RICHFIELD — The Bryce Valley basketball team isn't just playing for another state title on Saturday night.
It is playing to prove that there is nothing people can't get through if they stick together and work hard.
"If we bring this one back, it will help our community out," said senior Braxton Syrett after the third-ranked Mustangs defeated fourth-ranked Rich in a fast-paced thriller 71-60 Friday night at the Sevier Valley Center. "Ten deaths in less than a year is something to deal with. I think if we got this it would brighten up our community a lot. It would show our community, 'Hey, we can get through struggles together.’ ”
Tropic is a small, tight-knit community, and the loss of each person from illness and accidents was excruciatingly painful. But for the teenage boys battling on that basketball court Friday night there was one special angel in their hearts — Jesse "Big Red" Jessen. He is the oldest son of head coach Eric Jessen, and they wear his number "35" on their warmup shirts. Jesse was killed in a car accident in August at age 16, and the honor student would have been a junior on this year's very talented team.
"Our community always comes together, and they're going to be backing us up 100 percent," said Syrett, who led the team with 23 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals.
Bryce Valley's win sends the team to the state title game for the third time in four years. The Mustangs won in 2010.
"This one is a little special," said coach Jessen, a smile on his face and tears in his eyes. But the team didn't push through all of that pain just to suit up for Saturday's championship game against Duchesne. They hope to have one more win, one more celebration.
The Mustangs knew getting to the title game would be difficult as Rich is a talented, physical team with a history of success.
"We knew Rich was going to be tough," said Jessen. "The word of the day, we told the kids, was rebounding. If we take care of the rebounds and box out, we knew things could be ours. That and if we play smart basketball, which we didn't sometimes."
The game was tight the entire way with the Mustangs leading most of the way, but very slightly. The rebounding battle was fairly even with Rich earning 25 and Bryce Valley finishing with 23. But the boards the Mustangs managed to grab seemed to be key in holding Rich to one shot at critical times.
"We had high expectations," said Jessen as he accepted hugs and handshakes. "We're pleased with the kids. Tonight was a good game. It was good rebounding, good defense."
In addition to Syrett's play, the Mustangs got a boost from freshman Kix Roundy, who scored 11 points, grabbed four rebounds and had three steals.
"What about him, is he a dandy?" said Jessen with a grin. "He's a freshman, and I'll keep him. It was the region tournament when he really came on."
The Mustangs lost to Panguitch in the Region 20 tournament, but Roundy scored 20 points and proved himself to be a clutch player.
The Rebels were paced by Skyler Argyle, who scored 18 points, grabbed six rebounds and had five blocked shots. It was his play inside that kept the game within reach for the Rebels. John Acree added 16 points and six rebounds, while McKay Jarman scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
"We played big tonight," said Syrett. "We knew this was going to be our toughest battle up until the state championship. We knew we had to go out and play well."