The Fremont High girls basketball coaches sat in Lisa Dalebout’s classroom one day after practice in February.
The state tournament was on the horizon, so coaches were scouting possible opponents when Dalebout saw an email on her computer from the Paragon Marketing group, which works with ESPN on the year-end national basketball tournaments.
The email said that if Fremont finished the season unbeaten and won its state championship, that the Silverwolves would be invited to the Geico Nationals tournament, which crowns a high school basketball “national” champion.
Dalebout told the other coaches about the email, thought it was fake and called the phone number on the email.
“You guys it’s real, she’s a real person, she sounds official,” Dalebout recalled telling the assistant coaches.
More than a month later and more than two weeks after it was indeed made official, Fremont’s getting on a flight early Thursday morning to go to Florida for this year’s Geico Nationals tournament.
The Silverwolves are putting their 26-0 record on the line against the tournament’s No. 1 seed, Westlake High of Georgia, for a 10:30 a.m. showdown that will be televised on ESPNU.
All four teams in the tournament — Fremont, Westlake, Lake Highland Prep (Florida) and Paul VI (Virginia) — are unbeaten.
Dalebout kept it a secret, not wanting to add any unnecessary pressure on the team, all the while having to not think too far ahead about the prospect of going undefeated.
Dalebout wanted to do a big reveal to the team the Monday after the state tournament. In 2014 when Fremont went to nationals, it was a complete surprise to the team and the players were 'freaking out and crying.'
As she subbed her starters off the floor after they’d just boat-raced Herriman for an unbeaten state title, the secret got out.
“As they were coming out I’m hugging them and I couldn’t contain it and I said we’re going to a freakin’ national tournament ... they’re like, ‘What?’ and we go in and we celebrate so after the state championship game I say ‘Hey we’re going to play in nationals.’ They didn’t even know what the heck that meant,” Dalebout said.
The prospect of going to nationals added to the Silverwolves’ state-championship celebration, which itself was a sweet release for the team after two years of playoff exits with teams they feel could’ve won the trophy.
"I was really excited. I think it's going to be really fun," FHS senior Halle Duft said.
ESPN is paying for just about everything, Dalebout said: flights, meals, hotels, transportation and a 10-day hotel stay in Florida should anyone have to quarantine. There's also a payout; in 2014, for example, it was $5,000 in Nike gear.
The team will fly from Salt Lake City to Dallas for a layover, then into Fort Myers. The national tournament is normally a get-in, get-out experience anyway, but that’s magnified this year with COVID-19.
The players are going to be tested for COVID-19 daily, there are no big team dinners, no sightseeing — just practice, meals, hotel time and the games.
"I'm really excited that we got another couple weeks that we got to practice, and play games with each other," Fremont senior Emma Calvert said.
Calvert was recently named MaxPreps Player of the Year for the state of Utah and is therefore up for a MaxPreps All-America Team selection.
Normally, the tournament would likely be held at Madison Square Garden in New York City, where Fremont played in 2014, losing in the championship game.
That year, the team flew in, went to a practice site and did interviews with tons of people from the likes of ESPN, Paragon, Gatorade and Nike, Dalebout said.
No matter how the team does in the tournament this year, they fly in April 1 and fly out April 3. In 2014, the players pretty much went straight from the championship game to the airport.
“It is like the fastest 48 hours. It’s crazy and we’re at a disadvantage because everybody’s East Coast,” Dalebout said.
Where: Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Florida
When: 10:30 a.m. MDT Friday, April 2
Fremont notes: This is the Silverwolves' second time at the national tournament, finishing as runners-up in 2014. They're ranked No. 11 nationally by MaxPreps, with their opponent Westlake at No. 2 nationally. The other two semifinalists, Lake Highland Prep (FL) and Paul VI (VA) are ranked No. 1 and No. 9 nationally. Calvert averages a team-high 17.3 points per game with 7.4 rebounds per game. Maggie Mendelson checks in with 14.3 ppg, 8.9 rpg and 1.9 blocks per game. Mia Austin averages 11.1 points per game and recent UMKC commit Halle Duft averages 5.7 assists per game. FHS shoots 49% from the field, 57% on 2-pointers, 34% from 3-point range and 69% from the free throw line. Oregon State commit Timea Gardiner won't play due to knee surgery.
Opponent scouting report: Westlake, from Atlanta, is a four-time defending Georgia state champion. The Lions went 20-0 this year, won the Georgia 6A state championship game by 18 points and won their games this season by an average margin of 37.3 points. Their lineup is led South Carolina signed guard and No. 2 overall national recruit Raven Johnson (15.1 ppg, 5.8 apg, 5.0 rpg, 3.7 spg, 53% FG), Virginia Tech signed forward Briana Turnage (10.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 53% FG) and junior guard Ta’Niya Latson (23.2 ppg, 62% FG), who’s the No. 39 recruit in the class of 2022 nationally. According to MaxPreps, the team shoots 57% on 2-pointers and 29% on 3s and takes four times as many 2s per game than 3s, which will make it an interesting matchup going against Fremont’s front line of Calvert and Mendelson.