HIGHLAND — You thirst in the desert, then drink deeply when you come to an oasis.
Eric Mika is finally getting his taste after being forced to sit out a year. Absence makes the rim seem closer.
Now a senior, with only a blank space to show for his junior year of basketball, this is a guy hip-deep and gulping it all in every time he plays.
Mika is back with a vengeance.
The BYU-bound, 6-foot-9, 220-pound Lone Peak senior is finally back on the court and making the most of every minute. Because he marked down Waterford as his primary academic home two years ago, he was ineligible to play for Lone Peak’s 5A championship team in 2012, despite coming back in the fold. It was a paper fence he could not leap over.
Sitting can be a frustration.
Perhaps Mika is taking that out on opponents now.
“He is one of the most physical, athletic guys I’ve seen in a while, the way he attacks the hoop, goes after the ball, runs the floor and doesn’t back down,” said former BYU guard Jackson Emery.
“The way he takes it to guys? You’d think after a year off, he’d have to adjust to the physicality of the game, but he sets the tempo and you can tell he looks more hungry than other guys on the floor.”
In Mika’s first game back to begin his senior season for the Knights, Mika scored 22 against Brighton. In his next game at the Chicago Classic against Proviso East, he registered 18 points and 15 rebounds. In his last game, a win over Cottonwood, Mika scored 29 points and hauled down 11 boards.
MaxPreps.com ranked Proviso No. 10 in the nation in Chicago before losing to Lone Peak. Nobody could stop Mika, and he demanded a double team in the paint.
Folks in Chicago were impressed with Mika and his team that features two other BYU signees in point guard Nick Emery and Class of 2014's TJ Haws.
“I think we’re just trying to prove a point how good we are as a team,” Mika told reporters in Chicago. “We can play with anyone in the country.”
According to reports, Lone Peak was up on Proviso 16-14 when Mika “went into beast mode,” scoring nine points and grabbing seven rebounds in the second quarter to put the Knights up by 13 at intermission.
In that game, Mika ran the court and continually beat everyone to the finish where he threw down buckets.
Mika plays at the rim. He’s stout, strong and smart. He runs the court, forcing defenders to chase him and get him out of his spot. He’s got a great toolbox of shots around the paint and he’s tough, and that makes him kind of dominating on the high school level.
Despite sitting out last year, his appearances in AAU ball during the past two years, especially this summer, have caught the attention of talent scouts. He is currently ranked as the country’s No. 10 center by Scout.com and No. 8 by ESPN, which ranks him the No. 76 player in the Class of 2012.
Mika will join his Lone Peak mates in the Great Western Shootout in Orem Thursday, 6:40 p.m. MT, against Foothill. Then on Friday, 8:15 p.m. MT, Lone Peak plays Denver East. Saturday brings a rematch with 4A champion Orem on the Tiger home court at 5 p.m.
The paper fence that held down Mika?
It was a rule of the Utah High School Athletic Association.
It forced him to be the water boy at Lone Peak last year. He sat on the bench, did not dress and watched his teammates win a state title. He could have started for any team in the state, but he sat out his sentence.
Mika attended Waterford and played for that school in Sandy as a freshman and sophomore. He lived in Lone Peak boundaries all his life, but when he established eligibility at Waterford, it chained him. His family appealed his case, citing a hardship because Mika would go to early morning seminary, attend school and then stay late for practice from 5-7 p.m. daily at Waterford. He even got in an accident making the long daily commute. The UHAA denied him his junior year. He even lost a lawsuit filed in district court over the matter.
So, from discouraged sitting to adrenalized running and jumping, this season is a very big deal to this kid.
BYU signed five recruits in November from the Class of 2013 that included Mika and Luke Worthington from Wisconsin. Both will play next year and fill a void left by Brandon Davies. Three others, Mika’s teammate Nick Emery, Braiden Shaw of Eagle High in Idaho and Jakob Hartsock of Oklahoma will go directly on church missions.
But for now, Mika is on his own mission, making up for a lost junior season.
And doing it very well.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.