Woods Cross • Forward Hayden Grant remembers what it was like in the packed gym in the fourth quarter of a close game. He looked around for a Woods Cross teammate who had been there before, but he found no one.
A year later, the Wildcats' youth and inexperience has turned into veteran leadership. They've gone from a team with zero players with meaningful varsity experience to a starting lineup full of them.
Grant now looks around the gym and sees Wildcats calm and eager to excel in the pressure moments.
"There's definitely been a different attitude," Grant said. "The experience we have, we know what's going to happen and what we need to do to win."
By most measures, the Wildcats had a fine season a year ago. They finished 16-7, won a play-in game to gain entry into the state playoffs and hung tough in a first-round loss to eventual state champion Orem.
But at times, the talented Wildcats were hampered by not having senior leadership on the court. Instead of falling back on experience, the Wildcats had to depend on bonds that had been formed through years of playing together on travel teams.
"We kind of had to rely on knowing each other very well," Grant said. "We all know how each other plays, their little tendencies and their strengths. We play to our strengths very well."
Even as they occasionally stumbled last year, the Wildcats knew they'd have a chance for something special this season. Along with Grant, last season's two leading scorers, Brady Cowley and Skylar Farnes, returned, as did guard Mike Jacobsen and center Felipo Mokofisi.
"Experience is such a big thing," first-year Woods Cross coach Kasey Walkenhurst said. "With all five of them coming back, they got one playoff game, and they know what it's like. There's not a panic in them. Whether we're down or up, they know how to handle it."
At 4-1 entering the week, the Wildcats mostly have looked the part of a balanced, experienced team. At the same time, they've had to deal with the difficulties of learning the new system Walkenhurst employs.
Walkenhurst uses a four-motion offense, based on a system of passing, screening, cutting and, most importantly, reading the defense. Instead of running set plays, each player must react to his defender, something that's entirely new for the Wildcats.
"It's been difficult with them so far because of the new philosophies," Walkenhurst said. "They never ran the type of stuff that we're running now, but ... they buy into everything I say."
Despite the growing pains, Walkenhurst said the Wildcats are "perfect for the system" because they have talent at every position, and their experience has allowed them to pick up the system relatively quickly.
As soon as the team is able to fully grasp the system, Walkenhurst and Grant agree that the Wildcats will be difficult to beat particularly come playoff time, when experience becomes such a large factor.
"I think we have an opportunity to do something great," Grant said. "As long as we get a little better every game, we'll hit our peak at the right time."