Just about every time Springville senior guard Ahna Hullinger stepped on the court during her high school basketball career, she knew she was probably going to be the shortest player out there.
“Coaches have taught me how to play small,” Hullinger said in an interview last week. “I don’t try to pass the ball over defenders. You have to fake and go low. You play your size, not bigger.”
But when she is attacking the basket or going after a rebound, she has to get in the mix with the tallest players.
“I know I’m going to get swatted sometimes when I drive in there,” Hullinger said. “You have to know that it’s just part of the game. It’s tough going in against the big players but being able to score feels good.”
Being diminutive required Hullinger to develop a hard-nosed toughness to her game because she couldn’t let fear hold her back.
“We would put her on anyone,” Red Devil head coach Holli Averett said. “Opponents would try to post her up and she would be very physical. She was one of those players you never want to guard you because she was always in your face. She is this little girl but she isn’t scared. Because of her, everyone got that mentality too.”
Hullinger may not have had the most eye-popping statistics or the most dynamic court presence during the 2019-20 season — but no individual in Utah Valley did more to create the identity of a team than the Springville senior did. That toughness mindset that Hullinger helped instill resulted in the Red Devils making it all the way to the 5A state championship game.
“We’ve always been taught to have grit and not give up,” Hullinger said. “We’re kind of like junkyard dogs. We just have to play our hardest. We had some comebacks, so we knew it was all about being tough. That’s what was going to win games.”
That leadership and determination to succeed is why the Daily Herald is proud to honor Hullinger as the 2019-20 Utah Valley Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
“It’s kind of cool to show that all of your work has paid off and that it’s been noticed,” Hullinger said. “I’m just thankful.”
Averett said the recognition is one the Springville senior earned the hard way through countless hours of effort, much of which took place when no one was there to see it.
“I’m super-proud,” Averett said. “It’s amazing the amount of work she has put in — and she’s done it for years. She knew she was never going to be the biggest or always be our leading scorer. It’s great she finally got recognized. She’s been under the radar the last couple of years. She was huge for our team. We wouldn’t be who we were or do what we did without her. I’m just so proud of her.”
Hullinger said she felt as a senior her responsibility was to bring a group of relatively inexperienced teammates together to form a cohesive unit.
“I felt a lot of pressure, particularly in games,” Hullinger said. “I’m not very loud normally but I had to be loud and talk to people. I knew I had to make us a good team because we were all so new to each other. I think we did pretty good at that.”
She said the benefits were incredible as she was able to enjoy all of the ups and downs with her friends on the Red Devil squad.
“I loved being on this team,” Hullinger said. “They were some of the coolest girls you could play with and we had the coolest coaches. It was awesome being part of a team like this. It was fun because there wasn’t a lot of experience but we all learned how to play together. That was a challenge at the beginning but once we did, it was just so much fun playing with them.”
Her foundation for basketball success started with a family that loves the sport. Her siblings had done well on the court while her dad, Scott Hullinger, has been a long-time coach.
“It was really helpful,” Hullinger said. “They are all very experienced so I had coaches everywhere. They taught me and I looked up to them. I learned from them, their mistakes and what they did well. It’s been really fun having a basketball family.”
She said she’s been playing hoops for more than a decade. She did play some other sports but the lure of basketball proved to be too much.
“I started playing in third or fourth grade,” Hullinger said. “I played soccer up until my freshman year but that was when I decided to focus on basketball and get as good as I could at it.”
When she got to the high school level, she immediate felt the difference in competition, particularly because of her size.
“Being as small as I am, I was definitely really nervous because everyone is so much bigger,” Hullinger said. “It was definitely a lot more work than I had ever had to put in for basketball. It was hard but it was fun.”
She worked her way through the ranks and became a key contributor.
“She’s been one of those players who has been under the radar,” Averett said. “She came in as a sophomore and junior, and started to lead the team in that point-guard role.”
That set the stage for Hullinger to become a key leader in 2019-20, one who set the tone with her determination.
“She was always the one who would come to the gym and just shoot for hours by herself,” Averett said. “She might not have scored every game or averaged 20 points but she was our best defender, our leader and was just one of those overall good players.”
The Red Devils ended up in a three-way tie for first in Region 8 and headed to the 5A playoffs as the No. 4 seed. Springville blasted Mountain Ridge in the first round but then survived tough, low-scoring games against Bountiful and Skyline to reach the semifinals. That’s where undefeated Lehi, the No. 1 seed, was waiting.
“We knew we had something to prove,” Hullinger said. “I don’t think anyone knew we could do it. We wanted to show people who we were. We had to stay tough and stay together. It was really fun. It was great to get the feeling that we could do it.”
The Red Devils weren’t quite able to get the championship, falling to Highland in the title game. Hullinger said that’s a tough memory but as time has past she has been able to put it in perspective.
“It still is hard to think that we were so close,” Hullinger said. “But we have been trying to look at the positive. We beat the No. 1 team. We also look at where we started. I’m really proud of us and what we were able to accomplish.”
Outside of basketball, Hullinger loves being with friends, family and her two dogs. She said she enjoys creating in classes like art. Her plan is to pursue a career in coaching as well as doing health and physical education.
“I think being a coach in high school would be super-fun,” Hullinger said. She said she would advise a young high school basketball player to stay positive and keep working. “If you lose the drive to work, your game changes,” she said. “You have to be positive and keep going.”