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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Kearns' C'era Valdez, left, and Syracuse's Logan Harker fight for the ball as Syracuse High School defeats Kearns High School 52-41 as they play in the first round of the 5A girl's basketball tournament Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, in Taylorsville.

TAYLORSVILLE — Courtney Starks wasn't willing to accept that fate could be that cruel.

The senior was participating in a showcase for college coaches when, she tore her ACL while shooting a simple, unguarded layup.

"It was terrible," said the senior after she helped Syracuse to a hard-fought 52-41 victory over Kearns on Monday in the opening round of the 5A state basketball tournament. "When I first did it, they thought it might just be my MCL. But then they told me it was my ACL and I was probably not going to be back this season. It was a week before tryouts, and I was in the coaches room crying."

That was about the only moment of pity she allowed herself.

After that, she and her father researched recovery times and physical therapy options. But even the most optimistic still required some help from Starks' body.

"The doctor was kind of astounded," she said of her return to the court in just under three months. "We took the normal program and accelerated it, but only a certain percentage of people won't have swelling (or other issues) and it turned out I fell into that category."

She also fell into the category of people who, when they set their minds to something, failure isn't an option. Last year when she realized most of the Syracuse starters were seniors, she changed her diet and worked hard to lose 55 pounds so she could step into a starting role. Her willpower is something her teammates admire, referring to her as "One-bite Courtney" because she limits herself to a sample of sweet treats here and there.

"When I set my mind to something, I do it," she said. "They said most likely I wouldn't be back. … Two months and three weeks exactly, I played in my first game."

Monday afternoon, she was a key factor in the Syracuse victory, especially her improved effort in the second half. The Cougars out-hustled the Titans, and even though the Titans held a 23-20 lead at halftime, it looked like Kearns might eventually wrestle the game from Syracuse.

"We're a different team than we were last year," said Titans head coach Rob Reisbeck. "Courtney and Jayda are the only ones who played last year … so most of them haven't been here before."

But the sluggish start can't necessarily be blamed on the tournament pressure.

"The whole year we've started slow," he said. "It drives me nuts, but we weathered the storm. We needed to pick up our intensity, be patient on defense and be able to push the ball up the floor on offense."

Playing on the verge of chaos is exactly where the Titans want to be.

"We kind of like that style of basketball," said Reisbeck. "We like to push the tempo and get teams out of what they're used to doing."

One of those pushing the tempo with key rebounds and steals in the final two minutes of the third quarter was Starks. And while it makes her teammates a little nervous to see her sliding across the floor, her coach said that's the way it should be.

"That's the player we know," said Reisbeck. "It's amazing, after all she's been through, that she's even out there playing. But that's Courtney being Courtney."

Her calm is something that helps the Titans, even when they're playing catch-up.

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"It means the world to me," she said of being able to play in her senior season. "Sports is my life. I want to be the one defending the championship with my team."

The Titans get a chance to do that on Wednesday at 4 p.m. thanks to Starks, who finished with eight points, and her teammates, including Takenna Hamlin, who scored 15 points, Logan Harker, who played great defense and scored 12 points.

The Cougars were led by Rosetta Kasala, who finished with 13 points. Ayana Solovi and Latasha Ika each added six points and Tayane Afatasi and McKaylie Tanner added five points each in the loss.

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