Husky boys hoopsters have grit, positive play in competitive regionJan 25, 2021 10:26AM ● By Julie Slama
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
For the Hillcrest boys basketball team, the court is in session.
And that starts with the coach. It’s hard enough stepping into a school to try to develop a basketball program, but add in the COVID-19 pandemic, and new head coach Brandon Sluga may have his work cut out for him.
Yet, Sluga has taken it in stride, coaching his team to two wins over Stansbury and Northridge in the preseason and their first two region games against East and Skyline.
“We were really happy that we were able to break in the gym with our first win,” he said about the Stansbury game. “I’ve been pretty happy with our progress. In general, we’ve improved a lot since we started back in June (with open gyms). We have a nice mix of talent and we have some experience back. I just like the kids. They’re good kids; they are coachable, they listen well, they want to be coached, they want to get better.”
While Sluga predicted in preseason that they will be contending for region championship, the team let Olympus—a team he named that has more experienced players returning and would pose a challenge to his boys—slip by with a win on Jan. 12.
“We’ve played most of our region’s opponents in the fall and in the summer and we’ve beaten or played all of them except for Olympus,” he said in the preseason. “We seem to match up reasonably well with all of them and had a lot of success against them this fall. I think that we have enough talent and those other kind of tangible and intangible things, but we should be right there, competing with the teams at the top.”
While Sluga says, “we’re not huge by any means,” he looks at the overall composition of the team: “We have good balance with our size. I think it’s going to play into the offense that we’re running, and it allows us flexibility on defense as well.”
He said that his team players have shown “some toughness and grit and have the kind of player that I was.”
Sluga played ball for longtime coach and his father, George, on a competitive Bingham High team. He also was part of Coach Rick Majerus’ University of Utah team that played in the NCAA Finals. Sluga was known as a robust defender, who didn’t like when an opponent scored on him.
“I enjoy working with all different kinds of players, but I think (we have) kind of that character where they’re going to go and battle every time we have a game, and every time we have practice to improve and get better and make the most of the time that we have together,” he said.
The Huskies celebrate the successes of some of the things that may not show up in an official stat book.
“They are in our stats. One of the things that we keep track of is called the hustle—so anything that’s above and beyond normal play. Our plus-minus is a whole lot different than a typical plus-minus. I keep a plus-minute on things that player does well versus the things they don’t,” he said, adding in point differential, charges, screens and others are part of his stats. “Those are things we’re keeping track of and I’ll pull the players in and say, ‘Hey, you did really great. You had an awesome plus-minus,’ and they might have scored two points, but they were one of our leaders in doing all the other little things correctly. Taking a charge is not a fun thing, but in our program, we consider that a winning play or diving on the floor for a loose ball. That’s something we really try to praise—making an extra effort to go and try to contest or block a shot. Those are things that we try to praise and reward the kids.”
What Sluga preaches—positive attitude—he practices, and he expects the team to do as well.
“I think the spirits and the attitude are good. We’ve been really positive, and the kids believe in each other and I believe in them. That’s going to allow us to stay positive, even when there’s challenges and difficult times,” he said.
And the program has been hit with difficulties with circumstances surrounding COVID-19 starting with a two-week delay around tryouts with former Gov. Gary Herbert’s time-out around rising statewide pandemic cases, then lower tryout numbers than usual, a period of high positive case counts on the team and having to reschedule games multiple times.
“Everything has been a big challenge to change,” he said, adding that the mandatory pause shortened their preseason. Sluga said during preseason it typically allows the team “an opportunity to play test things out,” but this year, “we’re going to have to figure that out in practices.”
Even with numerous setbacks this COVID-year, Sluga remained positive.
“I think what is bigger is the way that I coach as well as keeping a positive attitude and making the most out of what you do have,” he said. “You can turn things around if you are positive about it. If you’re negative and you say, ‘Man, we’re going to miss out on X number of preseason games,’ then that’s the way you look at it. But you look at it like, ‘Hey, we got an opportunity to take care of school, to take care of our families, and make sure that we’re prepared for region,’ then you can turn something that might be a negative into a positive.”
For Sluga, part of that time was spent not only reorganizing his basketball program, but also to make sure his lesson plans are prepared for his teaching role at the school.
He’s also thankful for the new sports complex, which is part of the rebuild at Hillcrest. He said the team uses the weight room that has a view of the Wasatch Mountains.
“It’s really, really nice; it has kind of the collegiate feel,” he said.
He has freshman and sophomores with three of his six assistants in the auxiliary gym for practice and the JV and varsity play in the main gym.
“The new gym is awesome,” he said. “It allows us both of our teams to practice at the same time. It allows us a lot of flexibility with our youth programs as well; they’re able to come in the evening and none of the other programs in the school are hurting for practice time. We’re all able to coordinate and share the facility to benefit everyone.”
Hillcrest has six youth teams competing in Bantam league.
“It’s a great sign for the future,” he said. “We want to be competitive in region and state and eventually, national tournaments.”
While some coaches may say a certain part of the game is their focus, Sluga looks at the overall play in the game.
“I try for a high school game to have the kid playing at the same level regardless of what point in the game it is. Then, they’re truly tested. At the end of the game, they’re going to have taken care of business and all the other points in the game, that will hopefully lead them to competitive greatness and that moment that they need it,” he said. “We want to be a program that inspires our school, inspires school spirit, and in our community. We love basketball, but we want our kids to have a balance so they’re building for their future. I really encourage our players who want to work, to take hard AP classes or IB or honors classes that are more challenging. And be able to balance all those things that teenagers work through along with their family life. You’ve got to be working on your whole life, not just basketball.”