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The City Journals

Sister squad makes points on the court

Dec 06, 2021 03:04PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High’s girls’ basketball team this season features three sets of sisters: Ashtyn and Alycea McVey; Grace and Sarah Pruden; and Olivia and Avery Backus. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

About any high school basketball coach would welcome a triple double.

That’s what Hillcrest High School girls basketball coach Matteo Dal Monte has this season—in the form of three pairs of sisters.

Returning for their senior season are Alycea McVey and Grace Pruden, joined by their sisters, junior Ashtyn McVey and sophomore Sarah Pruden. Junior Olivia Backus is joined by freshman sister Avery in the backcourt.

“It’s cool to see that there’s a really strong relationship between the two sisters,” Dal Monte said. “The older sister is going to have another opportunity to strengthen that relationship with their younger sister. At the same time, the younger sister will get a chance to learn from their older counterparts.”

The journey for the McVey sisters began when they were young, playing together on a Jr. Jazz team. As the years passed, their passion for basketball grew, and so did the sisters, with Alycea playing center for the Huskies and Ashtyn often rotating from wing to post. 

The two have been on the high school team as well as on the soccer field with competitive and recreational soccer. This fall, they added playing together on the high school’s unified soccer team.

“It’s fun to play with my sister; we get to spend more time together,” Alycea said.

“It gives me a better opportunity to learn to get better as we work together more,” Ashtyn said.

That includes Ashtyn saying she can get the ball into the hands of her older sister for a shot or a lay-up and Alycea helping her younger sister identify her strengths as well to help her work on what she can do better.

“Playing together is a good thing,” Alycea said. “We’re getting better, we’re having fun, we’re bonding together and with the team.”

That bonding time includes blasting music in the locker room before a game and telling jokes, Ashtyn said.

“We’re sisters, but we’re all like sisters on the team. We work hard, but also have a lot of fun,” she said.

Versatile player Grace Pruden agrees “it’s super cool and super special” playing with her younger sister; plus, on the practical side, she adds, for her parents, “there’s less driving to games.”

The Pruden sisters also have played soccer together, most recently finishing up Grace’s last season with Hillcrest. 

Grace said there is an “innate thing” about sisters playing together.

“I think it sounds stupid, but there’s a little bit of a sister philosophy there,” she said. “It’s really good to have a really trusted, close personal relationship with who I can talk about things on the field and court with. Usually, we’re on target knowing where we want the ball and knowing where we are. Sometimes on the field, I want to go somewhere, but she makes a different run, and we talk it out. Honestly, it can get a little more heated than with my other teammates, but it’s all good and healthy because we’re trying to get better and we’re competitive. Sarah is a really good distributer, and has this crazy motor in soccer and basketball, she just runs. She’s a super hard worker, always has been.”

Hillcrest soccer coach Eldon Brough agrees “the sisters have a nice connection.”

“I’ll see them together having lunch, or when they have a choice to be in a group of three or four on the field, they’ll frequently just be in the same group,” he said. “They obviously get along really well and trust each other and that is a really special experience for them.”

The Backus sisters danced when they were younger, as well as played basketball in the back court together for years. This will be their first time playing high school ball together. 

Older sister Olivia said they worked together in the gym in the offseason, prior to the team tryouts and both she and Avery attended open gyms.

“She’s been working well with the team; she’s been friends with them, so they already know who she is,” Olivia said, adding that their sister connection is strong. “We’ve played with each other our whole lives, basically on the same club teams, so we work good together. I’m really excited for her to be coming in and playing high school.”

Dal Monte said that sister chemistry and teamwork translates to the team.

“With the older sisters, we’ve got very good potential for leadership and then we can pass that onto their younger sisters, who are coming up in the program and growing in their own ways,” he said. “It continues that tradition of big Husky family that we love and care for one another. We play as hard as we can for one another, and we try to pass that on from one generation to the next.”

Those sisters and other Huskies will be the core for this year’s team.

“We’ve got a lot of the same girls returning so hopefully we’ll be able to do something special this year,” said Grace, prior to the season.

The Huskies, who finished with two wins last season, will be playing in a new region, 5A region 7, which Dal Monte said, “within the region, anything is up for grabs.” 

“I’m really focused on making sure that we are the best team that we can be and then letting the results speak for themselves on the floor,” said the second year coach. “I just want us to become as good as we can be with our program, with our strategies and connectiveness as a team. With fresh competition, it will give us a fresh start to just compete and have that first-time competitive mentality as opposed to, ‘we know this team and their reputation’ and things like that.”

Already, Dal Monte is liking his team’s attitude to learn and their willingness to work hard to improve each week.

“There’s been an overall excitement and a fervor to play,” he said. “Our approach is trying to be as simple as possible so our players can play, and they don’t have to worry about the details of a situation. I want them to be able to play and focus on competing. It will be a process we will be installing as we go throughout the year, but everything is with reason, and everything is with purpose.”

Olivia, who would like to compete post-high school, was looking forward to the season.

“I love playing the game; I want to bring my best to every game and be positive for the team,” she said. “Ultimately, if we win or lose, I don’t think that matters as much to me as if we’re getting better every day.”

Also new this season were preseason games scheduled against faculty and staff as well as alumni. Dal Monte said it not only gives alumni a fun way to reconnect with the school, but also with the team.

“It’s very powerful when players have come through this school and have played for this school to stay connected and teach the ones who are currently in high school, giving them life lessons and teaching them along the way. The more wisdom that gets passed from one group to the next, it only helps make our program stronger,” he said, adding that those life lessons could be on time management while playing basketball to life beyond high school.

Other slated preseason games included Kearns, who topped its region last season, and Lehi, who after winning its region, advanced to last year’s state semifinals. 

This year’s new region, which play begins in January, extends west to Tooele, who finished in the top three of its region last season, south to Cedar Valley, who finished second in last year’s region play. The Huskies also will travel three hours east, to match up against Uintah, who placed in the top five of its previous region.

Returning second-year coaches are Alyssa Nielsen, who will coach the freshman-sophomore team, and Mark Ronstadt, overseeing the JV team. Anthony Alford returns for his fifth season as an assistant coach, after a one-year leave of absence, and new Hillcrest PE teacher Laura Roth also joins the team as an assistant.

Those coaches will work with the sisters as well as all the players each practice.

“We will help them to develop the habits they need to be successful on the court and confident in their moves,” Dal Monte said. “I’m really excited that it allows for us to continue this culture that we’ve had at Hillcrest, trying to build that feeling of a big Husky family, because it really is a family.”