‘I have always wanted to be a Runnin’ Ute’: Why Cache Valley’s Jaxon Brenchley remained a Utah Man
High-spirited guard has given Utah a lift the past few games with his energy, enthusiasm and positive attitude through the nine-game losing streak
As the Runnin’ Utes walked off the Huntsman Center floor late Thursday night last week after their heartbreaking 63-58 near-upset of No. 9 UCLA, the looks on their faces told the story.
Utes on the air
Utah (8-13, 1-10)
at Washington (10-8, 5-3)
Saturday, 3 p.m. MST
At Alaska Airlines Arena
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700 AM
A win over the mighty Bruins could have been one of those that turns a season around. But alas, it was not meant to be.
Although a couple other players missed last-second 3-point attempts that would have tied the game, nobody wearing a white and red jersey looked more crestfallen than Jaxon Brenchley, the junior from Providence, a small town in northern Utah’s Cache Valley.
That’s true even though the fun-loving, curly-haired, surfer-dude looking, headband-wearing Brenchley claims to be “kinda one of those guys that never gets too high or never gets too low.”
Why was Brenchley so distraught? Because he’s a Utah Man, that’s why.
“I just stuck with it, and part of that decision to stay was because I have always wanted to be a Runnin’ Ute. I love it here at Utah. I love living in Salt Lake. I love the Utah fanbase, and I’ve grown to love the coaches, too.” — Utah guard Jaxon Brenchley
That’s also part of the reason why the 6-foot-5 guard didn’t enter the transfer portal last spring after he played just 6.6 minutes and averaged just 0.5 points per game in the 2020-21 season, which turned out to be 10-year coach Larry Krystkowiak’s last on the hill.
Krystkowiak and assistants such as Tommy Connor and Chris Jones recruited Brenchley to Utah from Ridgeline High, a newer school not far from Utah State. He also had offers from BYU, Santa Clara and some Ivy League schools such as Princeton, Harvard and Cornell.
“When the coach that recruited you is gone, and all your teammates are leaving, you are like, ‘What should I do? Should I leave, too?’” Brenchley said. “But coach (Craig) Smith and his staff came in, and I met with them and heard what they had to say, and I felt good about it.”
Brenchley had some options, seeing as how he was the Deseret News’ Mr. Basketball and the Gatorade Utah Player of the Year in 2017 out of Ridgeline, having played his first three seasons of prep basketball at Mountain Crest, in Hyrum.
After high school, he served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Taipei City, Taiwan, where he mastered the Mandarin language. He had a head start, having lived in Shanghai for five years as a youngster while his father, who also speaks the language and served a mission in Taiwan, worked in China.
Why not search for greener pastures, and potentially more playing time?
“I just stuck with it, and part of that decision to stay was because I have always wanted to be a Runnin’ Ute,” Brenchley told the Deseret News. “I love it here at Utah. I love living in Salt Lake. I love the Utah fanbase, and I’ve grown to love the coaches, too.”
Although the Utes are on a program-high nine-game losing streak heading into Saturday’s contest at Washington (3 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks) and are just 1-10 in Pac-12 play, 8-13 overall, and his playing time has been better than last season, but still inconsistent, he isn’t wondering what life would be like on a different, more successful team.
“It has been a great year and I have no regrets,” he said.
Brenchley’s playing time dipped a few weeks ago when he sprained his ankle, but has increased lately as the Utes have tried to power through the most difficult part of their schedule. He had eight points in 13 minutes in the loss to UCLA, two points and three rebounds in 16 minutes in the loss to USC, and four points in 17 minutes in the loss at Washington State on Thursday.
“Every day is just a grind,” he said. “My teammates are great. My coaches are great, and we trust each other. To see some (personal) success here and there is great to see.”
Smith said Brenchley is one of those glue guys who does a lot of things that don’t show up in the box score.
“He shows up every day ready to roll,” Smith said. “He has a spirit to him that you can feel. He is very confident. Not cocky, but confident. He is not afraid of anything. He plays with a level of physicality. He does his job. When you ask him to do something, he goes and does it. … I would expect to see him (and Eli Ballstaedt, a walk-on) play a lot more.”
Brenchley and Ballstaedt, who prepped at Heber City’s Wasatch High, are two of four Utahns on the Utes’ roster, joining Bingham’s Branden Carlson and Harrison Creer, a walk-on from Holladay (Olympus High).
Smith said it will be “very, very important” to get local players in the program as he goes about the rebuilding process.
“He has a spirit to him that you can feel. He is very confident. Not cocky, but confident. He is not afraid of anything.” — Utah coach Craig Smith on Jaxon Brenchley
“Yeah, it is like their dream school, right? And so from our experience, you always want to recruit locally, get the best players in your state, and in your region. I think great programs do that, and so it matters,” Smith said. “A lot of these kids grow up dreaming of being Utes, or dreaming of being an Aggie, or dreaming of being a Cougar, whatever school.
“There is value of guys coming in right out of high school, and when they come in, I think there is a different mindset that goes on,” Smith continued.
Having recruited Brenchley’s brother, Landon, to walk on at Utah State — where younger brother is a 6-4 freshman this season after a church mission to Toronto (Mandarin speaking, of course) — Smith was mildly familiar with Jaxon when he arrived at Utah last April.
“We did not have to talk him into staying. He loves the University of Utah and everything it stands for, in every way, shape and form,” Smith said.
Jaxon Brenchley didn’t start playing basketball until the family returned from China when he was 10. He said he was a fan of a lot of schools growing up, including Utah State because his family had season tickets to Aggies games, and BYU because of Jimmer Fredette. His favorite Utah player was Kyle Kuzma, who went from averaging 7.4 minutes at Utah as a freshman to 24.1 minutes as a sophomore to 30.8 as a junior before moving on to a better career in the NBA than almost anyone anticipated.
“When it came down to deciding, I just felt like Utah was a better fit for me,” he said. “I just kinda wanted to get out of my hometown, go do something else, and I loved the facilities, and being in the Pac-12 caught my eye.”
He said BYU “definitely recruited me pretty hard,” but in the end Utah felt like a better fit.
Listed as a junior, Brenchley has this and two more seasons of eligibility remaining, due to last year not counting because of COVID. As of now, he’s planning to play at Utah as long as he can. He is in the business school, majoring in finance, and will pursue an MBA or other graduate degree after he graduates next spring.
He speaks Mandarin fluently, as does his father and brother, so “family dinners are half in Chinese, half in English,” Brenchley said. He speaks the language daily, including at Costco or other places around town when he spots a person of Chinese descent.
“It is funny to see their reactions,” he said. “Nobody expects to see a tall white guy walking around speaking Chinese. It is good practice, and I love to have those interactions.”
A state champion tennis player at Ridgeline, Brenchley also loves to play pingpong. He once defeated former NBA MVP Derrick Rose one-on-one — in table tennis.
“That’s my claim to fame,” he said, noting that nobody on the Utes’ team can come close to beating him.
He took up golf during the pandemic when he couldn’t go to the gym every day, “and got low-key addicted” to that outdoor sport.
Right now, though, he’s just concentrating on “helping get the Utes to where they need to be” after a 5-0 start to the season went sideways when Pac-12 play began.
And becoming the best Utah Man he can possibly be.