The Grantsville boys basketball team has had a reasonable amount of success in recent years, finishing in the top five in Class 3A in two of the past three seasons.
But the top prize has eluded the Cowboys, as Grantsville hasn’t won a state title since 1998. This year also marks the first time in four years that the Cowboys have won a region championship, as Friday’s win over South Summit guaranteed Grantsville at least a share of the Region 13 crown.
Entering the final week of the regular season with a 14-1 record, an 8-0 mark in region play and a comfortable cushion for the top seed in the upcoming Class 3A state tournament is a lofty position, indeed. However, the Grantsville program is still in the process of developing a permanent winning culture — not just for the Cowboys to win now, but to win from now on.
This year’s team seems to have taken on the mentality of its head coach, Nate Austin, who knows a little about winning, to say the least. Over the final three seasons of his high school playing career at Lone Peak High in Utah County, the Knights went 69-6, played in three Class 5A state championship games and won two.
In talking to Austin on Monday afternoon, I got the sense that he’s trying to infuse the Cowboys with that same expectation of excellence that Lone Peak possesses, though even he is a bit surprised by how good the Cowboys have been in his first season. They were the trendy preseason pick to win the Region 13 title, but were ranked fourth in the preseason 3A rankings behind Manti, Richfield and — somehow — Judge Memorial, despite being picked ahead of the Bulldogs in Region 13.
But in the first game of Austin’s career, the Cowboys went out and beat Manti, then turned around and beat Richfield the next night. They’re currently 12-0 against Class 3A competition, including a win over Judge, as well as a pair of wins over a Morgan squad that was getting some preseason hype. Grantsville’s victories over South Sevier and San Juan that have become even more impressive over the past week, given the Rams’ and Broncos’ recent wins over then-No. 3 Grand. The Cowboys’ only loss this season is against Logan, which is ranked eighth in a loaded Class 4A where the top 14 teams all have winning percentages of .500 or better.
And even when they’re not at their best, the Cowboys find a way to win. That’s the mark of a good team. Two of the Cowboys’ top players struggled early on in Friday’s eight-point win over South Summit — sharpshooter Tuhker Mulford couldn’t get his stroke going from 3-point range, and center Davin Ekins found himself on the bench after picking up two fouls in the first quarter. Most Class 3A teams would fall apart in that situation, but not Grantsville.
Instead, it was “next man up.” Brigham Mulford came off the bench, hit a pair of 3-pointers and drew a charge that gave the Cowboys a much-needed spark. While they never really pulled away from the Wildcats, they maintained enough distance that it never felt like they were in danger of losing. It was about as comfortable as a close victory comes.
It was also a preview of what the postseason is going to be like. The Cowboys are likely to see Manti, Richfield or San Juan again, or possibly Juab, Grand or Carbon. It’s not going to be an easy path. It never is, if a team plans on winning a state title.
But it sure looks like Grantsville has the proper mental makeup. We’ll just have to see if that translates to the floor at the Sevier Valley Center in a couple weeks.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. He is impressed by how well Grantsville’s team chemistry shines through, even on a YouTube live stream. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.