By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Kevin McInnis
It’s the fourth year of the Utah Elite 8 tournament, and things are progressing just as the founders expected. The event was launched to provide a true tournament-style preseason environment that would feature teams with championship aspirations.
The 2015 Utah Elite 8, won by Copper Hills, included both the eventual 4A and 5A state champions (Olympus and Bingham) and the 5A state tournament runner-up (Copper Hills). Last year, Bingham won both this event and the 5A state title, while Olympus, Corner Canyon and Copper Hills parlayed their Elite 8 experience into deep state tourney runs.
“We were hoping for a high level tournament that would simulate state tournament competition three days in a row and have a tournament champion,” said American Fork High head coach Doug Meacham, the tournament’s founder and host. “In order to win championships you have to be in championship games. So this provides an opportunity for teams to experience that.”
Since American Fork hosted the first Utah Elite 8 in its brand new gym in 2014, the tournament has featured memorable performances and classic games. It brings eight of the state’s best boys basketball programs to Utah County for an early December showcase.
“We always have some great players in the state and to provide an early tournament where the everyday high school basketball fan could come and watch them in back to back games is a great opportunity,” Meacham said. “We are fortunate to have a facility and the support of our administration to host this year after year and (tournament director) Rob Geertson does a great job of promoting and getting the word out there so people can come and enjoy.”
You have to give the tournament organizers credit, they’re unafraid to set some tough matchups, even in Round 1. This year’s event tips off with a bang Thursday at American Fork High, with a 3:15 contest that pits Davis against up-and-coming Corner Canyon.
That is followed by a 4:55 game between two teams that have been the class of their classifications in recent seasons – Bingham and Olympus. That might be the best head-to-head of the entire weekend.
The eight teams in this weekend’s event that features four games Thursday, Friday and Saturday, concluding with the championship game at 5 pm Saturday. These teams will find out a lot about themselves this weekend, as each comes into the season with different questions to answer.
Davis (3-0) returns four starters from a team that lost its state tournament opener last season. Chad Sims’ squad finished 17-6 a year ago and brings back a lot of experience from that group. Senior guard Josh Sanders and senior forward Rich Stucki lead the way for the Darts, but this is a senior-laden team that expects contributions from Trey Grossenback, Dallin Anderson and Jace Hinton as well. Juniors Tyson Garff and Brendon Radford make this a balanced and talented team.
Copper Hills (2-1) reached the 5A semifinals last season before losing to Lone Peak, but that team leaned on a group of seniors that have moved along. That leaves Andrew Blanchard with a lot of reloading to do from that 21-5 squad. Trevon Allfrey scored nearly 10 points per game a year ago as a sophomore, and the senior post player will lead the way in 2017-2018.
American Fork (2-1) endured a rare non-playoff season last season, but there doesn’t appear to be any chance of that repeating in 2017-2018. Meacham returns most of his guys from a year ago and with some additions, the Cavemen look like a deep and talented group. Junior forward Isaac Johnson is coming off a season in which he scored 15 points per game and senior forward Zach McWhorter returns as a strong partner in the paint. American Fork also features guards Trey Stewart and Rob Crowther and senior center Levi Dunne.
Bingham (1-1) is the defending Utah Elite 8 champion, but this team is very different than the team Jake Schroeder put on the floor last year. His teams have won back-to-back state titles and there is still a lot of talent at Bingham with some questions this group of Miners are ready to answer. Dax Milne and Brayden Cosper are the experienced Bingham players, but the Miners are also counting on seniors Dalton Miller and Ryan Wood to step up to the challenge.
Bountiful (2-2) has put itself through its paces already this season. After losing a tough one to Davis to open the campaign, the Braves reached the championship game of last week’s Corner Canyon tournament before losing to the host Chargers. Long-time head coach Mike Maxwell prides himself is saying that this year’s team has no superstars, but junior guard Brig Willard, who scored 16 points per game a year ago, might actually qualify. Add in Cooper Ohlson along with senior guard Jadon Chism and you have the makings of a team that could surprise this year.
Olympus (2-0) has a state title and a second-place finish in the last two seasons, and while his team is loaded with perimeter threats, this looks like another great squad. The Titans finished 24-3 last season, losing to Springville in a classic 4A title matchup. Rylan Jones seems like he has been in the public eye for a long time, but the elite guard is still just a junior. He scored 14 points per game, grabbed five rebounds and handed out six assists per contest last season, and he is complemented by sharp-shooting junior Jeremy Dowdell, who has been draining 3-points since his freshman season as well. Harrison Creer and Spencer Jones will try to hold down the fort in the paint for an undersized, but extremely skilled team.
Corner Canyon (3-0) opened the season last weekend winning a similar event that it hosted on its home court. The Chargers reached the state semifinal a year ago, where they lost a close one to Olympus, and Dan Lunt has a group that is looking to go even deeper this year. Senior guards Josh Christensen and Ammon Jensen set the pace, while junior forward Hayden Welling is asked to do a lot of the work on the front line. Junior John Mitchell and senior Blake Emery are two more guards that provide significant contributions for Corner Canyon.
Brighton (1-2) has high hopes of a strong season in the new-look 5A classification after a disappointing results last season. Senior forward Cam Krystkowiak and junior guard Luc Krystkowiak were the statistical leaders for last year’s Bengals and they are back, along with senior guard Adam Christensen, looking for improved results this time around.
Get all of your Utah Elite 8 tournament information on the tourney’s official website at utahelite8.com.