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MHS girls bring home 5th state basketball title

Mar 06, 2023 09:42AM ● By Liisa London Mecham

Morgan celebrates as Athletic Director Kade Morrell awards the first place trophy. Photo courtesy of Mike Despain, Morgan Sports Network

For the second time in three years, the Morgan High girls’ basketball team brought home the gold from the 3A State Girls Basketball Tournament. After entering the tournament as a third seed behind Grantsville and Richfield, the Trojans defeated both teams, including the Cowboys who beat them twice during the regular season, enroute to their championship. 

Coach Sterling Mack commented, “It’s hard to win one championship so this one is pretty cool. Lots of grit and resilience was shown throughout this year, so it was a very fun year. Playing your rival in a state championship game after losing to them twice and then winning in the finals is pretty epic. This movie would sell!” 

For the graduating seniors, the state tournament has been a four-year showcase of determination and focus as the Trojans have finished higher than their entering seed every year of the Class of 2023’s tenure on the court. Although this year’s leap from third seed to first place wasn’t as dramatic as the 2021 vault from eighth seed to first, the Trojans showed their dominance as they jumped out to a big lead over the Cowboys in the championship game and held on to win it at the end 70-66.

Mack first identified the tenacity of his seniors in eighth grade when he met them for the first time after he arrived in Morgan to teach. “This group of seniors is the first group I taught when they were in 8th grade,” Mack said. “I remember having very competitive games during PE classes back then with not much whining or excuse making. Every class was just competitive. The girls always wanted to compete against the boys, and for the most part, never hid away from any competition. I knew then that this group, both girls and boys, would win rings when they were seniors. Here we are.”

In their two earlier meetings, the Cowboys won 60-40 and 63-58 over the Trojans. Revenge was especially sweet for Morgan on the biggest stage of the season. The Trojans compiled a 21-6 record over the season with two losses coming to out-of-state teams, two to 4A Ridgeline and Skyview early in the season, and two at the hands of Grantsville. But in the end, the final score stood as a testament of Morgan’s ability to play under pressure and win when the biggest prize was on the line.

“For both games versus Grantsville this year, we had key injuries with Morrell out in the first game and then Bailey went down in the second meeting,” Mack said. “It’s already hard to beat them when there are no injuries to the roster. They are a really good team. After losing to them the second time at home, we were able to put together a lineup for a few games before the playoffs. We found some balance and trust in each other’s ability and it worked out.” 

Grantsville opened the game with a 5-0 lead before Morgan started to break down the Cowboys’ press. The Trojans rebounded to end the first quarter up 13-11. In the second period, they outscored Grantsville by six and took a 33-25 lead into the locker room at the half.

In the third quarter it looked like the Trojans would run away with the game as they went up 41-27 in the third period. A resurgence by Grantsville and a 14-0 run gave Grantsville a 47-46 lead. Heading into the fourth quarter, Morgan regained the advantage 50-48, and the lead changed hands before a 64-64 tie. After a steal by Elena Birekland and a lay up, Morgan led 67-64, and the remainder of the points were added by free throws. 

Coach Mack (2021 and 2023) has been steadily building the program and now ties former coach Kovi Christiansen with two girls’ basketball state titles (2003 and 2004). Morgan’s first girls’ basketball title came in 1990 under Coach Wade Fiscus.

Mack has found a proven formula for postseason success. “I try my best to schedule the hardest preseason possible,” he said. “Then, when we get into the region, every game becomes a playoff game. Every practice must be efficient as soon as we walk into the gym and until the moment we walk out of it. Once the playoffs tipoff, trust in each other becomes the main focus.”

Three Trojans made up half of the six-member All-Tournament team. Junior Liv Jaffa was named MVP along with seniors Elena Birkeland and Amaya Rogers who earned All-Tournament honors. Seniors Emmory Morrell and Sarah Heywood were named to the Academic All-State team. 

In the championship game Jaffa and Birkeland scored 20 points apiece and Rogers added 17. Abby Tituts contributed five points while Morrell and Kaydence Wardell each added four. 

In addition to Coach Mack, Duke DeWitt, Candice Noss and Randal Clark coached the team, working to build and develop players to continue Morgan’s success. Kera Birkeland added expertise to the coaching staff as a statistician. 

Coach Mak said, “We do not win this championship without our wives, husbands, kids and all of our amazing parents. They made it so easy for us coaches and players to just do ‘us’ as a team. We had our moments, but in the end, here we are as State Champions and no one will ever be able to take that from any of us. L. F. G.!”

The Trojans opened their tournament run with a 60-52 win over Layton Christian Academy, a Region 13 foe whom they had defeated twice in the regular season. Leading 31-19 at the half, Morgan was outscored in the third period by five to bring LCA within seven at 39-32. Both teams played hard and scored big in the fourth quarter, but the Trojans stayed on top and won 60-51.

In the semifinal game, Morgan prevailed over the number two seeded Richfield Wildcats, the 2022 second place team, 60-52. The Trojans jumped out to an 11-point lead at the end of the first quarter before ending the half up 15, 38-23. After three periods, Morgan still held a 12 point advantage, 53-41. In the fourth quarter, Richfield rallied, but it wasn’t enough, and the Trojans won 60-52, moving one step closer to their final goal.

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