Emotions are always high on the opening night of a season, but then when you add a rivalry into the mix and the constant anxiety and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, everything was ratcheted up a notch on Thursday night.
Westlake coach Nate Carling said he could sense the extra layer of excitement ahead of his team’s game against Lehi at the Corner Canyon Tournament of Champions.
“There’s definitely a feeling of gratitude, just appreciation for the opportunity to play,” said Carling, whose team pulled away in the fourth quarter to beat Lehi 57-54 after icing the win with a steal in the closing seconds.
Carling said that even though his team was able to play a lot of games in the summer and fall in preparation for the season, nothing can replicate the emotion of the real thing.
“It’s just a whole different feel when it’s the season and the lights come on, and the nerves, the preparation, everything is different. So to put kids in that position it feels really good to let them compete and have these experiences,” said Carling.
It was a feeling shared by Lehi coach Quincy Lewis.
“In this environment that is not healthy, that was a healthy thing out there for kids’ minds,” said Lewis, who admitted he was a bit rusty on the sideline coaching his first game in five seasons.
He loved every second of it.
“Even though we lost, it’s fun to be back in it,” said Lewis. “I love high school, I love the age group, it’s fun. Some kids are never going to play college basketball but they’re going to give everything they’ve got. And there are some kids like Noa (Gonsalves) that are going to move on and it’s fun to watch their development and where they’ll be after this.”
Lewis was the architect of Lone Peak’s dynasty from 2003 to 2015 before stepping down to become an assistant coach at BYU, where he worked for three years.
During his 12 seasons with the Knights, his teams racked up a 250-45 record, 10 region titles and seven state championships — including four straight from 2011 to 2014.
MaxPreps even crowned Lone Peak its national champion in 2013 after a 26-1 season.
That success will be hard for any coach anywhere to duplicate, and that’s far from Lewis’ motivation to return to the sidelines. Considering his competitive nature though, he expects to win at Lehi, too.
“I think Lehi is a great place to work on putting something together. They had a really good year last year. I think there are a lot of good things about where Lehi’s headed,” said Lewis.
Lehi will lean heavily this season on returning all-stater Gonsalves, who had 13 points in the loss on Thursday.
Westlake returns three starters from last season and figures to be one of the top contenders in 6A this season. Noah McCord led the way for the Thunder on Thursday with 12 points, with 6-foot-9 center Hunter Phillips adding 11.
Lehi and Westlake were level at 39-39 heading into the fourth quarter, but Westlake made 11 of 12 free throws down the stretch to eke out the win and the 1-0 start to the season.
“Early in the season to step up and hit those that was big,” said Carling. “We’re lucky this year that with everything going on we have experience, guys who played a lot last year and have played in close ball games like that.”