There’s a well-worn sports adage that goes something like this: When a team loses, it’s the coach’s fault; when they win, it’s because of the great players.
During more than four decades of covering sports, I’ve heard versions of that thought often enough to know that it’s still the prevailing opinion of many fans, especially at the high school level.
However, to achieve the kind of success that the Lehi boys basketball team is now enjoying after earning the 5A state championship on Saturday, the truth is you have to have both working together.
And the Pioneers did.
Coach Quincy Lewis brought a well-known, glossy resume to his new job at Lehi when he was hired in late spring last year: two state titles as a player and seven more as a coach, one MaxPreps national title and a Naismith Boys High School Coach of the Year honor.
But rings don’t play games, and neither do coaches. It’s the players who do that, and Lewis knew before he ever talked to them that he already had a lot of talent to work with, beginning with a returning All-State first teamer in Noa Gonsalves.
A starter since his freshman year, Gonsalves also garnered All-State honorable mention as a sophomore and his name appears frequently in the program’s record book.
He’s a prolific scorer, but he’s much more than that; he’s the prep equivalent of a franchise player, a respected leader to his peers who makes those around him better.
“It’s just amazing that the kids could be so resilient in the face of so many distractions to what they wanted to accomplish,”Coach Quincy Lewis
Lewis was aware of that when he took the job, and he puts the credit squarely where it belongs: on the shoulders of previous Coach Sean Yeager.
“He’s the one who really developed these guys,” Lewis said. “I just came along to try to help them take the next step.”
Gonsalves agreed. “Coach Yeager helped build our skills and our character and made us what we are today,” the senior guard said. “He also brought Tyson (Hawkins), Blake (Hill) and me together as juniors and helped teach us how to work together.”
Lewis also recognized that and used those three as the nucleus of the team he wanted to build. Gonsalves was the first player he called, but to him and all the others, the message was the same: “Our No. 1 goal is to win a state championship. We have to get that in every player’s head,” he said.
Gonsalves admits he didn’t know much about Lewis when his name surfaced as a potential candidate to replace Yeager after he decided to step away from coaching.
By the time he got that first phone call though, he knew a lot more, and he was excited when the coach told him what the goal was going to be.
“I knew it was going to be hard,” Gonsalves said. “Winning championships isn’t easy, but I was hungry, and I said to myself, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ It was the worst when we lost in the first round last year. I was ready to do whatever it took.”
He and the rest of the returning players were already continuing with off-season workouts provided by interim Coach Sean Seastrand, who became an assistant to Lewis and worked with him through the summer before accepting the position as the head girls coach.
The players were told to carry on with those until the June basketball camp, when Lewis and the seasoned staff he’d assembled would have the first opportunity to see them.
That would never have happened in a normal year. Lewis would have had the players in the gym the day after he got hired, but in 2020, he couldn’t. The COVID-19 pandemic was raging, and the schools and all their facilities were closed.
“These kids had to overcome more than just their opponents to win a state championship,” Lewis said. “They had to overcome what we’ve gone through this year as a country, with COVID, the difficult political situations and all that.”
As Lehi Principal Doug Webb noted in his remarks in the post-game celebration at the school, the Alpine School District was a statewide leader in finding ways to safely reopen schools and resume activities according to state guidelines.
So, basketball camp was held – with symptom checks and sanitizer at the door, and without normal scrimmaging. Lewis saw enough to be able to assess where his players were though, and he then gave them individual workouts tailored to each one.
“I noticed he was very specific about every little detail,” Gonsalves said. “If my foot was in the wrong place on a move, he would tell me to step a certain way. He was like that in everything he does.”
The team found some good success playing in limited summer tournaments, but progress was slow at first.
“We only ran one or two plays,” Gonsalves said. “Coach was using this time to evaluate us, how we played together and our character and tendencies.”
The group had the chance to develop more chemistry during fall open gyms and Gonsalves was pretty stoked as the time for tryouts approached.
But then COVID intervened – again. Faced with a rapid rise in cases, the governor placed a moratorium on a long list of interactions, including school sports. It only lasted two weeks, but it delayed the start of the season and forced the shuffling of schedules and the loss of some games altogether.
As the season progressed, some players had to sit out because of contact quarantines in addition to injuries and games were shifted because of virus issues at the other school.
“It’s just amazing that the kids could be so resilient in the face of so many distractions to what they wanted to accomplish,” Lewis said.
There were other bumps too, as the season unfolded. A key turning point came in early January when Lehi suffered a pair of back-to-back, one-point losses in rugged Region 7 games.
Gonsalves remembers feeling frustrated. “When we lost a couple of games we should have won, we were feeling kind of mad,” Gonsalves said. “Coach came to us and said, ‘Stick together, keep working and become the best team by March 1st.’”
What the players didn’t know was that Lewis did some soul-searching himself about the difficult schemes he was training them to use. He knew they might be able to win a few more games if he taught them some easier ones, but he also knew that approach might cost them come tournament time.
He ultimately decided to stick with what he believed would give them the best chance to win in the long haul.
The rest, as they say, is history.