs were moved up to 2A the following year. The Tigers fared well against the stiffer competition but lost to Richfield in the first round. That was simply a launching pad. Morgan’s teams, which had begun to attract even more talent, won the next two state championships in 2012 and ’13. By this point, they weren’t just winning; they were dominating teams like Dugway used to dominate them.
Some people outside of Mt. Pleasant weren’t exactly pleasant about the boarding school’s rise to the top. It renewed a controversy about private schools vs. public schools.
“Tension within the state had been building,” Kennedy said. “We were in a situation where it wasn’t really good for us, and it wasn’t really good for the state in terms of where we were at.”
Wasatch Academy considered moving its boys basketball team up to the 4A or 5A ranks. That idea was nixed because it would have required the entire athletic program to follow suit. That wasn’t feasible.
The school had already started participating in out-of-state invitational tournaments, including one in Alaska where Morgan had played and coached, when the leaders there hatched a new plan. The concept: remain a rule-abiding member of the Utah High School Activities Association so they could play other Beehive State teams but do so as an independent basketball program. That would eliminate the school from competing for region and state titles — kind of disappointing considering they’d just taken state at two different levels three times in four years — but it would put them in position to pursue a loftier vision. Lone Peak was crowned the 2013 national champion by MaxPreps, but that program, although still really solid, hasn’t sustained its elite national championship level in the wake of a bumper class and coach Quincy Lewis departing.
Wasatch Academy envisioned its program contending for that year in year out.
“We thought we could really utilize this team as the porch, if you will, for the school in getting our name out there in terms of the program and excellence,” Kennedy said. “That’s been the goal, and that’s been the desire.”
One year into its adventure as an independent, the school and community was stunned when Morgan passed away of a heart attack in his sleep while visiting family in Chicago during the summer of 2015. He and his wife, Lisa, had recently renewed their wedding vows and celebrated their 20th anniversary.
It was a major loss. Morgan had quickly created a basketball dynasty, won three state titles, coached the Tigers to a 128-20 record, been recognized as Utah’s top high school coach six straight years by the Best of State organization and guided his guys to wins over Top 50 prep teams with a very bright future ahead.
“At that point we weren’t sure what to do with the program. So much of it was Geno,” Kennedy said. “Geno had so much input in the direction and what we wanted to do. We struggled as a school, mourning and trying to figure out if this was still viable.”
The painful decision was made to keep moving forward. What happened next showed Wasatch Academy administrators just how impressive of a legacy Morgan had left behind. While grieving the loss of a friend and community treasure — Morgan used to read to elementary students and was viewed as a local celebrity — Kennedy received a phone call from Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. The legendary coach wanted to recommend a former assistant for the job.
Morgan had helped put Wasatch Academy on the basketball map.
“It was where we knew we had built something special,” Kennedy said.
Wasatch Academy ended up going a different direction, hiring Condie, Dick Hunsaker’s lead assistant at Utah Valley and a former head coach at Snow College and Division II Texas A&M International, as their coach in 2015.
“I think Coach Condie is the perfect guy for the job,” Canyon View coach Robbie Potter said. “There’s a need for what he’s doing.”
And Wasatch Academy, which honors Morgan with a trophy case display and an empty seat with his name on it at the end of the bench, hasn’t skipped a beat.
Building on Morgan’s foundation, Condie, who’d previously coached in the high school ranks at South Sevier and at Heber City’s Wasatch High, has helped lift Wasatch Academy to an even higher level. The program went 29-3 in his first year and became the first school in state history to participate in the Dick’s High School National Tournament. They returned to the prestigious eight-team event in New York City the following year.
“He’s done a wonderful job sustaining our momentum,” Loftin said. “He’s kept it going upward. I’m really impressed.”
Condie was fortunate to have talented leaders like McEwen and Rowe around. After Morgan died, basketball players got together to decide what to do and those two helped convince the rest of the team to give their all to Condie.
“They decided, ‘Hey, let’s finish what we started here,’ so they came back,” Wasatch Academy athletics director Travis Madsen said. “We hired Coach Condie, and they just jumped right on board with him.”
Condie said the school follows the UHSAA rules by the book, so they have the disadvantage of not being able to practice until Nov. 6. Other national-level teams go year-round.
The school’s advantages, though, are what attract players like Bradley, who transferred for his senior season after establishing himself as one of California’s top players in San Bernardino. They enjoy the top-shelf education and the hoops experience. Even amidst hoops hysteria, administrators and coaches try to keep a perspective on the priority just as Morgan emphasized.
Condie said Cal-bound Bradley told him, “We’re an academic school that has a basketball team.”
That’s music to the ears of an educator whose school hosts and educates 360-plus students from 40 different countries and 35 states. As much as he loves his basketball team’s success, Loftin is even prouder of the education students receive and how the school places high-achievers in colleges around the world, from the Ivy League to community colleges. Loftin insists that the school won’t compromise scholastic standards to win in basketball. Right now, academics and athletics are meshing and benefiting each other.
The school has record enrollment this year and has seen continued growth in conjunction with the rise of the hoops program.
“I just think it’s wonderful that these boys are great ambassadors,” Loftin said. “They spread the name and reputation of Wasatch Academy all over the country and world. The growth of our school really reflects that, how we’ve grown over the past 10 years.”
Arizona Wildcats guard Emmanuel Akot cheers from the sideline in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. Akot honed his game at Wasatch Academy. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Now in his freshman season at Arizona, Akot, who followed Canadian friend Vrankic to the MT. Pleasant school, loved all that Wasatch Academy had to offer. That’s true even if he was honest in his description of the small town as being “small, empty, boring.”
“But it was still great. I love Mt. Pleasant,” he said. “I wish I could go see Wasatch Academy.”
Akot sees the team he left behind becoming a national powerhouse after he skipped a grade and entering college early.
“They’re definitely going the right direction — player development, sending guys to play Division I basketball,” Akot said after Arizona’s recent win over the Utes at the Huntsman Center. “It’s a great school, too — international, just a lot of different diversity of people. You just learn a lot.”
Local opponents do, too.
Canyon View got clobbered at Wasatch Academy a week ago, but the coach thought it was a great experience. Utah schools can play at the Mt. Pleasant school as an extra game — like when college football teams visit Hawaii — so it provides a good opportunity for players to test themselves against the best in the state.
“If they’re competing for state championships, it’s a different scenario, but I think with what they’re doing right now it’s good for our state,” Potter said. “It’s good for high school basketball to come out here and get to play these games and not count it. I’m glad the UHSAA did that.”
Building for the future
Wasatch Academy, established in 1875, is seen in Mt. Pleasant on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
Like Huls, Madsen returned to his roots to work for Wasatch Academy to oversee the sports programs under Kennedy’s direction. Originally from nearby Fairview, the North Sanpete alumnus has been impressed with what happened before he arrived in 2013 and with how the program continues to blossom.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, seeing it build from where it was to where it is now,” Madsen said. “It’s extremely exciting and definitely unique.”
According to the school’s ambitious vision, the best is yet to come.