For former Sonora High hoops standout Brenden Evans, 2014 has been a year to remember.
The 2009 Wildcat graduate wrapped up his first year on the hardwood for the Division I Utah Valley men's basketball program in Orem, Utah.
As a junior, the Modesto Junior College transfer helped lead the Wolverines to the 2013-14 regular season Western Athletic Conference championship and a runner-up finish at the league's postseason tournament.
Utah Valley ended the regular season with a 19-10 overall record and a 13-3 mark in the Wolverines' first year in the conference.
In the WAC tournament, Utah Valley topped Texas Pan-American 83-63 before falling to longtime conference member Idaho 74-69 in the finale. The Wolverines were just one game away from securing an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
For its success, Utah Valley clinched its first-ever trip to the NIT.
The Wolverines' magical season came to an end in the first round of the NIT in a 77-64 loss to Pac-12 power Cal, in Berkeley.
In Evans' first year as a Wolverine, he played 10.3 minutes per game and averaged 2.5 points and 2.5 rebounds an outing. Overall, the 6-foot-5 post tied for fifth on the team with 80 rebounds. The 23-year-old also made 10 steals and recorded six blocks in limited action.
Off the court, Evans married his girlfriend of two years, Nicole, who he met at MJC, this summer. The couple tied the knot on July 16 and had a reception three days later.
The incoming senior was also one of six Utah Valley men's hoops players honored by the National Association of Basketball Coaches for their outstanding academics in the classroom. Criteria for the recognition required a junior or senior student-athlete to post a cumulative GPA of 3.2 or higher.
Evans, who will be entering his final year with Utah Valley this winter, sat down withUnion Democrat sports reporter Vongni Yangat the Sonora High School campus last Thursday before heading off to Hawaii for his honeymoon.
UD: How was your first season at Utah Valley?
BE: It went really well, actually, we were able to win our conference, and do well. It was a lot of fun. Coming from me, it was a lot of fun. Success brings fun.
UD: It was Utah Valley's first season in the WAC, how did the team enjoy immediate success?
BE: The WAC is way different from what it was, but to have New Mexico State, who has been the powerhouse in the WAC the past years with the old WAC, and to be able to beat them and win it all, beat Idaho, teams that have been in the WAC for years and years, just to be able to come in and win was a pretty awesome feeling.
UD: How were you guys able to win the WAC?
BE: We had a team full of mature guys. We're very smart and we all played our roles. No one was selfish at all, and that was part of the reason we were able to win the WAC. It was filled with teams that were athletic and way bigger and superior than us, but us playing together so well, being mature, and not fighting the system, and playing our roles, that's how we were able to be so successful. For me, I was able to find my role pretty fast and play the role. I was able to contribute and get some time.
UD: Although Utah Valley fell short of reaching the NCAA Tournament, was being able to play in the NIT an accomplishment?
BE: It was awesome. Almost a dream come true being able to play in a national tournament, a post-season tournament. That was a lot of fun.
UD: What was it like to be able to come back to California and play Cal in the NIT in front of family and friends?
BE: It was great. How crazy is that? To be able play at the NIT and be so close to home where everybody can come and watch. It was pretty awesome.
UD: You played your first year of college basketball at Cabrillo before taking a year off to serve your LDS mission. Did that have any affect on you?
BE: It helped me mature as a whole person, and having that whole year off from basketball, I matured. I got one year older and wiser. In the long run, it helped. At the time, I obviously would have said, 'No.' But as I look back now, it has played a pretty big role to where and who I am now.
UD: Although, you took a year off from basketball and school, did that stunt your growth as a player?
BE: At the time, yeah, but I was able to recover and get that much better. It took a while to get back to where I was, but it's fine now.
UD: You took the JC route to get to where you are now. Do you think that turned out to be the right path for you?
BE: Yeah, it did. It took a lot longer to be able to make it to where I am than I would have liked, but it all worked out in the end. So, I have no complaints.
UD: Coming out of Sonora High School, did you have any other offers?
BE: I actually verbally committed to Stan. State, but the coach ended up getting released there. So, that's why I decided to go the junior college route. It was kind of like a last second thing.
UD: Were you discouraged because you had to go through the JC route?
BE: At first, I was totally against going the JC route, just because as a player, you don't want to say, 'I'm at a junior college.' You want to say, 'I'm at a four-year college, and doing things right away.' But I recommend it to most athletes, actually, after doing it. It helps a lot. It helps you get more playing time, whereas most colleges, you go as a freshman and most likely will not play very much. At junior colleges, you go in and play right away. Get experience right away. Knock some classes out of the way. It really helped me out. At the time - kids don't really want to hear this - someone saying, 'You should probably go to junior college. It's a good idea.' But it definitely helped me a lot.
UD: What was it like to be able to get those live reps and experience at the JC level?
BE: It's great. There's nothing else better than that. As much practices as you do, as much open gym as you do, it's not the same as actual games. Getting the live reps in the actual games, you can't really simulate that.
UD: Was it always a dream of yours to play Division I?
BE: It has always been a dream. That's why I've gone through all this stuff and worked hard for it because I believe in myself. I have the confidence I could do it, but it was just a matter of finally getting there.
UD: Did any other colleges recruit at MJC?
BE: Yeah, I had a few Division Is I was in contact with. Nothing too serious, but there were a ton of Division II colleges. But it was my dream to go Division I to prove to myself and everyone else that I can play at that level. I was really focused on getting at the Division I level.
UD: Did Utah Valley turn out to be the right fit for you?
BE: Yes, definitely. Just the whole program, the whole school itself, is almost a perfect fit. I couldn't have gotten a better fit actually. I was almost taking a bit of a risk going there because the coach didn't promise me a scholarship or anything, but I was like, 'I'm going Division I or bust. I was going all-in.' Luckily enough, I was able to get on scholarship. The team was a perfect fit. My role on the team was perfect for me. The system that we played, it was a lot like Sonora High, where we have just a half-court offense and a ton of plays.
UD: How fulfilling was it to earn a scholarship as a walk-on?
BE: After about a month or two of practice, the coach basically told me, 'I've never done this, but I think that you deserve a scholarship.' That was pretty crazy. I was hoping, maybe, my senior I be able to get one. That was just a hope. That usually never happens, but to be in there for two months, and for him to call me and say that, is pretty awesome.
UD: What are your goals as an incoming senior?
BE: To lead the team to another championship. Be one of the leaders.
UD: Have you gotten any hints from your coach about what your role may be as a senior?
BE: From these summer workouts that I have been doing, it seems like he's looking to me as being a leader and contributing a lot more. So, I'm looking forward to contributing a lot more and being relied on.
UD: You embody the entire student-athlete experience, how important is education and putting schoolwork first?
BE: It's extremely important. At first, that's another reason why, going back to junior college, at first, I didn't have the same mindset of being a student-athlete at all. After years of growing, and years of going back and forth with different schools, and getting different grades, it really made me grow older. Going through the junior college route made me realize how important school really is. To where now, I focus mainly on school and try to fit basketball in where I can after school.
UD: After your college career is over at Utah Valley, what do you plan to do with the rest of your life?
BE: I don't have any set plans, but depending on how this next year goes, and what happens, I might try and play overseas. If not, I will move back to California and try to go into a fire academy.