By Kurt Johnson
Feb. 19, 2015 was a signature moment for Liz Eaton. It was a state basketball tournament quarterfinal game, but the opponent, the atmosphere and the high level of her performance delivered a clear message that the Eaton family legacy continues to flourish in Utah high school basketball.
Facing an undefeated Bountiful team, led by 6-foot-3 all-state center Kennedy Redding, Liz had the game of her life. She scored 29 points and pulled down 14 rebounds as she led her Maple Mountain team to the upset win and a spot in the state semifinals.
It all began the 2006-2007 boys basketball season, when Preston Eaton led the state in scoring as a senior at Springville High, at 23.38 points per game. Three years later, as a junior, his sister Lexi led the state at 25.1 points per game while leading the Red Devils to the 4A state girls basketball championship. A year later, Lexi upped the ante, scoring 28.6 a night as Springville repeated the title run.
That was five years ago. Now, it’s Liz’s turn to carry the torch at the high school level for a family that clearly has scoring points in its DNA, though she is doing it at Maple Mountain High, a school that opened after her siblings started high school. Currently, Liz is the leading scorer in the state, averaging more than 25 points per game.
It’s looking likely that this family will have produced three different state scoring champions over the past decade. And Liz is not last in line for a family of seven children. Younger sister Maddy, a freshman, currently plays on the Maple Mountain junior varsity and there is yet another Eaton sister, Meg.
Preston concluded his playing career a year ago at Southern Virginia University and Lexi (now Rydalch after she married Trevor Rydalch this past summer) is among the Top 10 scorers in the nation (nearly 24 points per game) as a senior at Brigham Young University.
The Eaton family fuels the fire with a whole lot of competition, but then there is the mental side of success that starts around the dinner table.
We have lots of philosophy discussions,” Lexi said. “A lot of people are scared of that because philosophy can be confusing, people say faith-demoting, but we love talking about reality and figuring out the right philosophies and that spills over into sports. If you have the right philosophy, that short-cuts to being great. When you find the right philosophy and right emotions then you’ll be great. We do that.”
Once the discussions are done, the games begin. The kids are starting to move away from home, but when they gather together, they still push each other to excel.
“We play a lot of board games, on a lighter note,” Lexi said. “Competitive, for sure. For Christmas, we have this whole list of things we’re going to do as a family and it’s all competition based: 5-on-5 with the whole family, a 1-on-1 tournament, board games, movie marathons.”
The Eaton sisters look a lot alike, and on the court, they have a lot in common as well.
Lexi is one of the state’s most decorated players of all time, with those two state championships and 1,697 points scored during her four years at Springville and now Liz has taken the mantle, while her older sister continues to dominate at the collegiate level.
Setting the Standard
This year, Lexi is scoring nearly 24 points per game and with 14 games left in the regular season, she is on pace to become the No. 2 all-time scorer for BYU. Her 2,092 points makes her fourth on that list now, but Jackie Beene McBride (2,191) and Tresa Spaulding Hamson (2,309) are within reach by season’s end. (Tina Gunn’s 2,759 points is the all-time Cougar women’s record that remains safe).
Lexi’s goal is to play basketball professionally after she graduates, and though he still has some work to do before he completes his degree, her husband is on board with that plan.
With all of the success she has had on the basketball floor, it’s not surprising that Lexi also found her husband, Trevor, there. Trevor is the son of former University of Utah basketball player Mark Rydalch. He was a four-sport athlete at South Summit High School before coming to BYU, where he tried to make the Cougar men’s team as a walk-on.
When Dave Rose did not take any walk-ons that year, Trevor signed on with women’s coach Jeff Judkins as a practice player.
“I had to guard him because he was the fastest guy, and I’m in charge of taking the fastest drivers, athletic people,” Lexi said. “He’s good, an all-state, four-sport athlete. That’s how we met. It wasn’t exactly fun guarding him, but it worked out.”
Trevor served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Uruguay after his freshman year, and upon his return, reconnected with Lexi. Despite his U of U roots, her father-in-law is also very supportive of BYU and of her efforts with the Cougars.
“He’s more blue than people think,” Lexi said. “He sent his son down here and his daughter goes to BYU too. He’s all for it. He’s coming to the games. He flew out to Hawaii, California, so they’re all in.”
With all of her accomplishments in athletics, the biggest surprise with Lexi is learning how difficult the ride has been for her at times. She expected to reach a high level with her game, but it has come as the result of winning a constant struggle with herself.
“I did (anticipate this level of performance),” Lexi said. “I feel like my whole career in high school and college, I’ve been fighting myself, which is weird to think about. I honestly have fought myself and my emotions and my fears the whole time and I’ve always seen my potential as something really good. It’s been great to reach this level, but it’s been disappointing along the way, knowing I can get there but it’s taken me a while.”
Lexi is about to complete her studies for a degree in psychology, and she says she is leaning towards sports psychology if she ends up in that field. It’s an area she has learned a lot about in her progression as an athlete.
“I went through a lot of different mental battles with myself,” Lexi said. “A lot of it, for me, is fear of success, which is interesting. I’ve had this fear of ‘Can I handle success? Can I do that?’ So, once you figure that out, or any sort of fear, then when you’re playing with no fear, then it’s scary. You can be a scary player and that takes mental toughness to overcome your fears.”
Her father, Alan, is one of her strongest advisors and Lexi has come to rely on the direct approach he takes with their conversations.
“My dad and I talk about it a lot,” Lexi said. “My dad’s a big mentor for me. If other people saw his coaching, they’d think he’s brutal, but that’s what I want. That’s what makes me the best and so, we’ll talk openly and bluntly about how I played. He’ll say, ‘You were a chicken in this part of the game or you turned chicken’ or stuff like that because we’re wanting to get that totally out of my game. That goes back to that fear and you’ve got to get that out.
“He’s just really helped me be mentally tough. He’ll always ask ‘Do you want it sugar-coated or do you want it straight?’ He’ll give us the choice. Once I realized everything he’s doing is because he loves me and he wants me to do my best, then it’s easy to take that stuff. That’s what it was for me, just realizing that I want all the critique and perspective I can get, so I can be the best.”
Lexi and her younger sisters also look to Preston for advice, and now Lexi is one of the sources to whom Liz and Maddy look as their games grow and develop. She has a lot of knowledge to pass along and she’s even willing to share “most of it.”
“We want them (Lexi and Preston) to come to our games all of the time, so they can help us,” Maddy said. “They have a different perspective than my dad’s.”
Liz is always looking to learn and improve her game and Lexi is happy to provide advice along the way. She is also constantly looking to her younger sister for tips that will help her get better.
“Liz is totally like a sponge,” Lexi said. “She is always bugging me for advice and tips. We kind of make jokes about her in the family. She’s like a leach, always asking ‘What can I do better?’ She wants a list. She’s just always wanting to learn. It’s almost like ‘I don’t want to give you all my secrets. I worked hard for these.’ She’s great. She’s awesome.”
When they talk about basketball, it’s usually not about how to shoot free throws, improve your defensive position, or other shooting tips. The focus is more on strategy and psychology.
“We talk a lot about the mental part of the game,” Lexi said. “Her (Liz) biggest thing she’s working on right now is controlling her adrenaline. She loves competing, she just loves it. Her energy level will get so high that she’ll miss easy free throws or easy shots at the start of the game until she kind of gauges where she’s at. We talk a lot about that.
“I’m taking tips from her, to be honest. When I go watch her games, I’m taking notes. She plays harder than I’ve seen anyone (play). In every aspect of the game, she’s totally dominant. On defense, she’ll be goading the other team to pass it to my guy so she can steal it. She’s just so on top of it. She competes in every aspect, there’s no better way to say it.”
While Liz and Maddy get a lot out of having their siblings attend their games now, a lot of their development through the years came while watching Preston and Lexi on the court.
“I think the biggest thing I learned from watching all their games was how they led the team differently,” Liz said. “They both have similar personalities, but they had really different teams. It was really good to see things that didn’t work and what did work. That helped me a lot with being a captain.
“(I watched) the leadership and everything and a lot of their body language,” Maddy added. “The team kind of acts like that too. If you’re sad, they’re not doing too well too. You’ve got to be a leader.”
Being the younger sibling of a star player brings with it a certain amount of pressure, but Liz and Maddy both feel they are stronger from their position in the Eaton family.
“I know what I’m striving for, or what I need to overcome and beat,” Liz said. “It gives me a good example and I know what to do with the mistakes they’ve made and what worked.
“I like being a leader, in all aspects, being a leader by example,” Maddy said. “Just shooting it right. Don’t be satisfied with just making it, but do it right and do it good.”
Now, Liz and Maddy are putting lessons learned into action, and Lexi sees some things in Liz’s game that she feels exceed her own. In most ways, the two play the game very much the same way and have many things in common.
“I like playing the really top players,” Liz said. “I like to frustrate them or blocking the posts, all the tall girls. I like being the underdog.”
While she does most of her work on the perimeter, Maddy’s approach is similar.
“I like guarding really good guards, and when they’re dribbling, stealing it from them, or I like blocking them on their threes,” Maddy said.
The sisters all share that desire to be tested against the best, but there’s more than that. They share a common talent for putting the ball in the hoop. Certainly Liz is showing herself to be much like Lexi in that regard.
“Definitely a scorer’s mentality, for sure,” Lexi said. “I would say that, and aggression, but I would say she’s even more aggressive than I am. The ways she’s better than me is she’s great at rebounding, she has a nose for the ball and just can get tons of rebounds. She’s very dominant on defense. She’s goading the other team to pass it to her guy and she’s just kind of a bully on defense. You kind of feel bad for the person that she’s guarding because she’s just after them.”
Maple Mountain head coach Cory Green loves the talent of the Eaton sisters, but it is something else about them that most stands out in his mind.
“From a coaching perspective, the thing you appreciate the most is their work ethic,” Green said. “I think their work ethic is second to none. They both work incredible hard. I didn’t get the opportunity to coach Lexi, but from what other people tell me, her work ethic was incredible as well, and that’s where it starts. They put in a tremendous amount of time, a tremendous amount of energy and effort.
“The other thing, I think, is their understanding of the game. They’ve been raised in a basketball family and they have a good understanding of the game. Both of them do a great job of leading by example. They don’t let anybody on the floor outwork them. I don’t know that I’ve ever had any player spend more time in the gym. Leadership by example is a very important thing, and they both do a very good job of that. They’re good students too. They’re well-rounded kids.”
Lexi was a highly successful three-sport athlete in high school, an all-stater in soccer and track and field alongside all her basketball success. She continued in track at BYU, participating in the high jump. Her sisters also grew up on the soccer field and on the basketball court, but eventually all three have found their niche on the hardwood.
“Actually, soccer was my main thing,” Lexi said. “It was probably freshman year when I made the change. I realized I was really good at basketball and it was much more fun because there’s so many different elements to it, where soccer’s not as dynamic. I felt like basketball fit me better because you can use your athleticism more.”
While Maddy still plays soccer, her experience mimics Lexi’s in many ways.
“I play soccer. I think I’m going to do it (through high school),” Maddy said. “It (basketball) wasn’t always (No. 1) because I had a lot more friends in soccer. I like basketball now a lot more than soccer because it’s more of an individual sport. It’s team-based, but you can make a bigger difference, whereas soccer it depends a lot on your team.”
Liz says she always leaned more toward basketball, and once she finished her ninth-grade year, she put all of her energy into her first love.
“Soccer’s really a lot slower,” Liz said. “I like going at a fast pace and I like how you have to make quick decisions.”
Once she set her sights 100 percent on basketball, her improvement has gone through the roof. Now, she’s an elite player at both ends of the floor.
“I think she’s improved every aspect of her skill set,” Green said. “I think the biggest jump we saw from her junior to her senior year is defense. She was a decent defender her first couple of years, but I think she’s really stepped it up on the defensive end this year. She’s a much more complete player now. ”
And while all three sisters are comfortable outside the 3-point arc, each has a stated preference for driving and creating on the way to the rim. Even Maddy, whose size does not give the appearance of a physical player, would take an old-fashioned three-point play over a long-range shot.
“And-one,” Maddy said when asked her preference between the two. “It shows you’re stronger than them, that you can finish with the contact.”
“I really like banging with people,” Liz added. “I like getting the and-ones. I like that. I like playing against tall people. It’s a big challenge because they always think they’re going to block my shot. Sometimes they do, but I like that.”
Like their older siblings, both just love to compete.
“Liz is one of the most tenacious players I’ve ever coached,” Green said. “Her will to win is incredible. I see a lot of that in Maddy as well, but she’s still developing her skill set, so with Maddy, I’m excited to see where that’s going to lead over the next couple of years.”
At first, Liz wanted to follow her sister to Springville High to play for Nancy Warner, but with Maple Mountain now open and the family living within its boundaries, she credits a Nebo District rule with initially sending her to Maple Mountain, but as it turned out, it was the best move all around.
“I did want to go to Springville, but the rule here (Nebo District) is if you’re not in their boundaries, you have to wait a year (ninth grade), you can’t play up,” Liz said. “I didn’t want to wait a year and play junior high ball. I listed out the pros and cons, and not a lot of my friends were going there. It was only the coach (Warner), but I made the right decision, because she left, and I liked (Coach) Green. I found out that I really liked his style of coaching too.”
As she moves on to the next level after completing this, her senior season, Liz will get the chance to follow in Lexi’s footsteps. As her older sister moves on from BYU, Liz will arrive to replace her. The two arrived at that place in very different ways. Lexi committed just before her junior year in high school. For Liz, it was as she headed into her senior campaign.
“I was always a BYU girl,” Lexi said. “I went to the BYU camps growing up, starting in seventh grade and I knew the coaches really well and I always thought this was a really great fit for me. I’d get letters and phone calls from other colleges, and I’d just put them in a folder.
“(Liz) kind of looked around more, but not by her choice. They kind of took their time offering her. The problem with her, I think, was that the other colleges thought she was BYU bound so they weren’t really sure if they were going to recruit her, and BYU kind of took their time. She developed later, physically, so they weren’t really sure how she was going to turn out. She looked around and kind of played the game a little bit, but eventually….Now she’s taller than me and weighs more than me. She’s bigger.”
Liz isn’t concerned about trying to match what Lexi has created. While the process took some time, BYU was where she always wanted to be.
“BYU was always my first option,” Liz said. “I was actually thinking a lot about going to Utah State, but BYU was always my No. 1. I went, not on an official visit, but I went and watched a practice up there (Utah State). I like their style of play, but I always wanted BYU.
“I probably should feel pressure, but I don’t feel it. I know how (Coach) Judkins is and how he’s going to be and what kind of pressure he puts on his players. I like that a lot.”
The younger Eatons are often compared to their oldest sister, and in Maddy’s case, she has two high-scoring sisters to emulate.
Sometimes it kind of bothers me,” Maddy said. “They always call me Lexi or Liz, or ask, ‘Are you going to be better than your sisters?’ They always ask me that. It’s a good thing too because they watch me more, in terms of the example my older sisters have set. It gets me noticed.”
Liz is often confused with Lexi, but she is honored by the comparison. Besides, she feels there is no need for her to stand in anyone’s shadow.
“I get called Lexi a lot,” Liz said. “There are definitely a lot of pros and cons to it, but I actually like getting compared to Lexi, like saying I’m as good as her. She’s really good, so that’s a compliment to me. I look up to her too. I also like when they compare us, they see all the differences too. They’ll remember my name soon enough.”