Saturday , April 26, 2014 - 5:53 PM
BOUNTIFUL — Sam Merrill scored a career-high 35 points, but it was his missed shot at the end of regulation and his turnover near the end of overtime that stuck with him long after Sky View defeated Bountiful 63-60 in the 4-A semifinals a season ago.
With that game serving as motivation, Merrill entered the 2013-14 season with an increased chip on his shoulder to be the leader his team needed and make sure such a defeat never happened again.
All the hard work paid off. Merrill is now a state champion and the Standard-Examiner All-Area Boys Basketball Team’s Most Valuable Player.
“As someone who started the last two years, I kind of knew what it took, and that last game of (my) junior year felt kind of like it was my fault that we lost,” Merrill said. “I just decided to take on that role of, ‘I’m going to work as hard as I can and push everyone else to work as hard as they can.’”
According to Merrill, the ability to be a leader runs in his family. He has two older sisters who won state championships at Bountiful – one on the soccer team and the other on the drill team — so he’s been able to see firsthand the fruits of that leadership.
“I think (being a leader) is something that has always kind of been there, and it’s progressively grown more and more with experience and with the progression of talent just from hard work,” Merrill said.
But it hasn’t always been easy. Not during the spring and summer when kids might prefer to be doing other things instead of sweating in gyms that feel more like ovens, and not during region play when Bountiful was thumping its opponents by an average of 30 points a game.
“That’s where you take the joy in who you’re doing it with,” Merrill said. “Basketball’s great, but it’s more fun when you’re playing with your best friends. So when we were out there working hard together, it made it that much more fun.”
As a junior, Merrill was one of 4-A’s top scorers, averaging 18.3 points per game. That figure dropped to 15.8 points per game as a senior, but as true leaders do, Merrill helped the players around him even more.
He increased his assists per game from 5.4 as a junior to 7.4 as a senior, while teammates Jordan Bleak and Jeff Pollard — who averaged 6.1 and 5.7 points, respectively, a season ago — averaged 10.0 and 9.4 points, respectively, this year.
Junior BYU commit Zac Seljaas improved from averaging 15.4 points per game as a sophomore to a team-high 18.8 points per game this year.
“I’ve just always worked hard and I decided before every game that when I got out there, I’m going to want to win more than anyone else,” Merrill said.
Merrill proved to have that drive all year. He proved it in an early-season non-region bout against Layton when he hit a shot at the buzzer to give Bountiful a 57-55 win, and he proved it in the state championship against Orem when he scored in the final minute just mere seconds after the Tigers had taken a one-point lead.
And while the lasting memory of that thrilling state championship game might be BYU signee Dalton Nixon’s missed free throws in the final seconds that would have given Orem the lead back, Bountiful coach Mike Maxwell had seen more than enough from Merrill to know he would have found a way to win the game anyway.
“No doubt in my mind that 2.5 seconds he would have got down there just like he did when Orem took the lead,” Maxwell said. “He would have come right back and found a way to make another basket and get the win for us. That’s the way he is.”
With his high school playing career having come to a close, Merrill will now prepare to serve an LDS mission. He has already been called to the Nicaragua Managua South Mission. Upon returning, he will attend Utah State University, where he has already signed to play basketball.
Now, the leadership mantle shifts to Seljaas, who Merrill is confident can continue Bountiful’s good fortunes.
“He has taught me a ton,” Seljaas said. “Out of the past three seasons we played together we’ve been best friends on and off the court. He’s always been like an older brother to me – teaching me every day, always competing in practice to be better.”
For Merrill, the bitter defeat to Sky View can just about be erased from his memory forever.
“Luckily, that’s over and we got past that and were able to finish the season off, so I don’t have to think about it that much anymore,” Merrill said.
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