The making of a championship team: How Alta capped its magical season with a state titleMar 30, 2023 10:00AM ● By Travis Barton
The Alta Hawks won its first state title since 2010 defeating Timpview in the 5A state championship game. (Photo by Rose MasonPhoto courtesy Travis Ohrn)
By Travis Barton | [email protected]
It was the second half of the 5A state championship game for the Alta High boys basketball team.
The Hawks were facing Timpview at Weber State and came out firing to start the third quarter. Junior Carter Doleac has just been fouled for his third and-one basket. Second-year head coach Travis Ohrn watched Doleac turn and flex to the bench. He then proceeded to try yelling to junior Ace Reiser, who walks down the court, turns and simply stares at the hoop.
“Between Doleac, who shows no emotion, he's flexing at the bench. Then I look at Ace and how locked in and focused he was. In that moment I was like, ‘we're gonna win this game,’” Ohrn recalled.
That was one of Ohrn’s most memorable moments from a season full of them, as Alta proceeded to beat Timpview and capture the 5A state championship going 24-4.
But the making of Alta’s storybook year started long before they rushed the court to celebrate. The program needed its coach (and coaching staff), the players and the mentality.
Coach O +
Ohrn is a South Jordan native, Bingham High alum and just finished his second year as a head coach at Alta.
A former point guard, he was asked by one of his wife’s friends while he was still in college to help with a BYU basketball camp one summer that would eventually alter his career path. He lived in Murray so the days were long, leaving at 7 a.m. and returning home at 9 p.m. At the end of the week, his wife told him: “You need to coach. I’ve never seen you this happy.”
What followed that year (2010 ironically the last time Alta won a boys basketball state title) were emails to coaches across the state, a short stint with a West Jordan eighth-grade team, before landing back at Bingham with his former high school coach helping the sophomore team.
Ohrn stayed on the Miners staff until 2021 when he applied for the Alta job. He was originally positioned to take over for Jake Schroeder when he returned to the Utah Tech (then Dixie) coaching staff in 2019. Ohrn however, was bypassed for the position. He interviewed at a few places but was hired at Alta two years later.
“In that moment, you're frustrated and disappointed and you're wondering why, why did it happen?” Ohrn told the Sandy Journal. “But now that I'm sitting here, it's like, oh, I know exactly why it happened. This is where I'm supposed to be.”
Coming to Alta holds a unique connection to his playing days. During Ohrn’s senior year at Bingham (2003), his Miners squad split their region games with Alta and the expectation was round three would be in the championship game. But Bingham lost a tight three-point game to Jordan in the semis and had to watch Alta lift the trophy from afar. A trophy he’s refused to touch since coming to work at the school.
“It’s just crazy the full circle how I ended up here,” he said.
Alta Athletic Director Morgan Brown estimates there were 12-15 applicants for the job. One moment while interviewing Ohrn stood out to him though. They asked him who was a coach Ohrn looked up to and why.
“There was this 15, 20 seconds pause, then the emotion started to flow with Travis,” Brown said. “And I thought, ‘this is about more than just basketball for Travis. This is about people.’”
Ohrn, called “Coach O” by his players, has orchestrated a successful two years as the conductor. In the five years prior to his arrival, the Hawks were 50-61. In the two seasons with Ohrn: 43-11, a region championship and a state championship.
“There were great pieces here, I was walking into a great situation,” Ohrn said.
His first season included a team with seven seniors that saw them go 19-7, win a region title and fall 55-54 in the quarterfinals as the No. 5-seed to Bonneville.
In what can sometimes be a transition year, Ohrn hit the ground running with his servant leadership style.
“My first approach has to let these guys know that I’m here for them,” he recalled.
“It’s our program. It’s not mine, it’s not the coaches’ program, it’s our program; our assistant coaches, our players, our training staff, our managers, our admins, everybody,” he said. “I want it to be one big family and we all have a piece in this and I'm just lucky enough to be able to stand on the sideline and clap and cheer and yell occasionally.”
Junior Jaxon Johnson remembers their first open gym, he found Ohrn to be very personable and he told the team he’d be fair with everyone. That what stands out to him is effort.
“Right then I was sold on the dude,” Johnson said.
Typically seniors, having just spent three years with a different coach, might clash with a new coach. But Ohrn noted how “blessed” he felt because the seniors bought in and were “phenomenal.”
“Those seniors last year really set kind of the foundation for what we're doing now,” he said.
Brown remembers that end of season banquet, when the team captains were in tears, describing the love they have for him and how Ohrn treated them just like his own family.
Johnson described him as his “second dad” where it’s not just basketball with him.
“He’s someone I can rely on in any aspect of my life and that’s why he’s so special,” Johnson said.
The talent +
Coming into this season, Ohrn knew the pieces were there for another run. The JV team had a good season the year prior but it was more about translating that to 7 p.m. (when varsity plays).
One offseason tournament gave the coaching staff some confidence. When one opposing coach questioned Alta’s quality given its dearth of seniors to graduation, the Hawks proceeded to beat them by almost 30 points.
“It was that moment right there. I was like, ‘OK, we got some really good pieces and we got guys that just know how to play basketball,’” Ohrn said.
That perception of a rebuilding year was the talk Johnson and his teammates continued to hear, and it put a chip on their shoulders.
“It pushed us to be greater…it was just a special group and we all had that mindset,” he said.
The Hawks had one returning starter but the rest were mostly untested at the varsity level. But Ohrn saw guys rising to the occasion like Doleac, Nash Hinck and Carter Goodfellow (all of whom would become playoff starters).
Goodfellow in particular started the season on the bench and didn’t play one minute against Lone Peak in the championship game of a preseason tournament at Skyridge. But due to an eligibility situation, he ended up starting his first game at their Las Vegas tournament, and was the leading scorer.
“He just makes winning plays,” Ohrn said of the junior.
But there was one guy the team could really build around: Johnson.
“He’s a coach’s dream, he can do everything on the basketball court,” Ohrn said of the 6-foot-8 junior.
Johnson’s skillset allows him to find ways to score from all over the floor, but his defensive basketball IQ might impress his coach the most. Ohrn would let him roam defensively trusting his ability to read the game anticipating back door cuts or block passing lanes with his length.
“He’s so smart when it comes to the game of basketball, offensively, defensively and then obviously being 6-foot-8, he can do anything that he wants out there on the court,” Ohrn said, highlighting a block in the championship game where Johnson basically caught the ball out of the air, a play Johnson admits was probably his best block ever.
His ability to read the game not only fills up the stat sheet (17 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals, two blocks per game), but also executes on the smaller details like starting a fast break, making the extra pass or tipping rebounds to a teammate.
“I just try to make the right basketball play,” Johnson said. “I could care less if I score 30 points and we lose, I’d rather score two points and get a win. That’s just the way I play, if I have a good shot, but see one of my teammates in the corner that’s wide open I’ll pass it because I have all the trust in the world that they’ll make it.”
Ohrn pointed to the junior’s unselfishness as a key intangible.
“I think he’s the best player in the state,” he said. “He could have averaged 30 points a game if he wanted, but he knew that's not how you win a championship. You got to have your guys with you, he did such a great job of getting everybody involved in the game.”
One of those guys wasn’t even on the team last year in Ace Reiser, but he proved pivotal as the team’s starting point guard.
Reiser was coming off an all-state year at Bingham. His older played both basketball and baseball before graduating in 2021, but the junior transferred to Alta a week into the school year.
Ohrn was familiar with Reiser having coached him a little his freshman year at Bingham, Ohrn also knew the family having played with his uncle in college and coached Reiser’s older brother, Justis.
Due to the leadership on the team, and Reiser’s attitude, the integration was fairly seamless, Ohrn said.
“It’s cool to see Ace and who he is today,” Ohrn said. “The personality that he has, how he's thriving here in our school, he's really come out of his shell.”
Prior to Reiser’s arrival, Johnson felt they were contenders, but his addition made them favorites.
“He’s just the perfect player you want to play with, he’s the perfect point guard,” Johnson said.
His presence brought an extra dimension to the squad’s arsenal of talent—he averaged 14 points and five assists per game—as well as be an example in hard work and focus.
At the team’s morning shootaround on the day of the semifinal, Reiser stayed after for an hour getting in extra shots. The junior would go on to score 21 points on 8-13 shooting with four 3-pointers and 10 assists against the No. 1-seed Olympus.
“We already had a really good team, and he helped us become a great team,” Ohrn said.
The mentality =
The moment Ohrn knew this team could be special came well before the season even started. It was the fall and the team is encouraged to support other school programs. On the day of a football game where Alta was traveling to Utah County, senior Ryan Richards announced to the team during a weight session that whoever needed a ride to the game could meet at 5 p.m. and they’d drive everyone, including freshmen.
“When I heard those conversations going on, it was like, ‘you know, we got a chance to do something special because we got the right guys,’” Ohrn remembered.
Richards, who won a state title with soccer last year, was referred to several times by Ohrn and Johnson as the “glue guy” of the locker room.
“Ryan’s a perfect leader,” Johnson said. “Kept us all together, kept us focused. Little things like that, taking underclassmen to football games, that is really what made this group a brotherhood.”
That inclusivity and cohesion was present among the coaching staff as well. When Ohrn was hired, his first order of business was perhaps the hardest part, finding a coaching staff as a new coach. He found three assistants who were all former players of his at Bingham. Then added a fourth this year. The oldest of which graduated high school in 2013.
The staff became a close-knit group, often having dinners at Ohrn’s house.
“What makes our team very unique, is our coaching staff is so close,” he said. “It makes a big difference to have guys that care about me, care about our program, my family, the boys. It definitely helped with all the success that we had this year.”
The team-first mentality among the players infused an environment of selflessness, Ohrn said.
“We have guys that are unselfish, and all they want to do is win, which makes it fun,” he said.
Goodfellow in Vegas, Doleac in the championship game, Hinck in the semis all serve to highlight how quickly Johnson knew this team was special.
“We had all the pieces and everyone was just buying into their role,” Johnson said of their first couple practices. “We have so many guys that could go to other schools and average 20 points a game or stuff like that. I just knew instantly we were gonna be special and it was just fun.”
It means passing up good shots for great shots, moving without the ball and making good reads. For Ohrn, it means trusting the players to think for themselves.
“I'm just on the sidelines,” he said. “Yeah, I'm gonna yell for certain things that I think I see. But you're the one that's out there. If you see something, if you feel something, let's go with it, I trust you guys.”
In the semifinals, Ohrn suggested the team switch their defense up, but Reiser and Johnson both said no, they should stay in man-to-man defense. The two were guarding Olympus’ two best players.
Beating the Titans in the semifinals, the defending state champs, by 20 was impressive on numbers alone, but also in the shifting mindset Ohrn is trying to instill.
While teams like Olympus or American Fork, Lone Peak previously and Corner Canyon currently, enjoy a certain aura over their programs. Ohrn wants to instill a fear factor in their opponents before the game even starts.
“We respect all of our opponents, but we understand that we’re there too. They have to respect us and who we are,” he said.
The Hawks soared through preseason going 10-1 with its only loss coming against the eventual 4A state champions from Florida (Mater Lakes) where a shot clock violation on a made 3-pointer changed the outcome of the five-point loss.
First round of region games saw its closest contest come in a seven-point win over Lehi. But the back half of region saw the Hawks lose to Lehi and Timpview by a combined three points, while a tight loss to basketball power Wasatch Academy during a region bye provided enough of a dip to sharpen the team’s focus.
Those region losses were enough to cost Alta the region title. But more importantly, it taught the team how they could be beat: slower tempo, physicality and playing with a lead.
While they defeated Timpview by 14 the first game, the Thunderbirds adjusted for the second game. Ohrn said if they had won both region games playing their style, the Thunderbirds could have “slowed the game way down and it would’ve shocked us.”
“Losing that game at Timpview ultimately, helped us win the championship game,” he said.
The Hawks were able to get out in transition more and really break the game open in the second half. With nine seconds left Johnson was subbed out and the dawning comprehension they were about to win the state championship set in.
“It was unbelievable, you work all year to just make it to the state championship, let alone win it and to do that with your best friends,” he said. “When we saw the zeros on the clock and we won, it was amazing.”
Ohrn, who won a baseball state championship as a senior, said winning one as a coach feels so much better.
“To see (the players) run out on the court and celebrate…I don’t even know how to describe that feeling,” he said.
The coach had to duck into the tunnel at one point because he was crying so much.
Celebrations started with receiving the state trophy and cutting down the nets. They stayed at the Dee Events Center so long Weber State officials had to ask them to leave so they could go home. Their bus was treated to a police escort and the celebrations continued at the school when they returned.
“I'm super lucky and fortunate to be here and coach the guys that I have and have that opportunity to win it. People don't realize how rare that is,” he said.
Ohrn will carry multiple memorable moments from this season, from the finals, to calling the 20-point victory over Olympus, to revving up their student section in a preseason win at Brighton.
As for what comes next, the Hawks will participate in the prestigious Section 7 tournament June 23-25 at the Cardinals Stadium in Arizona. The team returns four starters and several other contributors for next season.
Perhaps the best indicator came three days after the state championship when Ohrn wandered into the gym to find Reiser shooting. His comment to his coach: “If we’re gonna repeat, I got to put in the work.”
The Alta Hawks won its first state title since 2010 defeating Timpview in the 5A state championship game. (Photo by Rose Mason)
Travis Ohrn, in only his second season at Alta and as a head coach, cuts down the net after leading the Hawks to a state championship. (Photo by Rose Mason)
Nash Hinck, the only starting senior on the squad, shoots a free throw during the championship game. (Photo by Rose Mason)
Jaxon Johnson practically catches his block against Timpview in the 64-53 championship win. (Photo by Rose Mason)