The Kearns boys’ basketball team doesn’t have the kind of resume over the last year that indicates the Cougars not only could contend for a playoff spot but might make a run at a region title in 2017-18.
Kearns, after all, was in Class 4A last year and wasn’t one of the four teams in a seven-team region to qualify for the state playoffs.
The Cougars now move up to Class 6A with essentially the same cast of characters.
But here’s the rub: Two of the top Kearns players couldn’t stay on the court during the 2016-17 season, and if troubles are truly behind, the Cougars might be more on a par with their squad from three years ago.
That team made it to the Class 4A championship game.
The coach is the same, some of the last names are the same and Kearns now has a renewal of purpose.
“I thought we were going to be a contender. We started really playing well,” Cougars coach Dan Cosby said. “I thought we were a very good team with our guys in place.”
But things started falling out of place when lanky 6-foot-5 sophomore Majok Kuath, younger brother of former Kearns and current Salt Lake Community College player Kur Kuath, had trouble making the grade in one class.
The struggles turned into academic ineligibility when school resumed after the holiday break, and Kuath, who was averaging 10.6 points and 8.6 rebounds a game, was done for the season.
“When he didn’t qualify and then Journey went out, those two being our two main guys last year, it was just too difficult to get back in” contention, Cosby said.
Journey is Journey Buba, who Cosby considers Kearns’ best defensive player.
Buba’s removal happened shortly after Kuath’s. Cosby said it was because of an altercation that forced Buba to continue the spring semester at an alternative school within the Granite School District.
“He just got caught up in some things that were happening at the school, got caught up in a mess,” Cosby said. “I think Journey has realized that his senior season, this is basically his team. He’s got to be the leader.”
“I was hanging out with the wrong group of guys basically, just slacking off,” Buba said. “This year, I’m on track, ready to go.”
Kuath’s impressive skills inside, Buba’s defense and the shooting of senior David Andrew, who averaged 16 points a game last year, make the Cougars an instant contender in their new region.
Emmanuel Andrew, David’s younger brother, adds some extra shooting firepower.
“Very high expectations this year because last year we didn’t make it to the playoffs,” David Andrew said. “Everyone is thinking we’re going to have another down year. We don’t think that. We’re going to have a very good year.”
“We’re totally ready. Ready for that Nov. 21 already,” Kuath said about the first day of the season.
Bingham is the two-time defending state champs in Class 5A, but the Miners lost to graduation all-state first-team selections Lleyton Parker, Dason Youngblood, Branden Carlson. Coming back are starters Brayden Cosper and Dax Milne, fresh off helping the Miners to a football championship. The schools immediately in line to challenge now are in Bingham’s region. Lone Peak, which fell to the Miners in the Class 5A state championship game, returns point guard Steven Ashworth, and Pleasant Grove’s 7-foot-3 junior center Matthew Van Komen will lead a Vikings team bent on contention. Copper Hills had a major loss with the departure of all-everything Stockton Shorts, but the Grizzlies have a good building block in junior Trevon Allfrey. West Jordan returns leading scorer Darrian Nebeker (12.2 ppg), while Layton has back Truman Brown (11.7). American Fork and Kearns were non-playoff teams a year ago, but postseason possibilities and more exist for both this time around.
Springville, the surprise Class 4A state champion last year, moved up with several others from last year’s Class 4A tournament field, but the Red Devils essentially are starting over after graduation losses. The team Springville beat for the 4A crown has limited problems in that regard. Despite losing Matt Lindsey to graduation, Olympus returns stellar guard Rylan Jones (13.2 ppg, 5.9 assists per game) along with fellow junior Jeremy Dowdell (14 ppg) and will seek its second state title in three years. Other contenders? Timpview is potent in the backcourt with Hunter Erickson (22.0 ppg) and Adam Santiago (16.2). Corner Canyon has back senior guard Ammon Jensen, although the Chargers will miss Zach Wilson, who graduates early to play football at Boise State. Highland has plenty of returners (Trayton Keyes, Liki Makaui, Elijah Shelton) and might be ready to take a step up. Look for Timpanogos’ Matt Norman (11.1 ppg) and Viewmont’s Josh Mordue (10.5) to lead their teams, while Jordan has back senior Josh Christensen (11.0) and promising sophomore Dyson Koehler. Box Elder is a long shot, but Max Watson averaged almost 25 points a game and is back for his senior season.
Ridgeline is the defending champion, but the Riverhawks no longer have standout Jaxon Brenchley or super shooter Theron Wallentine to depend on. Juan Diego, runner-up to Ridgeline in Class 3A last year, may make another run behind senior Jason Ricketts (10 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and defensive stalwart Ignacio Arroyo (3.3 steals per contest). Dixie was loaded with great guards a year ago, put the Flyers were senior heavy and now look to junior Tanner Cuff to lead the way. Orem did not move up to Class 5A with much of its former classification brethren, and the Tigers have returning scoring in Ross Reeves (17.2 ppg) and Puka Nacua (13.8) to challenge in the new Class 4A. Jared Bagley averaged 16 points a game for Logan last year, and the Grizzlies seem likely to move off the middle line (12-12 overall, 5-5 in region) in a positive way. James Nelson proved to be a dependable scorer and then some for Salem Hills, and he’ll bring back his 22.6 scoring average back to a team that was nipped by a point by eventual Class 4A state semifinalist Hillcrest in last year’s playoffs.
It’s here where the mystery resides after the expansion to six classifications. No defending champions are part of the mix, so schools with fair-to-middling success in 2016-17 will look to take a big step up. Junior Caleb Barton is back at South Sevier after a season in which he drained 93 3-point shots and averaged 15.3 points an outing. Richfield fell to Juan Diego in the Class 3A state quarterfinals, but the Wildcats’ three leading scorers all graduated. Summit Academy’s postseason run ended in the Class 2A state semifinals a year ago, and the Bears also lost a pair of scoring aces but do return the services of senior Jay Gilson (10.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg). A pair of juniors averaged 11 points a contest for North Sanpete last year, and the Hawks will benefit from the return of Spencer Steadman and Shawn Taylor. Carbon, Grantsville and Emery all were playoff teams a year, but graduation losses were heavy at all three schools, so younger players will have to step up quickly.
Defending state champion Layton Christian took a hit at graduation when seniors Christians Gutierrez, Chan Hargraves and Pedro Silva departed after winning the Class 2A state title. Fortunately for the Eagles, 6-5 post Sano Gasana, 6-4 forward Malcolm Smauldon and guard Micah Petty saw plenty of playing time, and that will help in the defense of the crown. State semifinalists Waterford and North Summit also had their top scorers graduate. The problem is severe for the state runner-up Ravens, who return no players who averaged more than a point a game last year. Look for teams like Duchesne and senior Kade Lamborn (10.0 ppg) and Beaver with guard Davis Heslington (13.9 ppg) to try to step in. Altamont and Parowan, respectively led by Zach Hansen (11.5) and Ethan Guymon (9.0), also will try to make an impact in the playoffs.
Panguitch barely was threatened in taking the small school hoops state title a year ago. Its closest postseason contest was a 15-point win over Bryce Valley in the state semifinals. The Bobcats will be tough again with the return of 6-5 senior Jace Eyre and fellow double-figure scorer Acey Orton. Eyre averaged 18.6 points a game and was actualy the team’s best 3-point shooter, while Orton scored at an 11.5 clip. Bryce Valley still has potential to challenge because senior Austyn Brinkerhoff and his 20.6 points a game returns. The Mustangs also return two more seniors who averaged double figures in Tate Leech (13.2) and Easton Syrett (10.9). The Valley Buffaloes were the Class 1A second-place team in 2016-17, and shooting guard Garrett Spencer (11.4) is back for the southern school.