Grit, perseverance propel West Wendover boys to the high school’s fourth state championship
By Dianna Troyer
Without saying a word, the West Wendover Wolverines told their coach how they felt about being down four points at halftime of the state championship February 27.
“Their faces said it all when I went into the locker room at halftime,” head coach John Sharp recalls. “They looked like they had already lost the game. I told them, ‘You’re kidding me’.”
With the score 23-19 and the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association Division 2A championship at stake, John reminded his players of a former Wolverines team.
“The 2012 team was down 10 points with 90 seconds left in the championship game,” he told them. “They scored 11 straight points to win the title. This game is not over. You are 16 minutes away from winning state. It’s up to you to pick yourselves up and believe in yourselves and each other as a team for 16 minutes.”
John says the Wolverines’ opponent—the undefeated Incline Highlanders from northern Nevada—was formidable. The Wolverines had lost to them in three previous games.
“Honestly, Incline had more talent than we did,” John admits. “But in the second half, our kids played with more heart, and that was the difference. They started the third quarter energized and never let up.”
Senior center Jesus Gonzalez says the Wolverines’ focused on hard-nosed defense in the second half.
“Coach told us that even though they were undefeated, we could be ourselves and win,” he says.
The Wolverines defeated the Highlanders 61-54, securing West Wendover’s fourth state basketball championship. The following day, the boys returned home to a parade, where local police and firefighters blared celebratory sirens.
“We didn’t know what the scale of the parade would be,” Jesus says. “It was unreal and amazing to feel the whole community was behind us. When the season started, we weren’t expected to win state. It was the best thing ever to prove we could do it.”
John says this year’s team started the season like five individuals on the court instead of a cohesive team.
“Then we lost a game by 35 points, and it was a wakeup call for them,” John says. “After that, they came together.”
Jesus says he remembers John telling them, “Fans don’t remember stats of individual players. They remember a team that wins.”
Along with the elation of winning the state championship, John says he hopes his players remember the lessons learned on and off the court. He reminds them that academic effort matters as much as playing basketball.
“Playing a sport is a privilege,” John says. “We tell them, ‘If you can’t get it done in the classroom, you can’t get it done on the court’.”
Every Monday, the athletic department secretary checks the players’ grades and sends an email to John before practice.
“If their grade point average falls below 2.0 or if they get an F in a class for that particular week, they’re ineligible to play that week,” John says. “Even if they have a 3.5 GPA but get an F, they can’t play.”
John says he hopes his pre-game speeches influence his players after they graduate. Before a game, he writes two words on the locker room board: Trust. Believe.
“I tell them to believe and trust in themselves, their teammates and their coaches,” John says. “If you do, at the end of the day, you’ll be successful.”
Some Wolverine alums have told him how his advice affected them.
“During the last 15 years, they’ve come back and told me, ‘I wouldn’t have gone to college if not for you,’” John says. “I encourage them to focus on life outside sports and their community and to see the big picture.”
Jesus says he will remember one of John’s tenets.
“You don’t have to be the most talented person in the room, but you can damn well be the most hardworking,” Jesus says. “I plan to do that with electrical engineering in college.”
John is optimistic about next year’s Wolverines team even though he will lose five seniors.
“We’ve got talented juniors and others coming up,” he says.
In the Wolverines’ locker room, a plaque hangs beside the door with the motto, “Play like a champion today.” Before leaving the locker room, everyone acknowledges it.
“Every player and every coach has to touch it and do what it says,” John says.
While every year’s team keeps the tradition, John says he never knows how a season will unfold.
“Last year, we were favored to win state but were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs,” he says. “This year, our team was seeded third in the state tournament and still won. Every season, whatever happens, it’s a team effort. I’m always grateful to the players, my wife and our coaching staff.”
When the glow of winning the 2020 state championship eventually dims, John says he hopes his players remember one thing: “I want them to always remember how proud I am of them and how they never gave up. They believed in themselves.”