Look for Hillcrest boys basketball at be amongst the top region, state favoritesDec 01, 2023 12:22PM ● By Julie Slama
The Huskies are bigger, stronger and focused.
Hillcrest High head basketball coach Brandon Sluga expects those attributes to make a difference on the court this season as he predicts the team to be strong contenders for the region 10 and 4A state titles.
“We should be right there for region championship this year, along with Murray, Jordan and Park City (high schools). Dixie and Sky View (high schools) should be some of the contenders for the state title,” he said, hinting Hillcrest could be in that mix. “We’re just getting better and better. It’s exciting.”
Sluga said his student-athletes have taken it upon themselves to improve their game, whether its getting stronger and building endurance by lifting weights and running, working on skills or playing more games in spring and fall leagues and in three summer tournaments.
“We easily have our best record in spring, summer, and fall. We played in the University of Utah camp, with about 30 to 40 varsity teams from different classifications, and we were the only 4A team that played in the semifinals,” he said. “In the Rocky Mountain Showcase, we lost to the defending state champion, Sky View, in our first pool. It was a close game, but the loss moved us into the silver bracket. We lost in the silver bracket final to Mountain View. We were ahead by one point and they hit a buzzer beater. We’re competitive, we’re right there.”
Another differing factor this year from previous years is that a solid core of his players has participated several years in the Bantam program. He only has two returning starters after graduating six last year, so he’s counting on these players to make an impact this year.
“Our juniors, sophomores and freshmen have played in our Bantam teams. We have some smart players, and the kids understand what we’re trying to do because they’ve been doing it now for multiple years. We have great team defense and share the ball on offense. We’d love to get up and down the floor, but if we don’t have things right away, we’re going to be patient and run good motion offense and find great shots. We have been working hard to grow this concept of team and not individual. It’s a team game and now our players are taking ownership of the program and embodying what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Hillcrest’s program includes nine fourth through eighth grade Bantam teams. About 90 boys are part of the program.
This year, he’s planning to check in at the beginning of practice with the athletes on where they’re at mentally, physically and emotionally.
“It’s giving me a feel for where the team is. If something is going on, it may not be about the sport, but rather other things they’re going through in their teenage years, but it will open a door for them to communicate about it after practice and let them know they have support here,” Sluga said. “We also talk about having an exceptional attitude, about what they can accomplish, and the good things that they can gain from being a part of our program. We talked about what you can achieve here and what you can achieve beyond high school whether that be in sports or in education, and to have those high expectations. “
He said that his captain, Myles Mahler, embodies that mentality.
“We’ve fostered an environment he loves and he’s leading by example,” Sluga said. “He’s the kind of kid who comes every day to work hard. Over the summer, he worked out to get stronger, more athletic, and he just continues to find little things he needs to work on. That’s the first thing he does as a leader is he brings that consistent work ethic. He’s also vocal. If he likes what he’s seeing, then he’s going to cheer his teammates on like crazy. And if he doesn’t, he’s going to tell them what needs to get better. He’s not scared to do that on the floor. He’s like an extra coach on the floor, but you wouldn’t ever know it because he’s just playing his tail off.”
Mahler, who grew three inches since last season, said he has worked to become a consistent shooter from every position on the floor.
“My twin (Anton) would rebound and pass the ball to me and I to him,” he said. “I feel like we have a connection that nobody else really has. We can look at each other and know exactly what the other one’s thinking and we can perform it out on the court.”
Growing up, they played football and soccer together, but it was the love of basketball that won out. At first, it was playing against their 6’10” dad, who coached them in Jr. Jazz.
“Dad taught us to be tough. He still gives pointers and evaluates our games with us. His advice is the same – play smart,” said Mahler, who along with his twin, maintains a 4.0 grade-point average.
In fourth grade, he began playing under Coach Andy Tanner with his son, Zach, and a core group of players. Many of those who he played with in middle school and are on Hillcrest’s team today.
“We worked on fundamentals — how to dribble, pass and shoot. He taught us sets and formations, the Xs and Os,” said Mahler, who wants to play college ball.
It also translated into team chemistry.
“The best thing about Hillcrest basketball is the love we have for each other and how we play smart. Our attitude in the locker room is different this year. Everybody’s pushing themselves to be good, to get better. The dedication everyone has is what makes us great. We’ve talk about getting the ball to everybody on the court, to involve everyone on offense. We’re going to pass the ball more, set more screens. We’re going to play strong defense. We play a complicated defense where everyone has certain job to do during the possession. Our coach was taught it at the University of Utah under Coach (Rick) Majerus when they went to the national championship,” Mahler said. “The big thing is we like each other, we’re excited and focused on our goals this year —winning region is a big one and we can make a deep run on the state playoffs, too.” λ