Within a 150-mile radius of West Desert High School, there's not one basketball team with a better record. That's what Ed Alder, the basketball coach, could boast.
But he doesn't, and not just because he's not the boastful type.Actually, there's not a basketball team in the vicinity with a worse record either. That's because West Desert High School, in Trout Creek, near the Utah-Nevada border, doesn't have what you would call a "neighboring high school."
Trout Creek is not a town, it's a watering hole. Jack rabbits have to pack a lunch to go there.
Last year the West Desert High School basketball team won only two games. And it wasn't a down year.
This year they're winless.
But that doesn't keep Ed Alder from doing the best with what he's got, year in and year out. At West Desert, with an enrollment of 24 students, Alder carries a different measuring stick.
"I try to focus on building memories, not wins," he says.
"I want these kids to have the experience of playing organized sports. With our size limitations, just fielding a team every year is a challenge."
Alder, 38, knows that challenge well. And not just because he's coached the basketball team for 10 years. He's also West Desert's principal. In addition, he coaches track, cross country, volleyball and girls' basketball. He teaches, too: math, history, social science, English, computer science, drama and instrumental music. And if the plumbing needs fixing, he'll probably get the call.
He also grew up in Trout Creek.
Back then there were only six students, and the nearest thing to something organized was the luxury of having forks and spoons provided at lunch time.
"I didn't know anything about sports," Alder says.
As far as that goes, he didn't know much about TV, radio or electricity, either.
"We didn't have them," he says.
Times have changed, however. Electricity arrived in 1972, and five years ago, telephone service came to Trout Creek.
Alder was introduced to the world of sports, if it can be called that, in the eighth grade.
"There was an old wooden box outside the school that our teacher took us out to one day. He opened it up and there was this odd-shaped ball in it. He took it out and threw it to me. I couldn't catch it, and I didn't know how to throw it, either. He showed us how."
This was his introduction to football. Basketball wasn't far behind.
"We played on the dirt surface outside the school, using a piece of round steel for the rim and a gunnysack for the net. It was nailed on a pole with no backboard."
Alder left Trout Creek to attend the University of Utah, where he earned a degree in education. He then spent three years as a commissioned officer in the Navy Reserve (in fact, his reserve unit is on active alert for possible duty in the Persian Gulf). He subsequently took a teaching job in southeastern Idaho, and that kept him busy until he decided to goback to school to pick up another degree.
Then a teaching vacancy at Trout Creek opened up. He was a shoo-in.
Now he, his wife and six children feed and take care of 150 cows on a 320-acre ranch just a few miles from where he teaches.
Even though he didn't have a chance to play organized sports, Alder realized how much he enjoyed throwing a football and shooting a basketball. When he returned to Trout Creek, he decided his students were going to have the opportunities he missed.
"I wanted them to know what it was like to try out for a team. I wanted them to experience that, so when their kids tried out for a basketball team, they would be able to relate to that experience."
West Desert may never be known for its "winning tradition." Maybe no one really knows how many wins and losses there have been over the years, but it doesn't take a scholar to realize that there are more of the latter than the former.
Putting a few games in the win column isn't the only challenge. Just getting to Trout Creek is difficult.
Consider the route taken by the team from Tintic High School. The team left Eureka, about 80 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, and traveled about 40 miles south toward Delta on U.S. 6. About 10 miles before Delta, they took a right on a marginally paved road that headed in a northwest direction for 30 miles. After 30 miles, the pavement ends, and 50 miles of dirt road begins.
Sagebrush and the crest of a distant mountain range are the only things that vie for the travelers' attention. And as each mile untangles itself from the labyrinth of trails stretching in every direction, you realize that the stories about referees on assignment to Trout Creek getting lost might not be hoaxes.
Then, Trout Creek, nestled below a ridge of 12,000-foot peaks, appears.
The disparity between West Desert and Tintic, which benefits from nearly triple the enrollment, is apparent from the start of the game. The West Desert players warm up in dated uniforms, worn-out shoes and multicolored shoelaces. Most - no doubt - work, go to school and play in the same pair of sneakers.
"Most of the players' parents are ranchers and farmers who are doing well just to scrape by," Alder says. "They struggle but like the lifestyle."
To say that West Desert's gym is small is an understatement. Players could easily get claustrophobic. If Mark Eaton had to make an outside pivot while standing at the free-throw line, he'd probably get called for an out-of-bounds violation. An overly aggressive player taking one step beyond the out-of-bounds line could run into any number of assorted objects, the least of which might be a wall. The perimeter is littered with items a player could easily be impaled upon: heaters, chairs, steel beams, doors, door handles, fire alarms and scorekeepers.
The cheerleaders, cloistered in a corner of the gym, have an abundance of energy but nowhere to display it. If it weren't for a classroom that opens up and connects to the north side of the gym, there would be no place for seating. As it is, Tintic and West Desert play before a packed house of 28.
Once under way, the basketball game looks more like a herd of elephants trying to play hockey in a petri dish. When the Tintic High coach sends two of his players to the corner on offense, you realize it might not be so much strategy as an effort to get them out of the way.
The miniature nature of West Desert's gym sends statistics into orbit. Players coming to West Desert with 20-point averages relish the thought of a Michael Jordan-ish 50-point game. Unfortunately, all statistics balloon, including turnovers.
When the game ended with Tintic, West Desert had lost by 20 points.
Most coaches would go home shaking their heads and looking for a dog to kick after a such a loss. Not Ed Alder; he shook everyone's hand. Then he invited them into the library to eat a meal prepared by his wife. Opposing players, coaches and referees fraternized peaceably, eating sloppy joes and enjoying each other's company.
Despite the limiting circumstances, Alder has been accomplishing the things he set out to do when he came to West Desert.
When he started the basketball program, he had to band together with several other schools to form a league of sorts. The first few years were relatively successful. West Desert actually won a tournament and even took second place in the standings one year. Then the other schools began to get better. Their enrollments were considerably higher, and the competition brought the cream to the surface. Alder had already skimmed his. Now, every boy in the school is needed to just make up a squad.
"In fact," Alder says, "this year is the first that every girl and boy is on one of our teams."
In other words, when the teams travel to an away game, the whole high school goes - and participates.
Playing away from home can be a challenge also.
"We just jump into my four-wheel-drive vehicle and get on our way."
On one road trip they got stuck twice in snowdrifts. The students took turns shoveling snow to clear the road. They arrived just a few minutes before tip-off.
Wins, however, have become downright sparse. The losses this year have been by an average of 40 points per game.
You might think Alder and his players would become a little jaded from the consistent losing.
"It's not the wins and losses they're going to remember," Alder says, "it's how hard they worked, and the fact that they got to play against real competition, real games, real players and with real referees."
Yes, the kids still hang their heads after a loss, and the word "if" reverberates around the locker room.
"We have to stress the word `if' out here a lot," Alder says. "If we'd just done this, or just done that, maybe, just maybe, things could have turned out different. It's always hard to lose, but there is always that potential, that hope, for an upset."
Potential. Hope. Ed Alder makes winning games sound more like a journey, not a destination.
Trout Creek. It's not easy to find. But that's probably as it should be. In a place where memories are built, it should take a little sacrifice to get there. Beneath that ridge of pristine mountains, coach Ed Alder has been building a lot of memories, memories that aren't going to be found in any record books.
- Bob Andersen is a free-lance writer residing in Provo.