Highland, Utah • Here, among a string of quiet Mormon towns, where the spires of Latter-day Saints churches glint against the Wasatch Mountains, is the home of what many consider the nation’s best high school boys’ basketball team.
For the past two years, the Knights of Lone Peak High School, a team of lanky, long-armed, mostly white teenagers who look only slightly more imposing than a chess club, have not just been beating opponents, they have been crushing them.
At 23-1, the Knights have been ranked as the best high school team in the country for more than a month by the website Max Preps and are working their way through the Utah state playoffs, which end Saturday. While Lone Peak has lost to in-state opponents just three times in the past three years, its success nationally is especially surprising. It has won by an average of nearly 28 points this season, including tournament victories over top teams from Pennsylvania, Illinois and California.
“There was one team we played that was literally laughing when we were warming up,” the senior center Eric Mika said with a chuckle. “And we beat them by 50.”
Unlike many top high school teams that lure talented players from outside their immediate area, Lone Peak, which has a student body of about 2,300, pulls players from the pruned streets of Alpine and Highland — small communities tucked in the foothills about 30 miles from Salt Lake City.
They were so named by Mormon settlers because the landscape reminded them of the Swiss Alps and Scottish Highlands.
The Knights — led by Mika and guards Nick Emery and T.J. Haws — have ascended to the top of the national rankings as relative unknowns in high school circles, a feat made more remarkable by the simple fact that they hail from a region not known for basketball prowess.
“We know we’re different whenever we walk into a gym,” said coach Quincy Lewis, who has a 206-35 record over the past decade. “But our guys walk in there with a chip on their shoulder. We know we have something to prove because, honestly, the other teams don’t have a great deal of respect for us.”
Then Lone Peak starts playing. Their style is a fearless, careening brand of basketball, built on 3-pointers, lobs and drunks, that seemingly more suited for a playground than the movie “Hoosiers.”
“They play like inner-city teams; how blacks consider black teams play,” said Tyrone Slaughter, who coaches Whitney Young High School in Chicago, which is ranked seventh in the country. “I don’t know any other way to put it.
“So many times we see the predominantly white teams play a conservative style, a precise style of basketball,” he said. “When you see this team play, it is completely different.”
Last season, Lone Peak beat Whitney Young in double-overtime game at the Beach Ball Classic tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a performance that helped burnish its reputation.
Emery set the tournament’s four-game scoring record with 119 points. Word of the Knights’ lopsided victories spread around Chicago. Now, Slaughter said, if a team is blown out, it is said to have been Lone Peaked.
The most apparent reason for the team’s success is the triumvirate of Mika, Emery and Haws, players, Lewis says, who “don’t come around very often for anybody, I don’t care what program you’re a part of.”
The 6-foot-2 senior Emery, who averages 19 points, and the 6-foot-4 junior Haws, who scores 17 a game, are continuing a family tradition at Lone Peak.
Emery’s older brother, Jackson, who graduated from the school in 2005, was named the state’s Mr. Basketball and was a co-captain at Brigham Young with Jimmer Fredette.
Haws’ older brother, Tyler, was also a Lone Peak standout and was 10th in the country in scoring with a 20.9 points-a-game average at BYU entering Tuesday’s games. The 6-foot-10 Mika, who averages 16 points, is in his first season at Lone Peak after transferring from a private school, but he has known Haws and Emery since they were fourth graders playing on youth teams together.
“I feel this is really a once-in-a-life team,” said Haws, who can make 3-pointers from the NBA range or slash through the lane with moves that have earned him YouTube fame.
Lewis has coached many of his players since grade school at clinics and camps. Every summer, he takes the team to play against Amateur Athletic Union squads around the country.
Most AAU teams, the equivalent of select youth soccer clubs, choose marquee players from around their region. And it is rare for a high school team to compete against what are essentially All-Star rosters.
“We have had very few teams that have competed at that level in term of how they play together, shot selection and chemistry,” said Greg Procino, the director of events and awards at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which also hosts a tournament that Lone Peak has excelled at in 2011 and another in which the team performed well in January.
There is, of course, something else that sets the Knights apart.
A flip through the team program finds plenty of references to Mormonism, whether it is players noting that the last book they read was the Book of Mormon or stating their life goals as serving a mission and marrying.
Lone Peak players freely discuss how religion unites them. When the team is on the road and needs to practice, it will call up the local Mormon bishop and ask to use the small gym typically attached to each Mormon church.
“A couple of summers ago, we were in Boston,” Mika said. “Someone was like: ‘Oh, you guys are all Mormon. How many moms do you have? You guys all brothers?’ We just laugh.”
Mika, Emery and Haws have committed to play at BYU, 30 minutes away. All have also decided to go on missions. For Emery, an explosive guard and the most highly recruited of the three, that means leaving for Germany in May and probably not playing organized basketball for two years.
“A lot of factors went into it,” he said of his decision. “I’ve grown up in the Gospel. And I’ve wanted to serve a mission since I was a young kid. I’ll have four years when I come home.”
Lewis recalled that Bill Self pulled Emery aside after he had starred at a University of Kansas basketball camp, saying, “You’re good enough to play here.”
But it is difficult to ask coaches whose careers rest on immediate success to commit to a top high school prospect who plans to take two years away from basketball.
“The way people look at this state, they say, ‘If we go in there and recruit kids, we know they’re probably LDS,” or Latter-day Saints, “kids, and they’re going on a mission and that’s not how our program is set up,’” Lewis said.
For now, however, Lone Peak is seeking a fifth state championship in seven years — the title game is Saturday — and a chance to brag that they ended the season as the country’s top-ranked team.
At a recent road game against Bingham High School, the gym roared with hundreds of hometown fans who had come to see Lone Peak for themselves.
“Which are the three guys we were watching again?” a woman asked her husband.
An older man wondered aloud if all three were heading to BYU.
By midway through the fourth quarter, the game long in hand, Lewis pulled most of his starters, with Mika, Haws and Emery accounting for 69 of the team’s 98 points in a 41-point victory.
The three friends sat on the bench, laughing, leaping up when their backups scored and politely chatting with curious fans wandering down for a closer look.
It may have been an away game, but this was home.