When American Fork tipped off its 2022 6A state tournament campaign, it had a losing record.
But even though there were stretches during the regular season in which the losses piled up and it felt like nothing could really go right for the squad, those moments of struggle became 100% worth it in the end for the Cavemen.
By a score of 43-39, against incredible odds, the No. 10-seeded Cavemen defeated Region 4 foe Corner Canyon to take home the 6A state championship Saturday night at the Marriott Center in Provo.
“If we could see through a looking glass and see this is how it ended, we could’ve gone (through the tough moments) a lot easier,” American Fork head coach Ryan Cuff said.
“I told the guys as we were making our run that ‘if someone told us we’d be here in this moment, would you do it all again?’ And of course the answer is yes.”
The championship victory will be known as one that was clinched on the defensive end for the Cavemen, who held Corner Canyon to its lowest scoring output of the year.
The Chargers came into Saturday averaging nearly 67 points per game.
Cuff said the goal was to hold the high-powered offense to under 50, but holding them to under 40 was just icing on the cake.
“To hold Corner Canyon to 39 (points), that speaks to our defense,” American Fork senior point guard Evan Young said.
“This last (stretch) of the season has been absolutely killer, so all of us combined as one and became a total unit. It’s awesome.”
Leading by seven at the end of the third quarter, the Cavemen faced a voracious comeback attempt from the Chargers.
Corner Canyon’s leading scorer, Max Toombs, snagged an offensive rebound and put in a layup with 2:17 remaining in the game to give the Chargers a 39-38 lead and cap off what ended up being a 15-4 run for the team that started late in the third quarter.
But the late surge didn’t faze the Cavemen, who didn’t look sped up at all.
From that point on, American Fork locked it down defensively and scored the game’s final five points to secure the win. All five points came at the free throw line, a place that Cuff said his team has struggled with at times.
“We kept our composure, hit big free throws when it counted and we got stops there at the end,” Cuff said. “We always say we’d rather be ahead and on defense than be behind and on offense. Tonight, we found ourselves ahead and on defense.”
Corner Canyon missed a potential game-tying layup with 6.2 seconds left on the clock, and American Fork’s Noah Moeaki got the rebound and was fouled.
The BYU football signee went to the line to ice the game and did just that, sinking both shots to give his team the two-possession lead.
The Cavemen finished 12 for 14 from the foul line for the game and 7 for 8 in the fourth quarter to close out their roller coaster of a season.
“We came together as a team,” Moeaki said. “We trust each other so much, and that was the difference for us.”
Moeaki said getting the win in the Marriott Center made the experience that much sweeter for the future Cougar student-athlete who will enroll after serving a church mission.
As soon as the final buzzer sounded, Young pulled himself to the top of the rim, where he stood and celebrated the victory just like his dad did at the Marriott Center when he won the state championship with Timpview in 1989.
“I don’t know what it is about this team, but I absolutely love it,” Young said. “I love every player on this team. … We played some tough teams in the regular season, so I feel like this game just proves how tough of a road we’ve had and how much people have underestimated us.”
Young and teammate Yaw Reneer led the Cavemen, who don’t have a single scorer averaging double digits, with 10 points.
Moeaki added seven, and Ashton Wallace, who thrived offensively for the Cavemen in the tournament, pitched in seven points as well.
The Chargers were led by senior Tyler Burraston (12 points) and Toombs (11 points).
The title win for the Cavemen gives the school six state titles and its second in four seasons after it suffered what was a 40-year title drought.
After bowing out in last season’s semifinal round and losing leading scorer Jaxon Kohler, who transferred away, it seemed coming into the season the championship window may have closed for the American Fork senior class, but Cuff said that his upperclassmen worked together as a team to pursue their goal of championship.
It took five gritty, sometimes unflashy, tournament wins, but those seniors reached their goal, and that was all that mattered.
“They knew they couldn’t do it alone. They had to come together, and they did it,” Cuff said. “We always said there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ and we wanted to make sure it was a team effort and not an individual effort. … I’m just proud they were able to lock arms and love each other at the right time.
“We’re going to enjoy this one.”
Deseret News 6A boys all-tournament team
MVP– Ashton Wallace, American Fork
Max Toombs, Corner Canyon
Yaw Reneer, American Fork
McCaden Adams, Pleasant Grove
Jaiden Feroah, Corner Canyon
Kaden Hoppins, Westlake