By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Shane Marshall
Four times in the last five years, the Springville High girls basketball team has lifted the trophy on the final day of the Class 4A tournament. And that fifth year? In 2012, the Red Devils entered the state tourney as the No. 4 team from Region 8 and still reached the state championship game.
Something happens when the young ladies wearing those uniforms arrive at Salt Lake Community College.
“The opportunity is there for everyone, you’ve just got to take it,” said sophomore forward Savannah Sumsion. “Once you get to state, it’s a new game. We get ourselves in the position where we can get to state, and once we get to state it doesn’t matter what our record was like in region. That’s when it starts over again. It doesn’t matter what seed you’re in, you just have to get yourself in the right position to be there.”
That kind of positioning, for this program, began in 2008, when Nancy Warner began laying the foundation of greatness that has continued through multiple players and two head coaches. Lexi Eaton, who now stars for the Brigham Young University women’s basketball team, was a freshman on the 2008 team.
“I think the first thing we did for that program was give them hope,” Eaton said. “Prior to my freshman year, they had only won three games on the season if I’m remembering right. My freshman year we were able to make it to the quarterfinals and that sparked some hope and interest in the program.”
That sense of hope continues to this day, and it played a big role a year ago when the Red Devils overcame a slow start to the season, and then a double-digit deficit in their state tournament opener against Highland. Springville won the 2014 state title in a season when it was far from a favorite.
“I think the main thing that allowed our team to overcome such a difficult time early on in the season was that we never lost hope,” said Savannah Park, a senior who graduated in 2014 after playing on three state title teams in her four years with the Red Devils. “At Springville, the main thing that drove the teams I played on was the knowing that you had tradition to keep. You played each night to keep that tradition alive.”
The pattern has been duplicated somewhat as this year’s team approaches tournament time. Senior Lindsay Johnson has been around the program for three years and she has seen this before.
“I feel like as the year goes on we start playing more as team, as a unit,” Johnson said. “We started to pull it together more this year. We’ve had our rough patches, but are finally peaking at state.”
Nancy Warner started new traditions when she took over the reins of the program, and when she left to take the job at Lone Peak for the 2013-2014 campaign, she left behind a championship legacy.
“A winning tradition was established at Springville for the girls basketball program, and it initially started with the Warners,” Park said. “They came into a broken program and really turned it around by holding their players to a higher standard. Everyone wants to win, but they hated losing more than they loved to win, and that attitude was instilled in all of us.”
Eaton looks at it as the coat tail effect and she hopes those coat tails are long.
“It’s been amazing to me to see how long the coat tails of our state championship group have been,” Eaton said. “People are still riding on them, four years later. The success has been long-lasting and has propelled even an unexpected championship win. I still hear of young girls today that are inspired and motivated because they’ve seen us win championships. They want to be great and have seen it done. They have examples so it’s more real and tangible to them.
“What goes around, comes around. The coat tails I rode on come from a variety of people – my older brother Preston, my dad, my grandpa who played for BYU, my coach Nancy Warner who played for BYU. There are lots of people who provided coat tails for me. In the end, we all stand on the shoulders of giants before us, and I truly believe that.”
That expectation of success has been passed down from one group of leaders to the next. When Eaton graduated, Park was the lone returning player with any significant varsity game experience. She took the mantle and that year’s team sneaked into the tournament before running off three straight wins, finally losing to Timpanogos in the state finale.
“It’s possible to pass down expectations to players,” Eaton said. “Once such a high standard has been set, the effects are hard to ignore. People want to be like ‘the greats.’ Seeing these championships still flowing after I’m gone is a huge compliment to me and our 2010 and 2011 championship teams.”
When it was Park’s turn, she was ready.
“At Springville, our coaches always said that everyone needed to be a leader,” Park said. “When the time came for me to be a captain and be the proclaimed ‘leader’ of our team, I understood that I would be looked to as more of an example, so I became more aware of my behavior and tried to be someone my teammates could look to. I learned from the best. Players like Lexi Eaton and Aliza Allred taught me a lot through their examples.”
The standard continued through the coaching change when Warner moved on and was replaced by former Mountain View head coach Camie Oakey.
“When Coach Oakey came into our program, we kept this attitude and held ourselves to the same standard,” Park said. “She expected nothing less of us, and in turn, she carried us to another successful season. No two teams are the same, but the expectations and standard of play were always constant at Springville.”
The linking of a talented coaching successor like Oakey almost didn’t happen. She was happy where she was.
“For the longest time, this was actually the one job I said I wouldn’t take,” Oakey said. “This was one that I didn’t want. My husband grew up in Springville and all of my in-laws are here and it was a lot of pressure on me. They would also say, ‘When are you going to coach at Springville?’ and I would say ‘Never.’
“It really came down to this overwhelming fact, when she announced that she was leaving, I live in Spanish Fork and I had to be closer to my family and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to apply. I waited and waited, and I think I applied the last two days it was even open. It was tough to leave, but that just speaks to the community at Mountain View. It was a really fun, great community, but it’s just been an awesome experience and great transition and it’s really helped me grow as a coach and grow as a person, and it’s been awesome for my family.”
Park credits Oakey with creating the environment that made it possible to add another title in the new coach’s first season on the bench, but both of them admit it wasn’t always the easiest transition, at least not at first.
“The transition from coaches my senior year was initially a tough one,” Park said. “All of the seniors and underclassmen who had a connection to Coach Warner knew how lucky we were to have her, so when she left, we were hesitant with being completely open to the idea of a new coach.
“However, Coach Oakey quickly won us over with her open coaching style that allowed us seniors to have a say in what our year and season was going to be like. She involved us in major coaching decisions and mixed her coaching style with our type of play to ultimately win us over and I know I personally gained the utmost respect for her and her program because of the way she kept us involved.”
Keeping her players involved was something Oakey was prepared to do from day one, and she recognized the tie those seniors had with Warner.
“Those girls were close to her and it didn’t help that the first summer tournament we played, we played Lone Peak,” Oakey said. “It was tough. It was a hard, hard transition and it was hard for those girls to leave everything that was successful, that had been successful and trust a new coach when they knew what they had been doing was successful. They let go and I can’t say one negative thing about those seniors and the process they went through and the time it took, but it takes time to change habits and learn new habits.”
So, is there something in the Kool-Aid they’re drinking in Springville these days that makes the success carry on from year to year?
“There’s not really any magic, it just takes teamwork,” Sumsion said. “We’ve just got to work together as a team and with hard work, that’s how we’re going to get success.”
Yet somehow the Springville tradition seems to take root in these girls as soon as they put on that uniform.
“Whether these girls realize it or not, they’re part of a winning tradition and they can feel that and they can sense that,” Oakey said. “It gives them a confidence going into state that they watched Malia (Nawahine) and that team go in as a four seed and then beat Cyprus the first round and then get to the championship game. They have that confidence.
“They’ve been part of it, they’ve seen it, they’ve watched it from the stands, they watched it happen last year. They really truly believe that if they can get themselves to state, that if they can put themselves in a position to win, that anything can happen.”
In actuality it doesn’t just happen. Winning programs seem to keep on winning, and they become part of the fabric of the community, as the Lady Red Devils have done.
“When state championships are won, it’s exciting for the community and it gets girls excited to play for the program,” Eaton said. “It sparks individual desire and motivation to improve so they are good enough to be a part of the great program. Girls work out on their own. They find keys to get themselves into a gym. They get on club teams during the summer. They come to open gym and Springville summer camps. It even causes girls to want to move in to be a part of Springville Red Devil basketball.”