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MOUNT PLEASANT — When players are recruited and choose to play at Wasatch Academy, they typically come for just one year and for one reason: to compete for a national championship.
Eight banners are draped from the ceiling of the historic Brunger Wilkey Gym and remind the coaches and players of Wasatch Academy of the national championship they strive for and the legacy they are expected to uphold.
The banners include three Utah high school basketball championships that were won before the program went independent in 2014; the remaining banners represent the five invites they've received in the past six years to the DICK'S Sporting Goods and GEICO High School National tournaments.
As a recognized national powerhouse, the goal of returning to GEICO for a fourth consecutive year isn't so much of a goal anymore. Second-year head coach Paul Peterson said it has become the "expectation" for the program to be included in the national tournaments.
"The expectation was built in the past with the success they had before, and it just rolls over every year. Every year that we make it, it just becomes more and more of an expectation," Peterson told KSL.com. "The more you get there, the more the expectation is there."
An invite to GEICO isn't extended to just any team; only the top eight programs in the country are selected to compete. With constant turnover in the Wasatch Academy program every season, recruiting is heavily done throughout the spring and summer to land the top prospects across the country and globe to Mount Pleasant to ensure the team can compete for one of the eight spots.
"We basically are similar to a college," Peterson said. "We have to recruit, identify them and then go watch them play. Then we have a depth chart of three or four recruits in case one doesn't come, then you have another."
With only one starter returning this season, recruiting over the offseason was especially demanding for Peterson and his staff. Finding pieces to fit around Ohio State signee Roddy Gayle Jr., who was ranked No. 64 in the ESPN Top 100, was time consuming and took months of time away from families. A week after Peterson's son was born he was on the recruiting trail to lock down his new squad.
The pitch the staff made to each of the players while recruiting them to the program was simple: you'll get to play with and go against the best.
"I just tell them it's about competition, being able to play against and be with the best — college preparation," Peterson said. "I tell all of them this is the hardest thing you're gonna do because my offseasons are no joke as far as training, weights, 30-plus hours a week."
After three visits to both Dallas and Los Angeles, as well as trips to Kansas City, New York, Florida, Atlanta and Augusta, the 2021-22 roster was complete. And after players were committed and signed to the program, Peterson went on several other trips for home visits to welcome his new players and their families to the program.
The supporting cast surrounding Gayle for the 2021-22 season is what Peterson believes to be his "best perimeter shooting team" he's had in his four years at the school. Two of his most notable players now on the roster are Chris Bunch, a lengthy four-star small forward and Syracuse signee, and Camden Heide, another four-star small forward and Purdue signee.
This season for the Tigers will be the most challenging in the program's history. With only seven games being played against teams in the state of Utah, the majority of the games scheduled will be played against other national contenders as part of the National Interscholastic Basketball Conference.
Seven other nationally recognized programs were invited to join the conference along with Wasatch Academy in the spring of 2021: Montverde Academy, IMG Academy, Oak Hill Academy, Sunrise Christian Academy, La Lumiere, Legacy Early College and Bishop Walsh.
The first ever official NIBC schedule is HERE 💥 Which games and players are you most excited to watch this season in the most prestigious high school basketball conference in the country 🔥 #NIBCSeriespic.twitter.com/epl7B3CE14— NIBC (@Whosnexths) November 4, 2021
"One of the big things about the league is the school aspect of it; they didn't want random pop up schools or schools that weren't accredited acamically," Peterson said. "That was one of the main things: having actual schools that have great reputations, not only basketball wise, but school wise and integrity wise."
A combined 22 players on the eight programs' rosters include players in the ESPN Top 100, three of which are ranked in the top 10. So Peterson's recruiting pitch about playing against the best was a simplified statement of truth.
With a new, exciting and challenging opportunity of playing in the NIBC against the best teams across the nation, Peterson said a winning culture needs to be instilled with the players who may be unfamiliar to the idea of not being able to lose. Losing games and still making it to the playoffs with a possibility of getting hot and making a deep run is no longer acceptable or a safety option.
"It's kind of a change for them, too — you can't lose games," Peterson said. "You have to win games because GEICO is our goal and you don't make it to GEICO unless you win games."
The Tigers played one of their few in-state games Tuesday at Timpview High (Wasatch Academy won 61-50) and then traveled to Maryland where they will play three NIBC games over Dec. 2-4, with games being streamed on ESPN+.