SALT LAKE CITY — In the wide, wonderful world of sports, we are champions when it comes to celebrating excellence.
Whether we are former competitors ourselves or fans just struggling to chew gum and work the universal remote at the same time, we love winners. And we're not afraid to show our affection in loud, loyal, even irrational ways.
And while I applaud these accomplishments and even share the awe of my colleagues who recognized these young athletes, I want to make sure we don't leave this prep season without recognizing some of those who may not have hoisted a trophy this year but have moved, inspired and challenged us with the way they used the game to become better human beings.
In no particular order, these are my favorites. (Feel free to add your own magnificent moments in the comments section.)
1 — If I had to pick one single moment that made me proud to be a sports writer it would be talking with the Bryce Valley girls basketball team about a gesture from their 1A rival that epitomized sportsmanship. Rich High defeated Bryce Valley in the first round of the girls 1A state basketball tournament, and then the girls asked the Mustangs if they could wear their warm-up shirts before their next game. That's because the Mustangs were playing for Steve Pollock, who passed away from cancer just after the basketball season ended. His daughter Makelle was a junior guard on the team and they told Steve they'd win a title for him. They didn't win a title. But they finished sixth (with a win) and dedicated their effort to him. The Rebels wore the shirts as a show of support and in doing so reminded us that the best part of competition doesn't have to be the score.
2 — Two stories this year reminded me that sports can transform us. Courtney Starks had always struggled with her weight until she saw an opportunity emerging on her high school basketball team. Syracuse High is no ordinary team, but Starks proved she's no run-of-the-mill girl. Shy but hard-working, Starks lost weight and improved her game so much she became a key reason the Titans went undefeated and won a state title in February. Priscila Santos was playing basketball on an outdoor court in Brazil one evening when a coach from UVU-Price offered her the chance for an education and a better life. She became one of the country's leading scorers and the conference's player of the year and, of course, was humble enough to credit God and her coaches for her success.
3 — It was Jameson Hartman and Haley Hall Steed who reminded us that sometimes pain and heartache are just preparing us for something great. Hartman was injured during soccer season and missed most of his senior season. Even when he was physically able to play, he had to share time with the younger players who'd taken his position while he was healing. And then, when it looked like Logan would end the season with its first loss in the 4A state championship game, he caught the game-winning touchdown pass from his best friend, D.J. Nelson. Steed tore her ACL three times (twice in one knee, once in the other), but she did not give up her childhood dream of playing college basketball. She worked hard and taught us all that perseverance isn't just a cool quote or a lovely sentiment. It's what you do if you want to succeed. She led the Cougars to the NCAA tournament and led the WCC in assists in her senior season.
4 — It's so easy to judge others when they make mistakes. It's so easy to criticize, to complain and to point out that someone else didn't do what (of course) the rest of us know is best. But Ta'a Tuinei and Nick Van Wagoner remind us that one of the most beautiful traits we humans possess is resilience. We don't have to give up when we fall. We don't have to quit when we make a mistake. Tuinei became pregnant during her junior year, but not only worked hard to be a good mother but to come back from childbirth to help the Skyline Eagles to an impressive tournament run. Van Wagoner succumbed to the lure of drugs at age 15 and even spent time in a youth detention facility before finding his way back to the beauty of clean living. He helped Maple Mountain to a successful season and proved that no matter how deep a hole you dig, it is within your power to pull yourself out of it. In fact, the truth is that if you can't save yourself, no one else can.
5 — Great coaches don't have to win championships to change lives. We lose great coaches every year to retirement or career changes. This year we lost three of my favorites — Skyine football coach Roger Dupaix, Skyline basketball coach Deb Bennett and Riverton girls basketball coach Ron Ence. While Dupaix retired from teaching so he could serve an LDS mission, Ence and Bennett will remain in their respective schools as teachers. If you know them or meet them, you should thank them. They are among the best at teaching strategy and technique, but they're also dedicated mentors who've guided countless young people through the hazards of high school to success as human beings. They love the games because of the opportunities they provide young people.
6 — Finishing strong is harder than it sounds. Sometimes seeing the finish line will motivate a person. Sometimes it reminds them how tired they really are. Weber High's McKenna Bull threw pitches, despite pain and swelling in her arm and hand, for her team until they owned a softball title. And Dane and Tyler Nielson were the subject of a legend that, well, like a lot of legends wasn't entirely true. The story said that the two boys were so competitive, so hard working that one day their training run took them from their home in Leamington, Utah, to Delta High School, where they decided a few laps around the track would allow them to run a full marathon (26.2 miles). Rather than just explain how their reputations and some overzealous storytellers might have gotten a bit carried away, they decided to make fiction fact before they graduated last week. They got up at 4:30 a.m. and ran to Delta trailed by a support vehicle of family and friends. In true Delta spirit, they sprinted across the finish with Tyler winning by inches. They are a constant reminder of how we all write our own stories and the truth of who we are is as important as perception.
7 — And finally, the Kearns volleyball team reminds us that in addition to teaching us to compete, to be excellent, to fulfill our potential, the games also teach us to be sportsmen. That means helping out an opponent who is hurt, which is what senior Talaitupu Faumui and her teammates did when an Olympus player broke her ankle in a tournament. Rather than walk away and worry about their own challenges, they stayed, prayed and sang with the girls who were distraught about their friend's injury. Sports is a big enough universe to celebrate both those who excel athletically and those who battle just to get in the game.
Not everyone can win a trophy. Not everyone is the fastest, the strongest, the smartest or most skilled.
But anyone, everyone who laces up or takes the court can write a story that makes us proud.