Girls' basketball: Savannah Park welcomes challenge of defending state title
When 6-foot-3 Brooke Wheeler challenges Savannah Park to a game of one-on-one, the two Springville teammates get after it. Wheeler, a Utah Valley University commit and one of the top defensive presences in Utah girls' hoops, immediately goes to the post against her teammate Park, a 5-2 point guard who does not back down.
Both players were essential parts of the Red Devils' 24-0 season in 2012, a season that culminated in a Class 4A state championship. Having both returning players should ease the transition for first-year coach Camie Oakey. But Oakey, who enjoys watching Wheeler and Park go at it in practice, said her senior point guard no longer surprises.
Park does not shy away from a challenge.
"She's one of the toughest players I've ever coached," said Oakey, a former University of Utah basketball player who moved from Mountain View to Springville in the offseason. "She's not afraid of anyone on the court."
The example of her pestering Wheeler, despite being an entire ruler shorter, exemplifies Park's tenacity on the court. When Oakey had returning and incoming players fill out a questionnaire before the team began practicing, Park's response to what motivates her more than anything else stood out to the new Springville coach.
"One of the things that motivates Savannah is when people tell her she can't," Oakey said. "When they say she can't, it lights her fire."
It did last year, when as a junior point guard playing off Wheeler and former star Malia Nawahine, Park established herself as one of the top floor leaders in the state, averaging 13.2 points per game. She dished when she needed to, hit timely 3-point shots, wiggled her way into the lane and became one of the top off-the-ball defenders.
Being a leader will be added to the laundry list of necessary things Park must bring to the Red Devils this season if they want to continue their winning streak.
"A lot of teams want to approach their game against Springville as the biggest game," she said. "We have that target on our back, and we accept that. Our mentality is to go into every game believing we're the underdog. It makes you work and defend the tradition we have at Springville."
A tradition that will have a tweak to it this season.
Both Oakey and Park said this season will feature a different look than previous Red Devils teams in recent years, and the Springville star admitted it took a while to warm up to the idea. When former coach Nancy Warner left to become the coach at 5A Lone Peak in Alpine, Park said she was a "little close-minded in the beginning." But she's developed a great rapport with the new staff as time has gone on.
"They're different coaches and have different styles, but it's been good to be able to strengthen each player individually and adapt to change," Park said.
Oakey's first season at the helm will provide challenges. She's taking over a program that has been to five consecutive state championships.
"I think we have girls that know how to win and people who want to be part of something," Oakey said. "I don't expect anything less than what they've done in the past."
At the forefront will be Park, the minuscule and resolute point guard who is in the process of trying to impress several schools.
"A lack of height is a hard point to overcome in basketball," Park said. "I'm hoping to play at the next level. If that's what I'm supposed to do, then it'll happen."
Five players to watch
Maddy Chin, sr., Brighton • The Bengal forward returns as the leading scorer (15.8 points per game) and rebounder (6.4 per game) and will spearhead a deep Brighton team that was young a year ago.
Cortney Porter, sr., Bonneville • Emilie Volk is off to Fresno State, but the Lakers still have a deep well of talent, and it starts with Porter, the 5-foot-9 point guard who verbally committed to Air Force in late September. The Lakers went 23-1 a year ago, losing in the 4A semifinals.
Caitlyn Larsen, sr., Viewmont • One of the state's best all-around athletes returns for her senior season after averaging 17.8 points per game as a junior. If the Vikings are to repeat as region champs, Larsen again will need to be atop her game.
Kailie Quinn, sr., Judge Memorial • Quinn does it all for the Bulldogs. Ahe paced Judge Memorial in points, rebounds, assists and steals a year ago, and the recent Weber State commit will have a chance to show she's one of the top talents in 4A hoops.
Haley Bodnar, sr., Desert Hills • Patrolling the paint for the Thunder, Bodnar has proven to be one of the top rebounders and defenders in 3A basketball. The Desert Hills center recently committed to play in the Big Ten with the Purdue Boilermakers.
Five teams to watch
Bingham • Gone is Rand Rasmussen. The former Bingham coach retired after 24 years at the helm in South Jordan, leading the Miners to four state titles. Charron Mason takes the reins of a program known for competing for region and state titles and will have to mold a contender with a young core of players in 2013-14.
Timpview • A very young team made a run to the 4A state title game a year ago and ran into Malia Nawahine and the Springville Red Devils. But the T-Birds return a wealth of talent, including senior Lauryn Dela Cruz along with twins Lacy and Lyndie Haddock. There are plenty of talented teams in 4A, and Timpview has talent to get make noise late in the season.
Layton • The Lancers had a memorable run in the 5A state tournament a year ago and lose some key talent. But they return guard Maddi Smith, Jaden Anderson and Teneshia Davison. Layton plays in one of the toughest regions in 5A basketball, but coach Van Price proved his team is always a threat due to its defensive tenacity.
Desert Hills • Between Haley Bodnar and Blair Bliss, the Thunder have plenty of firepower to return to the 3A state championship. Bodnar, a Purdue commit, and Bliss, one of the best all-around players in the state, will fuel the drive of being upset on a pair of last-second 3-pointers to rival Dixie in the 3A title game a year ago.
Richfield • The Wildcats have had quite the run in 2A, but if they want to repeat as state champs and again assert themselves as the team to beat in that classification, they'll have to do so with a new cast of key contributors. Megan Bean, Sloane Roundy and Sammi Beck have graduated, thus leaving an opportunity for new players to step up.