MORGAN — Two years ago, the Morgan High girls basketball team had won four of its last five games entering its second-round 3A state playoff game against No. 1 Emery at the Sevier Valley Center in Richfield.
To that point, the season had been tough for the Trojans, whose record was 11-11. Emery, on the other hand, was a dominant 22-0 and the game played out exactly how one expected: a blowout. 75-44, to be exact.
Morgan’s then-first year head coach Sterling Mack took a walk around the arena, watching some of the girls games and some of the boys games. The consolation of the blowout loss was that he thought there were kids in the program who were going to help build it up in the future.
Fast forward two years, and Mack was right. Two key players on this year’s team, juniors Janel Blazzard and Alex Trussell, were freshmen on the 2018-19 team that lost to Emery, but they each scored in that game.
This year, the Trojans (16-8) earned the No. 8 seed in the 3A state playoffs, then went on a Cinderella run that saw them beat the Nos. 1 and 4 seeds en route to beating No. 2 Emery, ironically, to win the state championship game.
“It was an amazing season. Man, it was fun,” Mack said.
Mack is the 2021 Standard-Examiner All-Area Girls Basketball Coach of the Year for guiding the Trojans to the title following a regular season that saw them finish second in Region 13.
In the playoffs, Morgan first took down No. 1 South Sevier in the quarterfinals to avenge a 13-point December loss, then No. 4 Carbon in the semifinals and the No. 2 Emery in the state championship game, avenging a 26-point loss in the season-opener three months earlier.
Against Emery, Mack said the girls were “pale” in the locker room at halftime trailing 29-20.
“Just relax and stop worrying about the lights, the name, where you’re playing at and just play basketball. Do what you practice,” Mack said he told the girls.
They came back and won by four, relying on a defense that keyed a late-season run and also showing composure down the stretch, particularly at the free-throw line.
Their region title hopes in the regular season were torpedoed after back-to-back losses to those same two squads, but a 73-63 loss at Grantsville on Feb. 2 was the last time Morgan was on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
After giving up the 73 points to Grantsville, Morgan’s defensive average was 54.2 points per game. Then, only once in the remaining seven games would a Trojans’ opponent get to the 50-point mark.
“Last year, we based our defense off playing a lot of zone. This year, I tried to do that and it didn’t work, I figured we had to go some type of man to man, switch action and it worked. It fit the group of girls I have ... they locked down,” Mack said.
Though Mack had confidence about the players even two years ago, this season’s success didn’t come out of nowhere, he said.
“I knew we had a squad, we just had to figure how to play together,” Mack said.
Morgan was young across the board, with the experienced Blazzard and Trussell, and needed to put it all together.
Freshman post player Alyvia Jaffa nearly averaged a double-double this season following a breakout volleyball season for the Trojans. Then, sophomore Elena Birkeland shot the lights out down the stretch.
All year, the Trojans could rely on point guard Blazzard and forward Trussell for scoring, and they led the team at 15.1 and 14.6 points per game, respectively.
Blazzard ran the show, averaging 6.4 assists and 2.6 steals per game, shooting 40% from the field and 91% (51 of 56) from the free-throw line. Mack likened her to a basketball floor general, similar to Chris Paul.
Trussell was steady inside the paint all season, something one would expect from a three-year varsity player.
“Trussell and Janel, and even some of the younger girls, they were big sisters and that’s what took us over the hump,” Mack said.
Then down the stretch, Birkeland went from averaging 5.5 points per game the first 17 games of the season to 13.1 on 51.5% shooting (45.2% on 3s) the final seven games.
In fact, Birkeland helped turned the state title game around after Morgan’s lackluster first half put the Trojans down 29-20. Birkeland made three 3-pointers after halftime, eventually draining a go-ahead 3 in the fourth.
“She kind of saved us through the playoffs,” Mack said.
Mack is known for his intense, animated coaching style. During games, he’s often seen jumping on the sideline, waving his arms and celebrating big achievements.
Lest someone want him to tone it down, well, he tried that one time.
“I was chill. I let the girls play and we lost, and one of my players told me ‘Coach, don’t ever do that again,’” Mack recalled. “That’s not who you are, you can’t change who you are.”
When the final buzzer sounded against Emery, Mack was one of the first people on the court, jumping up and down, yelling, hugging and celebrating with the team.
The story of who Mack is runs deeper than basketball.
Mack grew up in what he called a dysfunctional household in Louisiana, without a father and at times homeless, until he moved in with his grandmother at the age of 9.
He went to Southern University to play football, but said basketball was really his passion.
One of his friends was at Western Wyoming on a basketball scholarship, told Mack about it, and Mack went out to Rock Springs to try and play basketball.
After he was done at Western Wyoming, he went back to Louisiana and worked for awhile, then his best friend got married in Evanston, so Mack went back to Wyoming to work in the oilfields nearby.
It was cold, dirty and hard work.
“That’s why I went back to school, man,” he said.
Mack never thought he would be a teacher but, after finishing a degree at Weber State, Mack student-taught in Morgan, eventually became the girls basketball coach at Morgan High three seasons ago and currently teaches PE at Morgan Middle School.