Mount Pleasant • On a sprawling 35-acre property, miles away from the state’s urban core, sits an inconspicuous brick building that looks like it’s been there 200 years. Inside, shiny hardwood, squeaky-clean backboards and multiple championship banners set the scene for what occurs there on a daily basis.

On this clear, crisp December day, the Wasatch Academy basketball team practices full speed, repeating sets that end in lob passes or post-ups. The cuts are sharp, the screens hard, the shots smooth.

But while the Tigers work up an early-morning sweat, preparing to embark on one of their many road trips, most everyone around them enjoys their winter break. Not one of the other members of the student body was stirring. All across campus, the classes were empty, the doors locked. A skeleton crew of administrators sat at their desks working.

It’s a routine these basketball players know all too well. But it comes with the territory of being the best team in the state of Utah, boasting a 15-0 record, including high-caliber wins against national powers. Then again, it comes with the territory of being a top-five team in the country, according to MaxPreps.

“It's a sacrifice to be at this level with this team,” says Ty Kennedy, director of basketball at Wasatch Academy.

•••

Mount Pleasant is a quiet town in Sanpete County. Its estimated population is less than 3,500, and it spans only 2.8 square miles. The state’s own tourism website notes only three attractions in the city, and makes no mention of the drive-in movie theater, which is only open in the warmer months of the year.

So when basketball players decide to attend Wasatch Academy, they know what they’re in for. They know their days will revolve around basketball and academics — not much else. They know they’ll start their days with 6 a.m. training and end with 6 p.m. practice before going off to dinner and study hall.

The sacrifice is worth it to senior Marvin Williams III — “Tre” to his teammates. Williams recently signed a national letter of intent to play at the University of Minnesota. The reason for that, he feels, is the rigorous schedule he and his teammates adhere to on a daily basis.

“Coming out here is one of the main reasons I feel like I got looked at by so many more coaches,” says Williams, who is the team’s leading scorer. “They see that you're out here, they know that this is a school where it's business.”

Williams was born in Dallas and lived there until he moved to Utah last year. He still gets homesick, misses his friends, his family. When the stressors of the school year and basketball schedule overwhelm him, he speaks to his father.

But Williams pays no mind to what he could be doing back home. He, like the rest of his teammates, are locked in to the season. Locked in to each other. Sure, he could be back in Dallas living the life of a normal high school teen. But he’d rather be at Wasatch Academy, learning the skills needed to make his dream of playing in the NBA a reality.

“This is a sacrifice so that, later on in life, I won’t have to stress as much,” Williams says. “It gives me an easier path.”

•••

Richie Saunders’ first impression of Wasatch Academy and Mount Pleasant probably wasn’t the best.

“Wait, what is this?” Saunders recalls thinking.” It’s so small.”

The school and the city were completely different than what he was used to. At first, the Utah native from Riverton had some reservations that the environment might be too foreign.

On top of that, Saunders has four older sisters who all graduated from Riverton High School, where he played basketball the previous two years. Since he was a boy, he planned to follow in their footsteps.

But fate intervened. Saunders’ parents were moving and put their house on the market. The family initially had no designs on leaving Riverton, much less arriving in Mount Pleasant. But Saunders had teammates on his AAU team that attended the academy and suggested he consider it.

Saunders and his family thought the academy could afford him better opportunities, and he enrolled at the start of the school year. So far, he’s enjoyed every minute of it — the team’s success, the added exposure, his new multicultural friends.

Still, Saunders misses his friends and family back in Riverton. He visits every two weeks.

“It’s been difficult,” Saunders says. “I miss being a part of that high school experience. It’s just different at Wasatch Academy.”

With the demands of the academy his new normal, Saunders spends his down time woodworking with the lathe he inherited from his grandfather. So far, the junior has made bowls, plates, rollings pins and baseball bats.

Saunders has had to adjust on the court as well. At Riverton, he was one of, if not the, best players on his team. But once he joined the Tigers, he had to sacrifice his place atop the pecking order. His teammates were twice as good as he. Saunders says that has done wonders for his game.

“I think it helped me to practice very competitively,” Saunders says. “Just from the nature of this program, the people that I'm going against in practice are are very good. It helps me rise and hopefully we get better and improve.”

•••

Dave Evans is in his first year as head coach of the Tigers. He spent the previous three years at Lone Peak High School, where he won a 6A state championship in 2017. Before that, he was as assistant at BYU-Hawaii, where he experienced an environment replete with international students.

The smorgasbord of culture was one of the reasons Evans chose to take job at Wasatch Academy, where 40 percent of its student body is from overseas. But coming from a public school like Lone Peak, he’s had to shift some of his views on what makes a successful program.

Evans says more than 70 Division I schools have visited the academy to evaluate his players. In his three years at Lone Peak, there were “maybe four” that did.

“The opportunities are different,” Evans says. “Saying that, my friends in the public schools, my coaches in the public schools, will be angry. But it is just different.”

Evans is different, too. His players praise him for what he’s been able to bring to the table both on and off the court. When school is not in session, the team eats meals in his home and spends time with his family.

Williams says Evans gives the players freedom to make mistakes, which translates into increases in confidence. With Evans, it’s “a different vibe” than last season, and it shows with how the coach treats the team, the coaches and everyone else on the campus.

“When you feel like your coach trusts you and you feel like you don’t have to look over your shoulder every minute — you won’t be taken out if you make this play or shoot this shot — when you’re playing with a sense of confidence and being comfortable,” Williams says, "then the sky is the limit.”

•••

Back inside the inconspicuous brick building, a banner hangs above the stands with a slogan that reads, “The Brotherhood.” It’s the mantra the team adopted in mid-September to describe the culture surrounding it on a day-to-day basis.

But it’s also indicative of what each player had to give up in order to create a 15-0 team. Many of the players on the roster have NBA aspirations. Many of them are angling for the best-available basketball scholarships at Division I schools. If they play well at Wasatch Academy, they’ll get noticed.

Shine too much, however, and any one player would compromise the whole. Williams may be the team’s leading scorer, but a total of five Tigers roar for double figures every night. Their motion offense is predicated on passing, cutting and getting everyone involved.

“We play for each other,” senior Tristan Enaruna says. “There's a priority playing for each other and not playing for ourselves.”

When Evans evaluates players who want to join the Wasatch Academy team, he doesn’t just want someone who will put up a gargantuan amount of points, rebounds and assists. He wants individuals who exhibit a well-rounded demeanor.

“You have to be a good person, you have to be able to get academics done right, and then you have to be able to play the right way,” Evans says. “And if you can't meet those criteria, then I won't look at it. I won’t look at that person.”

When players talk about the team’s culture, most all of them reference the banner and its slogan. They truly believe they are brothers, all fighting for the common goal of winning basketball games. When they’re not on the court, they’re eating together, taking trips to the mall together, watching movies together. Always together.

“We see our team as a family,” Williams says. “It’s way more than just basketball.”

WASATCH ACADEMY’S SEASON


Date    Opponent                             Result
11/20   Wasatch                                W, 100-58
11/21   Layton Christian                    W, 91-56
11/23   Legacy Early College (SC)     W, 82-53
11/24   Meadow Creek (GA)               W, 75-67
11/28   East                                        W, 85-68
11/30   Davis                                       W, 79-54
12/06   South County (VA)                   W, 82-64
12/07   Richland (WA)                          W, 97-62
12/08   Santa Margarita (CA)                W, 83-55
12/12   Vista del Lago (CA)                   W, 85-47
12/14   Capital Christian (CA)               W, 91-35
12/15   Folsom (CA)                              W, 76-63
12/20   West Oaks Academy (FLA)       W, 87-57
12/21   Potter’s House Christian (FLA)  W, 79-70
12/22   Wheeler (GA)                              W, 85-72