RICHFIELD — When the introductions were over, coach Eric Jessen sat on the end of the Bryce Valley bench and held his son's rolled up jersey in both hands for just a moment.
Then he wiped away his tears, tried to push past the pain that touches every moment of his life since 16-year-old Jesse Jessen was killed in a car accident seven months ago so he could focus on the boys who'd brought him joy and hope in his darkest days.
"It's all about these kids," Jessen said, his eyes still wet with tears after Bryce Valley earned the 1A boys basketball title with a thrilling 68-59 double overtime win against Duchesne. "I'll be honest with you guys. I told them I did not want to dedicate the season to Jesse. They asked me three or four times. But it's about them. Jesse is in his spot where he's at now, and these kids have to live their lives and progress and go through challenges. That's what it's about. It's about them becoming better people and progressing."
Jessen is a teacher and counselor at Bryce Valley High, so he's seen the impact that 10 deaths, two of them students, have had on the teenagers he teaches and coaches.
"There's been a lot of deaths in our community that's affected the kids directly in the school," he said. "It's hard. They're struggling in their personal lives and I feel for them. I wish I could tell them what to do, but all I can do is help guide them."
He grinned, even through his tears, as he watched the community he loves celebrate the school's second state title in four years.
"There is a lot of meaning there," he said. "And it's not about basketball. It's about overcoming obstacles, one of them was when we lost Jesse." The young players went to Jessen the night before the championship game and asked if there was a way they could play for Jesse and themselves. They wanted to find a way to have a piece of Big Red with them as they finished their improbable championship run.
Jessen said he had to think about it. They settled on passing one another the rolled up jersey, which was worn by Jesse's 10-year-old brother during introductions, as they subbed in and out of the game.
But Jessen even stopped that midway through the second quarter.
"It was becoming a distraction," he said, admitting that everyone's emotions were raw, and too much emotion could lose them the title they wanted so much.
"You start getting the cheerleader mode instead of coaching mode," he said. "I did that the first half and didn't make the best decisions and get our kids settled down. That's actually one of my weaknesses as a coach is that I get too emotionally wrapped up in it."
So they put the jersey on the floor behind the bench where it stayed until Jacob Pollock pulled it out during the first overtime, unrolled it and held it up until the title belonged to the Mustangs.
It was no easy task, earning that title for a grateful town. The Duchesne Eagles have played inspired basketball all week. It was head coach Stan Young's farewell after 39 years of coaching hoops.
Afterward, he also choked back tears as he made his way to the locker room.
"It was outstanding," he said of his last game. "You couldn't have asked for a better game, only if we'd have come out on top, of course. But as far as kids battling their hearts out on both sides of the ball, how could you ask for a better game than that."
When asked what he'll miss most, he could only muster two words, "The kids."
And the players on both sides gave the game everything they had Saturday night.
In the first quarter alone there were five 3-point shots. Bryce Valley led by two-points at half, but the Eagles had already begun to do what they've done all tournament and that is rely on their defense to claw their way back into games.
Kaden Moon led the Eagles with 15 points, including two critical 3-point shots. Braxton Spencer added 10 points, while McKade Nielsen came back from an elbow to the face to score 11 points and earn 11 rebounds. Trent Roberts scored 13 points in the thriller.
On the Mustangs' side, it was 1A tournament MVP Braxton Syrett who led the way with 23 points and 10 rebounds. But it was center Logan LeFevre who sent the game into its second overtime when Syrett's shot bounced off the rim and he grabbed it and sent it back up as time expired.
"I knew my time would come when I could prove myself," said LeFevre, who'd struggled to score in the game, finishing with 9 points. "When the rebound came to me, it was just kind of natural to turn and look for the basket, and I just tried to do my best to make that shot. ... It was like we had a second chance."
In the second overtime, the Mustangs led by one point until, with less than a minute remaining, freshman Kix Roundy hit a 3-point shot and then hustled down the court to grab the rebound from a Duchesne miss.
"I was behind him saying, 'No, No, Yes!’ ” said Jessen with a grin.
Roundy was, as he always is, matter-of-fact about hitting the critical shot.
"I saw an opening and I guess it went in," he said. "It was crazy. It was fun, though."
And though he never showed it, he said he felt a lot of pressure.
All of the boys did. They wanted to win for themselves, but more so for the coach who'd worked so hard right along side them. They wanted to win for the town that fills the arenas wherever they play.
And they wanted to win for the 6-foot-8 redheaded teammate whose determination they can still feel when they think about their time with him.3 comments on this story
Syrett said, "6-8 you can't replace," as he draped his arm around Mecham. "He's the biggest cheerleader you've ever seen. We just wanted Jesse here, and we wanted coach to know that it doesn't matter what anybody says, 'Your son is here with us.' And we wanted to dedicate this one to him."
MVP: Braxton Syrett, Bryce Valley Kix Roundy, Bryce Valley Hunter Mecham, Bryce Valley Josiah Brannon, Bryce Valley Kaden Moon, Duchesne Josh Hanberg, Duchesne McKade Nielsen, Duchene Skyler Argyle, Rich Jake Duncan, Monticello Tyce Barney, Panguitch Colby Spencer, Valley Duce Namazi, Layton Christian