by Matt Harris
For a basketball fan living in the state of Utah, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was arguably more of a dreamkiller than anywhere else in the country.
Just a few days before the sports Armageddon of March 2020, Sam Merrill had nailed the greatest shot in Utah State basketball history to win the Mountain West Conference Championship. The Aggies were dancing as a projected 10-seed and were full of momentum.
Two hours south of Logan, Utah, fans were celebrating at BYU as their basketball team was headed to the Big Dance for the first time since 2015, and they were doing so in style. They were projected to be a six seed.
There was less heralded success going on with another team less than 40 minutes further south. In the little town of Mount Pleasant where Wasatch Academy’s prep basketball team was a consensus Top-5 national team having its best year in the 108-year old program’s history.
All five seniors on the roster, which formed the starting lineup, were committed to Division I universities, the first time in school history. Caleb Lohner was committed to Utah (and later committed to BYU). Richie Saunders committed to BYU, Mike Saunders committed to Cincinnati, Leonardo Colimerio committed to Fresno State, and Mady Sissoko was headed to Michigan State as the highest rated recruit.
Wasatch’s entire program goal is to win a national championship, and projections listed the 2020 Tigers as the likely No. 2 seed in the GEICO Nationals Championship Tournament. It is the highest seed for Wasatch ever as lower seeding had been their downfall in each tournament over the last five years.
Suddenly, every athlete’s dream suddenly burned to ash with the pandemic.
The tournament never happened, despite an “honorary bracket” where the Tigers were, indeed, named the two seed.
Because of that experience, it’s time to see what 2021 brought for those five former seniors.
Richie Saunders currently serves in Seattle, Washington, as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He will return for his freshman year for BYU in 2022-23 (originally was called to Madagascar). Of the other four starters, Lohner and Sissoko are on 2021 NCAA Tournament teams, while Mike Saunders and the Cincinnati Bearcats were just a game shy of an automatic bid.
Caleb Lohner – BYU
Lohner’s decommitment from Utah earned him zero brownie points in Salt Lake City, and it’s hard to imagine Ute fans aren’t missing him after what they’re seeing out of the 19-year old.
Lohner wasn’t an immediate impact, which was the norm for most freshmen during the pandemic season where teams could barely practice before the season started. Lohner had a game-high of 11 points against Utah State in his first 10 games. He then he had back-to-back double-digit games against Weber State and Gonzaga. In those contests, he shot 77 percent from the field.
As the season went on, Lohner became easily the most impactful college freshman on the former Wasatch roster. Late in the season, he heated up in a three-game stretch, scoring 19, 18, and 13 points in late February and nearly notching a double-double against Pacific when he had 19. By the end of the conference tournament, Lohner had started in 12 of the Cougars’ 26 games.
Lohner’s freshman year has caught plenty of media attention as he lived up to the billing of his four-star recruit rating. His total rebounding percentage of 16.9 percent while on the floor this season was the third-best rating for a season in BYU history, behind two seasons of the colossus that was Rafael Aroujo. The trajectory of what Lohner will be able to accomplish at BYU is unlimited, and an early declaration for the NBA draft is feasible.
Mady Sissoko – Michigan State
Disclaimer: Michigan State lost the First Four Matchup to UCLA when typing this story.
Sissoko’s first year at Michigan State wasn’t expected to be an immediate success. The West Africa-native center had only learned the sport of basketball three years prior and was brought to Wasatch Academy in 2016 at least partly from some insightful recruiting by then-head coach Curtis Condie. His physical gifts were, however, unmistakable, as he sports a muscular 6’9”, 235-pound frame with a 7’4” wingspan.
In year one under the legendary coach Tom Izzo, Sissoko played solid bench minutes with an average of 5.5 minutes per minimal stats. Although, he did score a season-high eight points against Michigan late in the season.
Perhaps most impressive in Sissoko’s first season was his shot-blocking ability. The raw-skilled freshman averaged nearly a block every two games despite low playing time. It was enough to get him on the national radar in the first game of the season against Eastern Michigan with this defensive work of art.
Sissoko’s final appearance this season was three minutes, one rebound, and a missed shot against UCLA. The Spartans were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament.
Mike Saunders, Jr. – Cincinnati
Saunders being a first-year starter didn’t appear to be part of the plan, but after a number of Cincy’s players opted out of the season, the freshman guard ended up starting in 10 of 22 games for the Bearcats, helping them to a 12-10 overall record and just coming up short of an auto bid to the Big Dance after losing the AAC Championship to Houston.
Saunders struggled to shoot the ball very well, 38.8 percent from the field and 21 percent from 3, but he proved a competent passer with 1.4 assists per game and was feisty on defense with 0.6 steals per game. His best outing was in a loss to Memphis near the close of the regular season, as he scored 19 points, grabbed three rebounds, and had two assists and a steal.
Just a few days ago, Saunders announced that he was entering the transfer portal.
Leonardo Colimerio – Fresno State
Colimerio is the unfortunate recipient of the “Earliest Season Finish By a Former 2020 Wasatch Academy in His Freshman Year of College” award. Luckily for him, this award does not exist and is very stupid.
Colimerio’s usage was actually quite high for a freshman, playing just over ten minutes per game. He wasn’t accountable for much as he struggled to insert himself in the rotation initially due to Fresno State’s conference-only schedule. Perhaps Colimerio’s best game on the stat sheet was having four points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals in a win against Air Force.
Fresno State was eliminated in the first round of the Mountain West Conference Tournament and did not qualify for any postseason.
BONUS – Richie Saunders – Washington
Richie Saunders is not currently playing college basketball while he is out on an LDS mission, but he gets points for not being filmed by his companions riding his bike down a flight of cement stairs to await a potentially life-altering injury.
Featured image courtesy ABC4 Utah