When real life starts closing in on Vanessa Hutson, she takes her troubles to the basketball court.
"Basketball is my therapy," she said.
And over her four-year career, this senior point guard for Brighton High has needed a little break a time or two from the realities of life. As a freshman, she found out that her best friend and teammate, Jara Ludlow, had been killed in a car accident the same day her mother needed emergency eye surgery due to complications from diabetes.
During her sophomore season, which the team dedicated to Ludlow, her mother, now blind in one eye, was told that without a kidney transplant she would die. Right before the state tournament, in which Vanessa almost single-handedly led the Bengals past Skyline, her mother began hemorrhaging in her other eye.
"I just remember telling Ness, 'You have to win because it's probably the last game I'll ever see,' " said Lisa Hutson in an interview last season. "And that's been true. I had just enough vision left that I could see what was happening."
She had the other eye surgery and a kidney transplant, among other surgeries, all of which have improved her health dramatically.
As a junior, Vanessa took over the championship game, scoring 20 points, as the team defeated this year's champion, Layton, for the title. Her mom was at the game but unable to see her play. In fact, she attends every game, relying on her husband, Don Hutson, for details about the game and Vanessa's performance.
And so, in this, her senior year, the family hoped for the perfect ending to a very emotional story. The future BYU Cougar is one of the state's leading scorers, averaging 16 points per game. But she makes herself a force on the court because of everything else she does. She averaged six assists, four rebounds and two steals per game as she carried the injury-laden Bengals to the playoffs.
Hutson's play helped them to the quarterfinals, where they came just a few points from ending Layton's perfect season. Instead, for the first time in three years, Hutson had to watch the championship game from the stands.
"I've never really liked losing," she said. "But I felt like we played as hard as we could and did all we could do . . . I've never felt so at peace with losing."
Other coaches pay Hutson the highest compliments by saying things like,"It will be a long time before we see a point guard that dominant and that talented."
Layton coach Van Price said when Danielle McDonald intercepted a pass intended for Hutson in those final seconds, he "could finally breathe" because no matter what the point differential, Hutson has the ability to make it up.
A few teams or players have been able to slow Hutson, but she's never been shut out of a game. Her coach, Jim Gresh, once referred to her as a person "who just has the will to win."
"Her ability to see the floor and to pass has always been there," Gresh said. "She became a great shooter, and that will serve her well at BYU."
What set her apart, he said, was her ability to understand the game and assess her own play.
"She seems to know the game so well," he said, noting that sometimes he'd give her plays and she'd come back with improvements. "She's a great analyst of the game, and she's pretty advanced."
All of her accomplishments have come after a lot of ups and downs, and this year, while there were fewer emotional issues to deal with, playing for a team that just didn't have the depth to go all the way was tough.
"This year it just seemed harder," said Lisa. "She just tried to take each game on its own and do the best she could. . . . She always believed the team could do it."
In the past, when Hutson took over a game, the result was always a win. This year, that wasn't the case.
"She probably played the best game of her life in that overtime loss to Bingham," Lisa said.
But Hutson has always understood that basketball, while an outlet for her frustration, disappointment and fear, is still only a game.
"The summer after her sophomore year she was invited to an elite all-star camp in California," Lisa said. Then Lisa was hospitalized for an emergency, and her husband and son had already left to meet them in California. "Even though I was in the hospital, being taken care of, she wouldn't leave me. I could not get her to leave the hospital. She stayed with me, next to me, in my bed for four days."
When Lisa said she felt bad about Vanessa missing her camp, her daughter reminded her, "It's just a basketball camp."
Her parents and coaches are constantly amazed at her wisdom and maturity when it comes to sports because she's always been so talented."Basketball is her refuge for a lot of things," Lisa said. "But she's also been able to keep life in perspective."