Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Syracuse's Courtney Starks flies in for a shot over American Fork's Cassidy Fraughton.

TAYLORSVILLE — Courtney Starks loves sweet treats and fast food. She just loves basketball more.

So when the Syracuse junior looked around at the players the top-ranked Titans were losing to graduation, she saw an opportunity.

"I knew we had a lot of good seniors leaving and there was the potential to contribute," she said after Syracuse advanced into the finals with a 59-39 win over American Fork Friday at Salt Lake Community College. "There were spots open that I knew I could fill."

There was only one issue for the four-sport athlete — her weight.

She said she's always been a little overweight thanks to a slow metabolism, and the extra pounds not only slowed her down, they made her less agile and caused her unnecessary pain. In other words, they were keeping her from reaching what she knew was her potential.

So she decided to go on a diet at the end of last season. It was a decision that was met with some skepticism by her family.

"They laughed at me," she said with a slight smile. "I don't think they thought I had the willpower."

That might be because shedding extra weight has been tried and abandoned often in her household.

"My sister even had a surgery to help her lose weight," she said. "But when I want something, I'm going to go get it."

That attitude not only helped her lose 55 pounds in a year, but it is also part of the reason she's so good at one of basketball's toughest skills — rebounding.

"She's always close to double digits in rebounding," said Syracuse head coach Rob Reisbeck. "She just has the knack of finding the ball. She's grown more confident and that's helped her be more aggressive."

He said they work on rebounding drills, but he and his staff can't take credit for everything Starks does on the court.

"A lot of rebounding is instinct," he said. "We can teach some things, but a lot of the credit goes to her."

Starks has been key in the Titans' undefeated season. In Thursday's quarterfinal she grabbed 16 rebounds and scored 10 points, while she earned a team-high 13 rebounds in Friday's semifinal.

The team was led once again by reigning Ms. Basketball Brittney Martin, who scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, as well as senior Makenlee Williams, who scored 14 points. Martin also earned five steals in the win over the Cavemen.

With just one senior on the squad, American Fork promises to be a contender next season. The team was led by junior Cassidy Fraughton who scored eight points and grabbed eight rebounds. The team's only senior, Sadie Williams, scored eight points, as did Tyra Rodriguez.

Starks and the Titans are just one game from earning what they came so close to winning last year — a 5A state title. The loss to Alta in the championship was their only loss in three seasons. They take on region rival Weber in Saturday's final at 1 p.m. at Salt Lake Community College.

And while she won't pass up the chance to score, but what Starks craves every second she's on the hardwood is a rebound. She said it has helped her evolve on and off the court.

"Rebounding gives me confidence," said Starks. "It challenges me."

Starks said losing the weight wasn't easy,

"I love sweets," she said. "But I only eat healthy. I don't eat sweets, sugar or fat. I was doing okay when I was heavier, but I knew I could be better. I figured I'd give myself a chance."

Dropping the weight changed her game, gave her confidence and eliminated the knee and ankle pain she suffered when exercising.

"I feel fantastic," she said. "I can keep up with anybody. I can jump higher than most people, but I work really hard at it. I spend a lot of time working on my post moves, shooting free throws, just trying to get better."

Her advice to anyone struggling with similar issues is simple — just do it.

"You have to set your mind to it," she said. "Don't take cheat days. Because that will make you want to keep cheating. Just be committed."