MAGNA — When Abby Barrett, Julie Caputo and Marquessa Gilson pull on their Cyprus High basketball jerseys, they share a unique kind of pride in the team they lead, the school they represent and the community they've come to call their own.
That's because none of the three captains started their high school careers at the Magna school. Instead, they became teammates after circumstances off the court forced them to take paths they didn't expect to travel when they started high school at other places.
The one constant for all three girls is basketball.
It's what brought them together, and it's the life preserver to which they've clung through the painful twists and turns of life.
Abby Barrett was an easy target for bullies in her small-town grade school.
"I was so tall, and I used to beat girls up," she said. "Kids made fun of me because my mom was single and I'm not LDS. They said, 'Your dad doesn't love you; your mom is fat.' It was hard."
She and her mom, Leslie Hughes, moved to Missouri, where she endured extreme poverty.
"In elementary school I had to see a counselor," said Barrett. "I got held back in third grade because after 9/11 I was really scared. I was afraid something would kill my mom while I was away."
Eventually Hughes moved back to Utah. She moved to Panguitch because she had friends there, but Barrettt stayed in Grantsville with her oldest brother. She attended Grantsville High as a freshman, but moved to Panguitch to live with her mom after her brother got married.
"I wanted to give them space," she said.
Barrett said she excelled at athletics, and her height, which made her a target in grade school, became an asset in sports, especially her favorite sport — basketball.
But Hughes was diagnosed with cancer and eventually grew tired of arguing with her teenage daughter when Barrett was a sophomore in high school. So, at the end of her sophomore year, Hughes sent her daughter to Magna for a vacation with her 30-year-old married daughter.
"She'd lost her job, and she was suffering from anxiety and depression," said Barrett. "Finally she called my sister. I was supposed to stay a week and it turned into an adoption."
Despite some of the differences she's had with her mom, Barrett says she harbors no ill feelings toward her mother or the transient, tumultuous life they led, including the decision to send her to live with her sister.
"I know she tries her hardest," Barrett said. "She would give up so much for me. She would go without just for me. One time I wanted a new outfit, and she gave up stuff for herself to get it."
Brittany and T.J. Almeida, Barrett's sister and brother-in-law, decided adopting Barrett would give the teen badly needed stability.
The first thing T.J. Almeida did once Barrett was theirs was call Cyprus girls basketball coach Josh Adams and ask about practices and camps.
Adams was eager to welcome Barrett, so he made a call to the team's lone senior, Lori Parkinson, who now plays for SUU, and she got some girls together for a pick-up game.
Barrett breaks into laughter when she recalls that first meeting with her future teammates.
"I was really scared, really nervous," she said. And then the best player on the team approached her and offered her a cracker.
"I think everything led me here," she said. "I ended up here for a reason, to become better, to have basketball be a goal and to have a future."
Barrett said she may have become a different person without the influence of the coaches and teammates who've embraced her at Cyprus High.
"It means I become a person," she said. "Without basketball, no one would know who I was. I would probably be doing drugs; I wouldn't have good grades because I wouldn't strive." She maintains a 3.7 GPA and hopes to play basketball in college.
Julie Caputo started playing basketball at a Catholic Church when she was in grade school.
She followed her older brother into the gym and fell in love with hoops.
"It was something I realized I really liked," she said. She met WNBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist Natalie Williams through club basketball and loved what the Taylorsville High grad had to teach her about the game.
Williams was an assistant at Skyline, and so Caputo, who'd grown up in Magna, asked her parents if she could attend Skyline High as a sophomore. They agreed.
"I thought it was a really good fit for me," she said. "I wanted to try to be the best player I could be. I loved Skyline. I loved my teammates, and I loved the coaches. I'm really grateful for what they taught me."
Near the end of her sophomore year her father lost his job, and the family was no longer able to afford the commute across the Salt Lake Valley each day. So she transferred back to her home school, Cyprus, the summer before her junior year.
"It was tough," said Caputo. "It was hard to transfer, but I couldn't really be mad because it wasn't their fault."
The Pirates welcomed Caputo with open arms and she quickly found her place in the starting lineup.
"There were people I knew here," she said. "I wasn't too worried. It's been a great experience. It's a different experience from Skyline, but I love it."
She said it wasn't difficult to take over as one of the team's three captains despite missing two years with her teammates because the team has such good chemistry.
"They're really coachable," she said of the younger girls. "They look up to you."
She said the three seniors feel they have something to prove in their first season without Parkinson. "I think teams are underestimating us," she said. "Now that Lori is gone — she was our main player — so people think they can beat us. I feel like we've been working really hard, and we're getting better every day."
Basketball hasn't just been a diversion for Caputo, it's been the center of her high school experience. She hopes that will continue in college, where she'd like to study veterinary science.
"I've learned how much I really love basketball," she said. "No matter where I go, I love the game. And the game has taught me a lot — like that you need to make the best of things."
Marquessa Gilson chose to go to Skyline over her home school of Olympus as a freshman.
While she loved the coaches and players on Skyline's basketball team, she struggled to find her place in the school community.
"I liked the coaches at Skyline, and they taught me a lot," she said. "I appreciate everything they did for me. But I just felt like I wanted to go somewhere that I could be me. I really wanted to go to a school with more diversity."
She met Parkinson through a club team, the Salt Lakers. They immediately formed a "sisterly" bond, and when Gilson told Parkinson of her struggles, she suggested transferring to Cyprus.
"I'm not going to lie: I was scared at first," said Gilson, who currently leads the Pirates in scoring with 10.8 points per game. "You know those movies where the kids eat lunch in the bathroom? I thought that was going to be me. But the kids were so friendly." Very quickly, Gilson, who admits she has a "big personality," felt at home.
"I felt like I'd been in a bottle, like I couldn't act like myself," she said. "I felt like I was trying to get out of my shell."
Adams said Gilson is "definitely outside the mold, a vibrant personality."
"Now that I know her as well as I do, I understand why she felt bottled," he said. "She's a very outspoken person. She's a great leader."
Gilson said the school and community embraced her, and she quickly found her place on the team. That was important as she said without the game, she's not sure who she'd be.
"It's my love," she said. "If I didn't have basketball, I don’t know who I'd be actually. It's taught me so many life lessons, and I've met so many people who've helped me." Among those lessons is learning that anything worth having is earned.
"Nothing is given to you in life," she said. "You have to be willing to practice to be the best you can be." She said she may have learned those lessons, but it would have taken much longer without the metaphors of the game.
Gilson said her parents were initially nervous about her choice of Cyprus High.
"My mom was hesitant because of the drive," she said. "But it was the right choice. I love everything here." She does deal with some stereotypes when her neighborhood friends see her in her Pirate gear.
"(The stereotypes) bother me sometimes," she said, laughing. "First off, people ask about the water, and I cannot taste a difference. Then they say, 'Aren't you afraid?' But it's just like going to any other school. And there are a lot of different kids with a lot of different backgrounds here. I can let my personality out, be who I am."
Regardless of how they came to be teammates, Barrett, Caputo and Gilson now form the heart and soul of a team on a mission. Cyprus of Region 6 currently has a 7-3 record and is ranked No. 18 in the Deseret News Top 20.1 comment on this story
Their three transfers bring their separate talents and their collective passion to every game, every challenge in hopes of leading the Pirates to a season that would make the school and community they all love proud. Just like the girls share leadership duties, they nearly evenly split scoring duties, with Gilson averaging 10.8 points, Barrett adding 9.9 points and Caputo contributing 9.38 points.
Adams and the players believe their commitment to each other will serve them well as they learn to create an identity for a team without a superstar.
Because of those three players, however, the team is the superstar this season.