Sandfort reflects on commitment to Iowa basketball

Published on The Daily Iowan. Read it here.

Payton Sandfort always knew he wanted to play basketball — and if he was going to play, he would play to win.

From childhood to his recent signing of a National Letter of Intent to play men’s basketball at the University of Iowa, Sandfort has always had the underlying goal to win both on and off the court.

Sandfort’s dad, Brian, and his grandpa, “Bo” Larsen, coached him in the West Des Moines Spurs youth basketball program for nine years. Winning was common for Sandfort and his Spurs teammates, no matter the circumstances.

In the youth squad’s last game in Sandfort’s seventh grade, the team trailed by two points with two seconds to go. Then, one of Sandfort’s teammates stole the ball and made a half-court shot to win the game. At that moment, Sandfort realized winning was a team concept. As his talent developed and his profile grew, he realized that team victories drove him just as much as individual accomplishments.

Years after his time in youth basketball had passed, Sandfort and his Waukee teammates were pushing for a state championship game appearance in Sandfort’s junior season. In the two preceding seasons, the Warriors finished third.

Waukee is slated to split into two high schools following Sandfort’s graduation this spring, meaning Sandfort and his teammates needed to win last year’s state semifinal game to secure the school’s first and only championship game appearance. Fortunately for Sandfort, he and his teammates defeated Ankeny Centennial to advance to the state title game.

Just like he did in seventh grade, Sandfort and his teammates celebrated their improbable victory on the floor — though this time, Sandfort was partying on the hardwood at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.

Sandfort and the Warriors lost the state championship game. But now, he’s eager to bring Waukee basketball to its first and only state title before the school is split.

For basketball players, Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) hoops are a major part of a player’s development and recruitment. Sandfort earned a major victory in his last game with his AAU squad, Kingdom Hoops. Sandfort and his teammates defeated DI Minnesota — a dominant force in AAU basketball that boasted a number of NCAA Division I commits.

Once again, Sandfort and his teammates found themselves frolicking on the court to commemorate the win.

With his AAU days behind him, Sandfort had to set the stage for his next big win, and decide which college to attend to continue his basketball career. Sandfort received seven Division I scholarship offers, but ultimately committed to play at Iowa beginning in the fall of 2021.

“We’re thrilled to have Payton join our program,” Hawkeye men’s basketball head coach Fran McCaffery said. “I offered a scholarship the very first time I saw him play. He is perfectly suited for our style of play with his size, versatility, competitiveness, 3-point accuracy, ball handling and post-up skill. I believe he is going to have a tremendous career here at the University of Iowa.”

The 6-foot-7 forward’s commitment to Iowa also casts a light on the basketball life he’s lived thus far.

Growing up in a family full of basketball players, Sandfort had a ball put in his hands as soon as he could walk. His parents and his maternal grandfather played college basketball. Their background, coupled with the coaching of Sandfort’s father, fostered Payton’s love of the game.

Now, Sandfort is reaping the off-court benefits of his family’s love affair with the game.

“I am super excited to make this commitment official and can’t wait to get to Iowa City to be with the team,” Sandfort said via Iowa Athletics press release Nov. 11. “… Ultimately, when it came down to it, this felt like home to me because of the style, the culture, and the people within the program and the people who support the program.”

With his commitment set in stone, Sandfort can look back on his recruitment journey.

“The night Fran McCaffrey asked me to play at Iowa was incredible,” Sandfort said. “I was in Kansas City for a live period event where coaches could come. The second day, I walked into the gym and heard my dad say, ‘Fran’s here, so forget everything and play your best.’ And I played really well.”

Later that day, Sandfort got a call from McCaffrey, who offered him a full scholarship to play basketball at Iowa.

“I think I’m a perfect fit for the system,” Sandfort said. “They want to run; they want to shoot threes. I fit really well into the culture too.”

Sandfort and McCaffery aren’t the only people who believe Iowa is a perfect fit for him.

“Payton’s No. 1 skill is obviously his shooting ability, but he is also very skilled all around,” Waukee boys basketball coach Justin Ohl said. “Iowa is a really good fit for Payton. Coach McCaffrey’s style and system will be great for Payton. It’s tailor-made for him.”

Sandfort received offers from Stanford, Utah, Minnesota, Drake, Loyola-Chicago, and Air Force. He noted, however, the little things the Iowa coaching staff did to show they cared about him, like calling his little sister Piper on her birthday, ultimately set Iowa apart from other schools.

Despite his commitment to Iowa, Sandfort is still looking forward to the remainder of his high-school career. Sandfort has already led Waukee’s golf team to a state title.

Sandfort stays grounded with his faith and his family, including two younger siblings. Piper is in seventh grade and plays basketball for her dad and grandpa. Pryce is a high-school sophomore who plays varsity basketball for Waukee with Payton.

“He’s always pushing me to be better,” Pryce said. “We always play one-on-one and stuff, so I learned his moves and learned how to defend better from a bigger person than me.”

The brothers constantly play together at their home basketball gym. Pryce said that playing with his brother in high school means everything to him and the pair have dreamt about it since they were young.

Aside from his family, Sandfort also impacts his teammates and coaches. Tucker Devries, who recently committed to Drake, plays with Sandfort at Waukee.

“Just by watching Payton play and being around him in general, there are a lot of things I have learned from him,” Devries said. “Whether stealing moves from him or how he holds himself. We’ve both been able to help each other grow as players and people.”

Coach Ohl said that Sandfort has learned to play with emotion, without getting emotional, which makes him a leader on the floor and a great role model for others to learn from.

“He’s just one of those kids you gravitate towards,” Ohl said. “There are always little eyes watching, and Payton has been a great role model for them.”

In spite of all the praise and accolades he has received, Sandfort said he keeps things in perspective by reflecting on the journey, not the destination.

“Little Payton loved basketball and I am thankful for that,” Sandfort said. “I think that little me would be incredibly proud of where I am today.”

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