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Amy Donaldson: Whether Olympics or 1A basketball, the struggle is just as beautiful, the lessons just as valuable

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 4:30 a.m. MDT

The Panguitch girls basketball team sold programs for the 1A boys basketball team to benefit two families affected by cancer. (Amy Donaldson) The Panguitch girls basketball team sold programs for the 1A boys basketball team to benefit two families affected by cancer. (Amy Donaldson)

RICHFIELD — I was in a hurry to get to press row when I saw the poster board sign propped up near a table where two teenage girls sat.

The message, written in black marker and much too long to be considered effective advertising, caught my attention because I recognized a name — Jayci Glover.

The first time I heard Jayci’s name was the previous weekend when I watched the 4A and 5A girls basketball state championship teams sign a basketball that would be given to the high school in her hometown of Kanab. Among the signatures was the sentiment, “Fight like Jayci.”

Utah High School Activities Association assistant director Becky Anderson told the coaches and captains who were playing for state titles on that Saturday afternoon why she was collecting signatures for the Kanab high school.

After a painful year of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the Make-A-Wish Foundation offered the 13-year-old the chance to have her heart’s desire.

Instead of choosing something for herself, she donated her gift ($7,500) to Kanab High in the form of new digital scoreboards.

Anderson told Jayci’s story and said the players who signed weren’t just offering a mindless signature. They were dedicating their efforts to the “courage and example” the 13-year-old offered. Those girls played for state titles the very same day that the Glover family laid Jayci to rest in Kanab.

So when I saw her name, I stopped. It turns out the Panguitch girls basketball team was selling programs for the boys tournament for a minimum donation of $2 in hopes of raising money for the Glover family in Kanab and the Logann Eager family in Tropic. Eager is battling stage 4 cancer and needs help with medical costs, while the Glovers still need help with medical and burial expenses.

My donation was small enough that it won’t change anybody’s life, but it felt nice to be a part of an effort that included three communities in some of Utah’s most beautiful rural counties. It was shortly after that that people began asking the one question I answered repeatedly during my three days in Richfield covering the 1A boys basketball state tournament.

“What’s it like to go from covering the Olympics to covering 1A basketball?”

The question was phrased differently depending on who asked. Some people were incredulous that I actually wanted to go from covering the athletic feats of the world’s best winter sports athletes to covering the efforts of the state’s smallest prep teams.

I was surprised anyone thought it was odd, and the questions made me think about the similarities and the differences.

After nearly a month in Russia, I found myself more sentimental about my time in Richfield than I normally am. And after I was asked the question by the father of one of the boys competing in the tournament, I was reminded of something that St. Joseph girls basketball coach Joe Cravens said to me when we repeatedly asked him what it was like to go from coaching Division I men’s basketball to coaching the smallest level of girls hoops.

"The same things that motivated and made me feel successful — the team getting better, watching the players pick up ideas, team concepts, seeing them get better individually — that's what coaching is all about," he said after his team won its first title in 2012. "And you feel good about that. It doesn't matter what level, what gender. I'm trying to help individuals get better. ... I don't think I would have understood that if I hadn't gone through it."

And I guess that’s how I feel about transitioning from covering the Olympics to covering prep hoops. Whatever the level, they’re simply trying to do their best, to be their best and it's a joy to watch that effort. Whether it’s a gold medal or a tiny piece of basketball net that they’re working for, it’s what gets them up early and carries them through setbacks, disappointments and maybe even thoughts of giving up altogether.

The only difference between the boys I wrote about this weekend and the Olympians I wrote about last month is the stage on which they compete. The pressure, the doubt, the heartbreak, the exhilaration feels the same.

Those who’ve played sports at multiple levels say that emotions associated with competing intensify as they move into more elite levels. Their skill level is certainly greater, and sometimes that in and of itself is a privilege to witness.

But for a writer, all that matters is what those athletes, those coaches and, in many cases, those communities are experiencing at that moment. Whether it’s a prep contest in a town of 90 people or a world championship, I hope simply to capture where they are at that moment and how those of us who love and admire them might share in that accomplishment.

I never thought to compare the assignments until I was asked about it. Frankly, covering the Winter Olympics is my favorite assignment. But second to that is covering the 1A girls and boys basketball tournaments each winter.

And while the competitive struggle feels similar, regardless of the level of the games, the energy at the event is certainly unique during these smallest-school tournaments.

As Tabiona head coach Lee Gines said, this isn’t just about sport.

“In 1A basketball, it’s different than big schools,” he said. “This is our family. A lot of people come down here on vacation time. ... It’s kind of a family reunion.”

The tournaments in Richfield become something of a family reunion. They remember the names of my children, they ask about my parents, and they offer me dinner at their homes.

I’ve watched their children grow up, and they’ve trusted me to tell their stories.

Seeing those girls sitting at that table raising money for a teenage girl, who never got a chance to feel the thrill of competing at a state tournament, became a daily reminder of why this assignment will always be special to me.

I watched the Monticello players cut down the nets after winning the 1A boys title while simultaneously seeing the Panguitch players leaving in tears, and I was also reminded that life is a series of heartbreaks and celebrations. Some days are so amazing, you wonder if anything will ever feel that fantastic again. And then you suffer through agony so intense, you’re not even sure you will survive.

But joy returns and beautiful moments overwhelm us, sometimes when we reach for them and sometimes when we least expect them. To compare them is probably natural and sometimes maybe even beneficial. But to do so with too much intensity can also diminish their individual beauty.

Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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