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West Jordan • An American Fork supporter reached her boiling point. Watching Copper Hills' Preston Sanchez routinely dissect the hometown defense was an ongoing horror show, and the naturally irritating style of the senior guard only compounded her increasing frustrations.
Sanchez is animated and grossly competitive. On this night, following a hard foul at the rim, the four-year starter casually tossed the ball into the midsection of his defender, resulting in a technical foul. It's this type of aggressive nature on the court that casts the impression of a hot-tempered attitude and steers opposing crowds into focusing taunts in his direction.
As the woman shrilled in her sharp tone, Sanchez cupped his hand around his ear, provoking his critic deeper into her diatribe. The Copper Hills student section recognized the opportunity to troll the woman further by contributing the chant: "He can't hear you, he can't hear you!"
They weren't joking. Sanchez really couldn't hear the heckling.
Sanchez has suffered from high-range hearing loss since birth, and the gesture accompanied, of course, with a finger-point to the scoreboard once the message resonated was an attempt to compensate for the impairment impacting both his ability to speak and hear properly.
'Don't let my kids have it'
Mario and Marnie Sanchez were relegated to the role of chauffeurs when both of their friends, who were without transportation, started dating. Romance blossomed over time, and eventually the two became involved.
They've since been married 25 years, and when the idea of expanding their family arose, Mario feared he'd pass his hereditary hearing disability to his children. The mistake of assuming English is a second language for Mario, who is of Spanish and Mexican descent, is easy to commit. Unable to hear high-pitched frequencies, Mario never developed natural inflection and enunciation with his speech. Listening requires laser focus. Daily conversation is challenging.
"It was tough on me because I was thinking, 'I'll take a leg. Take whatever it has to be just don't let my kids have it," Mario explains.
At first, the only complication of childbirth appeared to be the "grocery bill," Marnie quipped, until Preston, the middle child of three boys, was evaluated in kindergarten. An audiologist revealed he'd inherited his father's disability. Both of his brothers were born with perfect hearing.
"I always was thinking he's the best baby. He sleeps so good because noises didn't really bother him," Marnie says.
Preston enrolled in specialized classes to accelerate his progress back to an expected reading level once the problem was discovered. Educators and family members worked to improve his recognition of sounds critical to learning, and soon he was flourishing academically and registering with a normal schedule without any accommodations. Preston's hearing limitations evolved into an unforeseen motivator in the classroom, forcing him to sit in the front during lectures, correlating with his 3.8 cumulative grade-point average.
"If he sat in the back, talking to a friend, he would miss the opportunity," Mario says.
Preston has learned to concentrate with his eyes, as his father instructed from experience, which allows him to read lips for interpretation when necessary. Mario also advised his son to "never take anything for granted," and to accept himself "because there are a lot worse things out there."
"I'm thankful for what I have," said Preston, whose pronunciation mirrors his father's. "I'm happy where I am."
Proving you belong
Preston considered himself more as a football player in his adolescence, but wearing a helmet intensified the difficulties of communication. The summer before seventh grade, Sanchez's AAU basketball team participated in the higher eighth-grade tournament bracket. He scorched his older counterparts for 19 points in one quarter.
"At that time, he knew that was something he wanted to do," Mario says.
He ditched his cleats for sneaks full-time shortly afterward, though some naysayers scoffed at the decision, believing he should participate in as many little league activities while he had the opportunity. He'd never make a high school roster, they said. Preston is now signed to play collegiately at Dixie State.
"There were people that told him, 'You'll never make it,' " Mario recalls. "They said, 'You'll never be able to go that far.' It was things like that he said, 'You're not going to stop me.' "
Sanchez's internal fire is ammunition for his competitiveness. He missed a free throw that ultimately cost his team the game in seventh grade. He established a routine of making 1,000 free throws per week, an undertaking demanding four to five hours of his schedule in addition to his already exhausting practice regimen. The echoing noise of gymnasium backdrops is expected virtually every time he answer his phone. Sanchez never stops.
"I know there is somebody out there better than me," Preston says. "There is somebody out there working harder. I want to be the best. I want to prove to people what I can do."
Sanchez continues to "keep [criticism] in the back of my mind," illustrated by his relentless effort, but his fiery persona is confined to basketball. Sanchez is otherwise quiet and polite, especially with authority figures, and humorous in comfortable situations.
"We've always said you've got to have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder to prove to people you do belong," said Copper Hills coach Andrew Blanchard. "His attitude is what makes him such a good player. He is a great guy. He's really funny. He's positive with our team."
Sanchez is the facilitator for the undefeated and second-ranked Grizzlies, averaging 17.5 points, 2.5 assists, 1.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game in his final season while playing a position predicated on communication. Blanchard and his coaching staff developed a series of hand signals and foot stomps to convey in-game adjustments four years ago, even soliciting advice from Mario, who coached Preston in his youth, while teammates "work with me, as well; they make sure I see the play call," Preston says.
"For him to be at such a high level of play is remarkable," Blanchard says. "He has learned to live with these problems he has with hearing, and it doesn't affect his game at all."
Never backing down
Copper Hills is not a storied athletic program despite advertising one of the largest enrollments in the state. Boys' basketball happens to be one of the few programs at the school with a state championship in the trophy case after capturing the highest honor in 1999-2000.
Consistency is the elusive treasure for every program searching for what Blanchard labels as the "gold standard," which he uses Sanchez as an example of for upcoming generations of Grizzlies.
"We have youth practice here all the time, and while they're practicing, who do they see in the gym? Preston Sanchez," Blanchard explains. "Who do they see in the corner doing dribbling activities by himself for hours on end? Preston Sanchez."
Sanchez admittedly is not the most athletically-gifted player. Blanchard acknowledges Sanchez is not "as big as you'd want a D-1 guard to be," but says his intelligence and fundamentals obtained through work ethic is "as good as anybody in our state."
The Grizzlies are legitimate title contenders this season, with arguably the best roster in the program's history. This group understands the expectations: Win or bust.
Accomplishing their lofty goal will, at some point, likely come down to an ability to convert at the free-throw line, as so many postseason games are determined by the smallest of details. Copper Hills is as comfortable as anyone with Sanchez in command. Distractions do not apply. He can't hear them.
"I think it is [an advantage], as far as the crowd and the noise," Marnie said. "It doesn't bother him. As for some kids I've seen it crumble them. You know fans are going to play a huge part, and if you can't hear it, you can play your game."
However, if the Hollywood scenario writes a tied game with the championship at stake in the final seconds, Sanchez's demeanor will have nothing to do with his disability. He will confidently approach the line and replicate the exact routine he's practiced countless times, knowing he has another opportunity to prove he belongs.
About Preston Sanchez
School • Copper Hills
Class • Senior
Position • Guard
Height • 6 feet
Weight • 170 pounds
Noteworthy • Sanchez is a four-year starter averaging 17.5 points, 2.5 assists, 1.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game for the second-ranked Grizzlies. He plays a position predicated on communication despite high-range hearing loss since birth.