MT. PLEASANT — Richie Saunders can flat-out shoot a basketball.

The 6-foot-5 swingman for Wasatch Academy and future BYU Cougar showcases an adept and smooth high-release point of the ball, which often finds the bottom of the net. The shot looks effortless, as if it’s something Saunders just woke up with, rather than waking up, time and again, at a rather unseemly hour in order to develop it.

It’s 5 a.m. at the Saunders house on any given morning, stretching back almost a full 10 years. It’s an hour when almost every 8-year-old isn’t even close to waking up, not to mention most parents who relish every bit of sleep available before starting a long day.

But those 8-year-olds aren’t Richie Saunders, who showed uncommon drive early on.

“I know, it sounds crazy, but I really did,” Richie Saunders said of his 5 a.m. workouts. “And I really do owe all of it to my dad for all the hours he spent with me in the gym. It’s gone on for a long time and I seriously do look back sometimes thinking, ‘Was I crazy?’”

For those envisioning a taskmaster father, making ridiculously strict demands on his kids to achieve perhaps something he couldn’t, well, don’t.

If anything, it was the other way around, with Richie making the requests to his father, Rich Saunders, even after the several late nights involved with being a stake president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I know some mornings it was real tough for him, but I never wanted to miss it,” Richie Saunders said. “And I really do know of the sacrifices he made being there for me and I’ll never forget it.”

As for the elder Saunders, who starred for the UC Davis basketball team in the early 1990s, he made certain to never push his kids toward any pursuit, but at the same time, educate them as best he could regarding the process.

“I’ve always wanted to give my kids a leg-up, as opposed to what I had growing up. So I always wanted to make myself available to them. No matter what,” Rich Saunders said. “And I honestly didn’t care what the pursuit was. If Richie wanted to be a ballet dancer, then I really don’t care. I just wanted to be there to help them the best I could with whatever they decided to do.”

With regards to Richie’s specific pursuit of basketball, it started with his father’s trips to the gym with his older sister, Whitney Saunders, who went on to play for Snow College. When Whitney finished high school, it left just father and son, with not many days sleeping in.

“It wasn’t every day, but it seemed to be at least three times a week and as many as five,” Rich Saunders said. “And Richie always wanted to do it. I can’t remember a single time when I had to talk him into it. He wanted to pay the price to be the best he could, and it was my job to be there for him.”

Of course Rich Saunders imparted a lot of knowledge of the sacrifices needed to reach your goals, with his son desiring early on to become a collegiate basketball player.

“It doesn’t just happen, and my dad explained that to me early on,” Richie Saunders said. “Every kid out there needs to know you have to work. It doesn’t just come and fortunately I had a dad there for me to help me achieve my goals and to let me know of what it takes.”

On to Wasatch

Fast-forward several years later with Richie Saunders rising to become a standout player for Riverton, where he averaged 19 points as a sophomore. But instead of going on to star for the Silverwolves the next two years, a move by his family ultimately brought about a move to Wasatch Academy.

Moving on to Wasatch Academy isn’t just a casual move, though, as the program lies in Mt. Pleasant, a town about a two-hour drive from Riverton, but also a much different program and environs than Richie Saunders had grown accustomed to.

“It was hard. I’m not going to lie,” he said of making the drastic move.

The move was preempted by his family wanting to downsize their home, with the four older Saunders siblings having moved out. When looking around at options, Wasatch Academy emerged as what Richie Saunders ultimately decided was his best course of action, although some growing pains were involved.

First off was the level of play at Wasatch Academy, which forced the Riverton standout to limited playing time, initially, while learning to play with the elevated level of personnel.

“He had to learn to extend his range as a shooter, and the speed of the game kind of caught up with him his first year that he was here,” said Wasatch coach Dave Evans. “He also needed work on several other aspects of his game, like rebounding, but he’s really, really dedicated himself to get better at all aspects of becoming a great basketball player.”

Richie Saunders’ first year involved coming off the bench for a lot of the season and some frustration, initially.

“It wasn’t easy and I wondered quite a bit about why I was here,” he said. “I had a lot of catching up and it was tough. It was tough adjusting to the speed of the play up here, and yeah, I got in a hole a bit.”

But Richie Saunders isn’t one to stay in holes and he worked fervently to do whatever necessary to adjust.

“He overcame a lot it, and in impressive fashion,” Evans said. “We gave him a lot of challenges and, man, I’ve rarely seen a player work as hard as he has to get to the point where he’s really helping us win a lot of games. I can’t say enough about him.”

Richie Saunders now starts for Wasatch and averages 14.7 points per game, which has him just behind Caleb Lohner’s 15.2 and Mike Saunders’ 14.9. He’s done it all while shooting 50% from the 3-point range while playing against some of the best prep programs in the country on almost a weekly basis.

Away from the court

While his pursuits on the court are impressive, his endeavors off of it have been equally so. Rich Saunders describes his son as someone who loves diversity with a desire to extend himself as much as possible in everything he does in life.

“He really just has been motivated for life since he was young,” Rich Saunders said. “Growing up it was collecting coins. He was relentless in that, and now it’s things like visiting Mali, Africa, not once, but twice, to just serve those people. He loves the people over there and he has to earn his own way.”

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Richie Saunders’ other pursuits involve wood shop, piano and even some early business ventures that has allowed him to make enough money to travel to exotic places such as Mali, Tahiti, and elsewhere.

Richie Saunders’ next travel location is yet to be determined, although it will be a two-year journey as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Wasatch star is just about to turn in his mission papers and will serve two years before even dribbling a basketball for BYU.

No matter where Richie Saunders serves, he may have a bit of trouble convincing mission companions to get up at 5 a.m. to shoot baskets, although he believes his pursuits will be blessed, regardless.

“It’s a sacrifice, but something I’m ready to do. You sacrifice for God, then I believe he sacrifices for you,” he said. “It’s something I’ve believed my whole life and I couldn’t be more excited to serve the people wherever I’m called. I can’t wait.”

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