By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Kevin McInnis
Six years ago, Golden Holt had a dream of a high school preseason basketball tournament to rival some of the events the Orem Tigers had attended outside the state. Along with tournament director Paul Overly and a host of volunteers, the Orem coach launched the Great Western Shootout.
That first year, a battle between in-state teams provided the fireworks as Orem knocked off Lone Peak in front of a sell-out crowd at Tiger Fieldhouse. For the most part, however, what has developed over the last six years is a premiere showcase event that matches elite Utah teams with power programs from all across the country.
This year, a dominant North Carolina program dropped out at the last minute, but what is left is an outstanding field that now reaches even outside the United States with a team from Canada in the mix.
The tournament has grown incredibly in just six years, including picking up a valuable title sponsor in FreeTaxUSA.com. Lone Peak and Orem are the two schools who have anchored this event from the beginning and they are back for a sixth time this season, with a planned Saturday night battle to close out the weekend.
“The community has really embraced the tournament and we couldn’t do this without the partnerships with our sponsors,” said Orem High coach and tournament director Golden Holt in the tournament’s advance media release. “FreeTaxUSA.com and Vivint have both really stepped up and we have over 100 volunteers who will put in countless hours to help this be a first-class event.”
Turn on the television to watch college basketball these days and it’s not hard to find a talented player who made an appearance in the Shootout. Dalton Nixon is one of the Orem alums who moved on to the next level, though the Brigham Young University forward is currently serving a mission for The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Lone Peak has provided a lot of the star power over the years, with current Duke freshman guard Frank Jackson as the most recent headliner. Jackson hit the game-winner last year as the Knights out-dueled Georgia power, Miller Grove, a team that featured another elite recruit in guard Alterique Gilbert. Gilbert is at Connecticut these days, but suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Current BYU players Nick Emery, TJ Haws and Eric Mika all took their turns starring in the Shootout, and Dominique Collier from Denver East made three appearances. Collier now plays at Colorado.
Current Indiana freshman DeRon Davis made two appearances with Overland (Colorado) and Maryland junior guard Melo Trimble was here during his season year at Bishop O’Connell from Virginia. Utah’s independent team, Wasatch Academy, has become a tournament regular, and Utah State freshman Koby McEwen was a star the last two years.
Another of the stars from the early years was a big man from Mountain View High in Mesa, Arizona. Payton Dastrup is now home from his LDS mission and playing at BYU, while current missionary and former Timpview star Gavin Baxter was a headliner the last couple of years.
For the second year, Lone Peak opens this year’s event with a game that will be played in a different venue, in Mount Pleasant. The Knights are fully booked and have just two games available for the Shootout, but a road game at independent Wasatch Academy does not count against their contacts, so once again, they will be a bit to the south Thursday night.
Lone Peak doesn’t have a “star” player this year, but it is still extremely talented, featuring a pair of point guards in Steven Ashworth and Chantry Ross. Nate Harkness and Jackson Brinkerhoff give the Knights a front-court presence for a team that is looking to get back to state championship levels after a couple of years without one.
Wasatch Academy is a tournament tested program. The Tigers play just six teams against in-state teams while traveling around the country to play in major showcase events. Head coach Curtis Condie loves this opportunity to play in their home state, particularly when it comes to the home-cooking from the guys in the striped shirts.
“It’s important for us to get our name out throughout the state,” Condie said. “It’s nice to see the out-of-state teams in Utah. People have no idea what happens when you’re an out-of-state team and you go out of state, with the officiating. It’s pretty brutal. I tell our guys we play against seven or eight every night, so it’s nice to play some people at home and know that at least you’re going to get a fair game.”
Wasatch Academy finished last year 29-4 and earned an invite to the Dick’s Nationals as one of the top-ranked teams in the nation. The chance to host Lone Peak is part of what makes this week special.
“It’s hard to get people to come down here and play. People think we’re a million miles away and we’re really not,” Condie said. “If you play a game in Mount Pleasant, it’s an exempt game as far as your numbers. That worked out (last year), so Lone Peak was one game over again (this year) so they asked to play again at our place. We’re very grateful for Lone Peak doing that and it’s great for our community.”
The Knights are also excited at the opportunity to make the trip to Mount Pleasant and not just because it allows them an extra game.
“They are also a very good team and will prepare us to play in an different kind of environment,” Evans said. “We want to play really good teams to prepare us for our region.”
The Tigers feature a couple of future Division 1 players in 6-foot-7 junior guard Emmanuel Akot and 6-8 senior forward Josip Vrankic. Guards Jeff Baradziej and Damion Squire provide some perimeter punch as well.
The host team will showcase a pair of new faces in the pivot, with 6-7 junior inside-outside threat Shem Johnson and 6-8 junior center Taylor Hockersmith. This team really goes based on the play of two athletic and talented guards. Puka Nacua and Ross Reeves are players to watch for Orem.
Timpview was 21-6 a year ago and reached the state championship game, but that was a team that had inside options in Baxter and AJ Bollinger to balance a love of the 3-point line. This year’s team adds an athletic playmaker and defender in senior Chaz Ah You, but its top returning players are shooters, and very good ones. Hunter Erickson, Jordan Sagers and Adam Santiago are perimeter players who can fill it up.
Springville is the newcomer in this year’s in-state field, and led by 5-10 senior guard Josh Elison, 6-1 junior guard Ben Schreiner and 6-5, 250-pound post Andrew Slack, the Red Devils will look to their matchups this weekend to prepare for an improved campaign.
Mountain View High out of Mesa, Arizona returns for another year at the Shootout. The Toros return just one starter from last year’s 18-9 squad, in 6-2 senior guard Matt Clark. Senior forward Nick Sessions is another player on whom Mountain View is counting this season.
British Columbia Christian Academy is one of the elite teams in Canada and it will be a matchup nightmare for whoever it draws this weekend. The Panthers have just one player on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 and they feature highly regarded prospects that include 6-9 forward Kaan Tari, and a pair of 6-5 guards in Keenan Dowell and Przemek Golek.
Smoky Hills of Aurora, Colorado is coming off a rough year that was derailed by youth and injuries, but the Buffs are poised for a comeback despite still being somewhat youthful. At 6-4. sophomore guard Kenny Foster is the state of Colorado’s No. 1 ranked 2019 prospect, while 6-8 junior forward Will Becker is one of the state’s top five 2018 recruits.
The team from Wakefield, Virginia was 25-3 a year ago, but this year’s group is young and lacks an inside presence. The Warriors will need to rely on speed and outside shooting to get it done, led by point guard Alan Treakle and shooter Halil Parks.
With the team from Charlotte, North Carolina dropping out of the tournament at the last minute, one of its games will be filled Thursday by the Kearns Cougars. Kearns is an athletic team that features talented guards Nick Valles, Eshaya Wada and Journey Buba. After that opening night, the Lone Peak JV team will fill in the other two open dates.
If the first five years are any indication, the next three days will feature some of the best high school basketball in the state. The FreeTaxUSA Shootout presets each day’s matchups so it does not feature a strict tournament format, but instead works to get the best possible games in each time slot.
“I like the geographic mix that we have for the tournament. We have teams from the east, some of the best teams in the west and a team from Canada,” Holt said. “One of the things that sets us apart from other tournaments in Utah is we offer Utah teams a chance to play against some of the top teams from around the country and this year I think we have some really fun matchups that will be entertaining.”
Tournament information (all games except as noted at Orem High’s Tiger Fieldhouse):
Action tips off on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. with Kearns vs. Mountain View (AZ). Springville and British Columbia Christian Academy will follow at 5 p.m. Timpview will take on Smoky Hills (CO) at 6:30 and Orem will host Wakefield, VA (8 p.m.) in the final game of the night at Orem. Lone Peak will play at Wasatch Academy (in Mount Pleasant) at 7 p.m. in the only tournament game that will not be held at Orem High.
The tournament resumes on Friday at 2:30 p.m. with Timpview and B.C. Christian Academy. The Lone Peak JV and Springville will take the court next, followed by Wakefield and Wasatch Academy. Orem vs. Mountain View (AZ) are scheduled for a 7 p.m. tip-off in a game that will be televised by KMYU. The final game of the night will be Smoky Hills vs. Lone Peak (8:30 p.m.) and that game will also be televised.
Saturday the action begins at 2:30 p.m. but the matchups are not set because that will be determined by results from the first two days. The final two games of the night will also be televised by KMYU and the Utah Jazz Dunk team will perform at halftime of the final game that is scheduled to start at 8:30 p.m.
Follow the tournament:
Get more tournament information online at freetaxusashootout.com.
Tickets can be purchased at the gate. Admission is $10 for the day. Students and seniors are $5.
All games will also be streamed live on KUTV’s website.