It is a sporting event unlike any other.

In an era that is all about individual accolades, covering the 1A girls basketball tournament has become one of the highlights of my year.

It is a much-needed, midyear reminder of why I love covering high school sports. Four days of nine- to 10-hour days full of contests that range from major blowouts to thrilling nail-biters.

For just a few days all the talk is about the promising freshman from Piute (Kandice Gleave) rather than the steroid scandal of Major League Baseball. Instead of trying to decide who is lying, you spend your days trying to figure out which players exhibit the best sportsmanship.

These players compete ferociously but away from the attention and honors that larger schools enjoy. They're lucky to get one or two lines in a newspaper, especially the girls. But for one glorious week they have the attention of the media, their schools and their communities. If they play well, they become revered in the towns where they live and enjoy compliments from people they don't even know.

To understand the allure and attraction of the tournament, it's important to understand who it is that brings this event to life.

First, it's the coaches.

Most are also teachers and many of them have guided their programs for years. They take a collection of students who are willing to commit to several hours of practice each week and teach them the basics — everything from when to use a bounce pass to how to box out.

They never stop teaching — no matter what the score or setting. And like Wayne's Heidi Woosley put it, they work to help their players discover what they're capable of by believing in them even when they don't believe in themselves.

They do things like Panguitch coach Curtis Barney did when he encouraged a sophomore to shoot, or when ICS coach Matt Snyder reassured a player who'd just thrown the ball out of bounds at a critical point in the game.

They are talented students of the game, and while some could move on to bigger, more impressive arenas, they stay in the hometown gym because they love teaching teenagers just how far hard work will take them.

Second, it's the players.

From the charm of Monticello's Ashley Dowell to the intelligence of Panguitch's Krystal Taylor. The players are polite like Rich's Olivia Johnson, athletic like Panguitch's Hailey Orton or Rich's Allie Eastman and they hustle like Whitehorse's Marina Small Canyon or ICS' Monica Schwarz. They are self-effacing like Allie Eastman, shy like Kalani Norris and all business like Piute's Loni Allan. They are friends like the seniors of Intermountain Christian School. They recognize the best in themselves and each other, and when it matters most, they forget about rivalries long enough to console a worthy opponent like Rich's Brittani Groll did when Piute's lone senior Krystyna Lamas fouled out and headed to the bench in tears.

They honor their schools and their community by working hard without worrying about a reward. Most will not earn scholarships, and many work hard to pay the fees it costs to play high school sports nowadays. They play because they just love to compete, they love the games, and they love their teammates.

They are multisport athletes because schools of 100 can't support dozens of athletic programs unless most students are willing to participate in more than one activity.

And third, the communities — both the schools and the towns.

A team from Whitehorse, a school of 53 students which sits in the southeastern corner of the state, will square off against Dugway, a school of 17 10th- through 12th-graders that sits in the middle of the state's western desert.

Then there was the fifth-place game featuring a group of girls from Bryce Valley, a school of 65 (10-12) that sits in Tropic, one of the most scenic places in the world, taking on Green River, a school that sits in a town on Highway 70 and is the last place to buy food or gas if you're heading west toward Salina.

When Valley played for the title a few years ago, most of Orderville and surrounding communities headed to Richfield. Saturday night when Rich won its first basketball title, hundreds of people from Randolph, Woodruff, Lake Town and the like were in the stands to cheer on girls they may or may not know.

The principals wear school colors and know entire family histories of the girls on their team, and frankly, of most of the students in their schools.

I expected the Rebel fans to bask in the beauty of that first win. But I had to choke back tears when the Piute fans, many of whom had been very vocal during the game, applauded as the young team held up its second-place trophy.

"You hold your heads up, girls!" yelled one woman. "We're proud of you," yelled a man.

Win or lose, talented or just hard-working, these small-town, big-hearted athletes reaffirm your faith in sports just when you thought a multimillionaire might have stolen it from you.

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