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Amber McKee
The Rich Rebels warm up while wearing the "Team Steve" jerseys of the Bryce Valley Mustangs.
It shows our girls think more than about the game. You always hope basketball is teaching them other things… Teamwork, helping each other out and they found a way to help somebody else out. —Scott Ferguson, Rich Rebels coach

RICHFIELD — In the searing heat of July, a dying man asked a girls basketball team for something special.

It wasn't just a selfish request — although it would bring him the kind of joy every father craves when his child decides to enter the cruel, unforgiving and deeply rewarding universe of competitive sports.

His request would provide a historic moment for Bryce Valley and the tiny town of Tropic. It would be something wonderful in a winter that was surely going to be excruciatingly painful for his family.

"He went up to coach B and said, 'Promise me you'll win a state championship for me,'" said Steve's daughter and a guard on the team, Makelle Pollock.

So coach Tyson Brinkerhoff and his players made Steve the promise. They'd win him a state title.

And they meant to. They really did.

It was not a silly request or a desperate promise. The Mustangs had come close last season when they played for the 1A state title but lost to perennial powerhouse, Rich. And most of those players returned — better, more experienced and more determined.

Ranked No. 1 by coaches in preseason polls, they earned some impressive preseason wins, losing only to ranked 2A schools. And then they went undefeated in one of the most competitive regions in the state — Region 20.

And were it not for the region's much maligned, sometimes feared, and often hated seeding tournament, they might have gotten a lot closer to keeping that promise.

Instead, they learned about life's disappointments and the how love really is more powerful than pain. They learned that the games we turn to in hopes of escaping life's realities teach us more about how to navigate those agonies than we really wanted to know.

They finished fourth in that tournament and drew the defending state champions in the first round of the state tournament.

And they lost, once again, to the Rebels.

Devastated doesn't begin to describe how they players felt knowing they could not keep their promise to Pollock, who was too sick to travel to the tournament.

And then the girls got a text. The players who'd just broken their hearts — and their promise — asked if they could help keep it alive.

Senior guard Cassidy McKee was talking with her father, who'd discussed the promise with some Bryce Valley parents, and they came up with an idea.

"They asked if they could borrow our warm-up shirts," said senior Sydney Cornforth. "The Rich girls actually met us right after the game and apologized. They're a top-notch team."

Cornforth said playing for Pollock has brought the team closer in ways they never anticipated.

"When we get out there, there is a reason we play so hard," Cornforth said. "Steve is right there, and we're playing for him."

The shirts, purple because that is the color representing pancreatic cancer, declare the wearer part of "Team Steve" on the back. On the front, it says, "Steve's battle is our battle."

And on Thursday evening, the Rebels took the floor wearing the shirts of the Mustang players and became part of "Team Steve." It was another emotional experience for the Mustangs in a season that has been riddled with unexpected moments.

The Rebels said they did it to show support for the Mustangs. Their coach said it is one of those incidents that teaches you how to keep a game in perspective.

"It shows our girls think more than about the game," said Scott Ferguson. "You always hope basketball is teaching them other things… Teamwork, helping each other out and they found a way to help somebody else out."

Makelle Pollock said it has been "kind of cool" to have teams that are normally bitter rivals offer their support and even don the purple shirts, like Panguitch and Milford.

"In our last home game against Milford, everyone wore purple," said Cornforth.

Makelle said one of the Tigers hugged her and said, "There is more to life than basketball."

But basketball, they say, brings them so much joy, excitement and unity. And this year it has brought them unity with girls they normally would never have taken the time to know.

"It's been overwhelming," said Makelle, who carries with her constantly the knowledge that her father has stopped his treatments in order to enjoy whatever life he has left.

So Saturday the girls played for Steve Pollock one more time. This time there was a chance to take sixth place, to end with the program's first 20-win season.

In doing so, they defeated Milford.

They dedicated the win, their season and their effort — 100 percent of it — to Steve Pollock. But the friendships, the love, the lesson that life is the ultimate team sport belongs to those girls — those who played with the Mustangs and those who played against them.

"We were on the phone just cackling with them," said Cornforth of their conversations with the Rebel players. "We talked for 30 minutes. They're great girls, and we're glad we got to know them. We're glad we're friends with them."

email: adonaldson@desnews.com