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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Joel Heaton, basketball coach at El Capitan High School, has a moment of silence with his players before a game.

COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — The insults hurled at the kids were cruel.

"Plyg kids!" they would shout. "Go home to your wives!"

The players on the El Capitan School basketball teams just ignored it.

"They'd try to pick fights at us and throw snowballs at us," said 14-year-old David Hammon. "I don't really mind, 'cause it makes me play better."

This year, no one is making fun of them.

That's because the boys and girls teams have dominated the competition with an 11-5 season for the boys, and a 13-2 record for the girls.

The El Capitan Eagles are playing with numerous obstacles in their path. They come from an area notorious for polygamy and a lot of negative publicity accompanying it. Their school district is under financial control of the state of Arizona — more fallout from the multi-state crackdown on the Fundamentalist LDS Church and its leader, Warren Jeffs.

Both inside and outside these communities, some don't want these kids to play.

"This is one of the most positive things that has come out of this community in a long time," said boys coach Joel Heaton.

A new game

Up until a few years ago, Colorado City never really had a sports program. Culturally speaking, athletic competition is often frowned upon in these fundamentalist communities.

"I went to school here, and I loved sports," said Carol Timpson, the principal of El Capitan. "I would have loved to have the chance these kids have."

Girls team coach Natalie Zitting pushed to bring athletics to El Capitan.

"They told us we could do it as long as the school really didn't have to come up with too much money because they're in receivership and on a tight budget," she said.

The Colorado City Unified School District was taken over by the state of Arizona after a 2005 raid amid allegations of financial mismanagement — tied to the FLDS Church. That makes funding an athletic program of any kind difficult at this school.

There is no alumni. There is no booster club or cheerleaders.

"It's really kind of a miracle we have a program at all," Heaton said.

Zitting volunteers her time. Heaton receives a small stipend and drives from Hurricane early in the morning to hold practice. For many kids, this is their first exposure to the world of high school athletics.

"When I first came to school, I didn't expect to play," said Curtis Blackmore, 17.

When she first started, 18-year-old Lestie Williams couldn't steal the ball away without offering a meek "excuse me" or "I'm sorry." She's since learned to be more aggressive.

"I didn't even know how to dribble a ball," Williams giggled. "I just got so excited and I put myself out there and tried my best. I love playing."

Prejudice

The Eagles are not afraid to dream big.

"Our goal is in four years to be going to a state championship," said Heaton. "That would be really great if we could compete with the likes of Valley High School, Panguitch, Paiute, Bryce Canyon. We beat Milford this year."

For now, they have to be content with playing unaffiliated teams. For their last game of the season, they played the Diamond Ranch Academy, a nearby school for troubled teens.

Zitting has tried to book games with other schools. After learning where El Capitan is, some suddenly became too booked. When they would get a game, Zitting recalled hearing things like "Hang the prophet" and "Inbreds" being shouted at the kids.

"The sad thing is nobody ever stopped them," she said. "The coaches never stopped them. The principals didn't stop them."

Williams said they have had to earn respect from everyone they played.

"You can't make fun of someone that beat you," she said.

The girls played for three seasons without a win. Last year, they turned it around.

"They've just blown them away," Timpson said, smiling with pride.

To watch the Eagles play, you are stuck by how much they give. Racing up and down the court, the kids aggressively hustle for the ball.

"We're kind of short on the height, so we have to get ourselves in there. We have to do what we can," Williams said. "And play a good game."

Zitting said her girls play like they have nothing to lose.

"They have so much heart," she said. "They're so used to being underdogs."

Community support

Most players are FLDS dissidents or members of the neighboring fundamentalist community of Centennial Park, Ariz.

"We're all equals on the court," said Marcus Zitting, 15. "We do have a lot of different religions mixed on our team. We just play."

El Capitan serves kindergarten through 12th grade. The entire student body is about 450, and it has rallied around the home teams.

"These teams are really leaders in our school. They're all pretty good in academics," Timpson said.

Family support also comes in big numbers and packed bleachers.

"We feel like the basketball is also leading these kids to better things," said Jethro Barlow, who was at Friday night's game to cheer on his son.

Being a player isn't cheap. They have to pay for physicals, jerseys, insurance, trips and other costs.

"That's tough in a community that's in a high poverty area," said Timpson. "It amazes me when parents say, 'I value this' and put money into it."

Not all parents are supportive. Some frown on their children playing sports with more important things to worry about.

"To their credit, they've allowed their children to make that decision," Heaton says.

Asked if he'll return next year, 15-year-old Jared Hammon shrugs.

"It depends what my dad thinks," he said. "He's really not good with this. He never comes to our games."

"We have responsibilities at home," adds his brother, David.

"We have a big family," said Jared. "Here, we have to respect my dad."

Fund-raising

Basketball is the only sport offered at El Capitan. They had baseball — until they lost their coach.

"We're really limited in who we can get to coach. If we can get a coach, we can put a program together," Timpson said, adding that she would love to offer wrestling and volleyball.

The school desperately wants to be a 1A team in the Utah High School Activities Association, but they have many hurdles.

"We've got to get a new gym," Heaton said.

The UHSAA requires a gym that seats 500 to 700 spectators. The tiny El Capitan School gym seats maybe 150 at most. To build a new gym, the coaches are doing a lot of fundraising. Heaton contacted the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns for money, equipment, anything to help grow a basketball program. He asked another high school to let him copy their gym plans.

Their current gym doesn't even have a permanent scoreboard. Zitting is reaching out to the rest of Utah and Arizona for help.

"I want to challenge people from around the surrounding communities to say, 'We aren't prejudiced. We'll donate to you guys,"' she said. "Wouldn't it be incredible to get a gym? It's not support for Warren Jeffs, it's support for the kids."

Game time

In a pre-game huddle inside a tiny classroom near the gym, Heaton gave his team a pep talk.

"It could be next year we don't have a program, so this is our focus, this game right now," the coach said. "This year you are what?"

"EAGLES!" the boys shout back.

The boys shared warm-up time with little children who would run across the tiny gym floor or try to shoot some baskets of their own. The opposing team showed up, looking stunned to see a cramped gym.

"They don't even have a scoreboard!" laughed a player for Diamond Ranch.

The boys took the court and annihilated the Diamondbacks, 79-35. The girls won 45-17.

Each time the Eagles would score, the crowd roared.

"Go Eagles!" kids would shout.

"This is such a positive thing," Heaton said. "We haven't had any good come out of this community for so long. This basketball program is one that if we can get it to stay — and that's a big if — we need some help. We really do."


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