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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Mount Vernon's Somtochukwu Achebo pushes the ball up court Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, during a game with West Desert in Trout Creek. West Desert and Eskdale high schools have to combine to play basketball.
I’m from Beaver, a very competitive community. I coached there. And then I came out here, and I thought, ‘What’s missing? Competition changes things. These kids live and die especially for basketball season. That’s what they want to do. —Tony White, West Desert’s principal

TROUT CREEK — The small crowd fills the gym with cheers and applause as a streaking Caleb Baker collects a pass, launched by his teammate John Reil, just long enough to loft it back into the air and through the basketball hoop.

Less than a minute later, Reil is the beneficiary of a toss from Christian Conrad as the two players cooperate to capitalize on a steal courtesy of Conrad’s quick hands.

Spectators, about 40 on this Wednesday in December, all sit on one side of the gymnasium’s wooden bleachers, reveling in the kind of routine basketball displays that occur in thousands of high school gyms nearly every weeknight this time of year.

And while the sweat-soaked, red-faced teenage boys making those plays seem like just another prep team enjoying one of our country’s most familiar games, they are not.

In fact, the nine student-athletes who make up the West Desert Hawks' undefeated basketball team do not even attend the same high school.

Four of the players attend West Desert, officially the state’s smallest secondary school with nine students (grades 7-12). The other five players attend school in Eskdale, a school of about 16 students (grades 9-12), about 60 miles south of Trout Creek near Utah’s border with Nevada.

The school’s young men were allowed to team up for the sole purpose of playing basketball this winter. It’s an unusual move that required permission from two school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association.

"West Desert is one of the most rural high schools in the nation," said UHSAA executive director Rob Cuff, who said the move was approved based on a recommendation from the region in which the team competes. "To give those (boys) a chance to compete, I think is a great thing for the region. I think any time a school has eligible student athletes who want to participate and you can find a way to allow that, it's a good thing. It's certainly done on a case by case basis."

Tony White, West Desert’s principal, lone teacher and head basketball coach, said the parents of both communities asked the districts and the UHSAA to make this special accommodation after West Desert played its first season since 2006 last year.

“I’m from Beaver, a very competitive community,” said White, who took the job as West Desert's principal three years ago at the behest of his predessesor, Ed Alder. “I coached there. And then I came out here, and I thought, ‘What’s missing? Competition changes things. These kids live and die especially for basketball season. That’s what they want to do.”

Appreciating what was lost

For seven years, there was no West Desert High basketball team.

Without enough players for either a boys or girls team, there was no reason for either community to drive an hour — sometimes more — to watch games in the tiny town’s state-of-the-art gym.

Instead, students played for fun. They played games during P.E. classes and sometimes pick-up games after school.

“It gets boring playing the same people over and over again,” said Conrad, a sophomore guard who attends Eskdale. “This way we can travel around, meet new people and compete against different kids.”

White said athletic competition is just another way to teach young people valuable lessons.

“You don’t realize how important sports are to a school until you don’t have them anymore,” White said. “It just changes the whole culture of the school. It’s something to look forward to, something to get excited about.”

Last year was the first time in seven years that either team had enough boys to form complete teams. Even then, the schools had an unusual alignment.

While West Desert played a regular varsity schedule, Eskdale’s student-athletes played the Hawks’ junior varsity schedule because they don’t have a gymnasium capable of hosting home competitions.

When graduation left West Desert with just four players, most boys thought they’d just return to wrestling during the winter months.

“I didn’t have a team,” White said. “So we asked (Eskdale), ‘Would you be interested in coming up and combining?’ ”

As it turned out, they were very interested.

But as each school is governed by different districts — Eskdale is in the Millard District, while West Desert is in the Tintic School District — it would take a lot of hard work by parents from both communities.

“The parents worked really hard to make it happen,” White said.

The boys are grateful, as almost all of them said they prefer basketball to wrestling, although for differing reasons.

“I guess we just enjoy basketball,” said West Desert junior John Timm with a shrug. “It’s a good thing. I like the team aspect. With wrestling you just go to all these different places and compete. With basketball, you get home games. It gets the community together, it is more of a team sport.”

All of the boys said they love the teamwork and camaraderie involved in basketball. In fact, their favorite part of road trips isn’t the cities they see or the experiences they otherwise would miss, it’s spending time with each other.

“I don’t care where we go,” Baker said. “I just like being with the guys.”

White said all of the students enjoy competition. Both schools participate in track and cross-country. But basketball offers them something unique, something the entire community can enjoy.

“They just love to play the game,” White said. “They want to play the game; they want to participate. So basketball is something we brought back after it was gone for seven years. We want to do something where we can have the experience of a team sport, so we brought it back. … We don’t care if we get the crap kicked out of us. At least we play.”

Unspoken understanding, unusual arrangement

Normally schools that are in close proximity to each other are natural rivals.

But the unique experiences that make up living in the barren beauty of the Utah-Nevada desert have created a kind of bond that extends beyond the boys who wear the jersey.

The schools are isolated from nearly every modern convenience.

West Desert High is about 50 miles north of Eskdale in the northern section of the Snake Valley. It serves a community of ranchers who live in nearby towns like Partoun and Callao.

The only paved stretch of road within 50 miles of the community is the few hundred feet in front of the LDS meetinghouse. There are no stores, no gas stations, no restaurants and no cell service.

There isn’t even a town doctor. The closest medical professional of any kind is in Eskdale, while the closest doctor is 90 miles away in Delta.

“The joke is, if you have a fire, have it up here because we have a fire department,” White said. “If you’re going to have a heart attack, do it down at Eskdale.”

It is a situation that requires some creativity in order to thrive. White has a couple of big gas tanks at the school where people deliver gas that can be used in a pinch, although most residents have their own backup supply.

He and his wife live in a trailer adjacent to the school for the four days a week when classes are in session. After that, they head to their home in Delta, about 90 miles away, to spend the weekend. When they return, they bring supplies, not just for themselves but the school and community.

Like its neighbor to the north, Eskdale High serves a community of ranchers who settled on both sides of the Utah-Nevada border. The school is located in the southern part of the Snake Valley, just east of Great Basin National Park.

Eskdale is cradled in the last valley before leaving Utah, along Highways 50 and 6 near the base of the Confusion Mountains. It is a picturesque landscape featured in several Louis L’Amour western novels.

While the community is respected for its top-notch cattle breeding, the school is nationally recognized for its music program.

“It’s pretty important,” Baker said of the music program that’s earned the school a long list of accolades. “It’s how most people know about Eskdale.”

Baker plays trombone, while Conrad plays trumpet, and like all of the students at the school, they sing in the school’s choir.

One hurdle the parents had to clear when seeking approval for the arrangement was how to allow the boys to participate in a sports program that requires a six-hour one-way road trip for a single basketball game.

The compromise agreed on was to play just 13 games with no junior varsity schedule. The team only has two practices a week that include all the players, as Millard District officials wanted to limit the time their students had to travel to West Desert.

"I think that was a reasonable compromise," said Sheppard, although a number of parents would like to see the boys allowed a junior varsity schedule, which would give the younger boys more game time.

Baker and Conrad said they practice in their own gym on days they don’t make the drive to West Desert. Reil said he and the other West Desert students try to travel to Eskdale once a week for a third practice, weather permitting.

The players are resourceful because that’s the life they live. They’ve watched their parents find ways to make a living, enjoy life and bring aspects of urban living to the seclusion of the desert communities.

So no matter the restrictions or requirements that are placed on them, the boys said they’ll figure out how to make them work.

They’re not alone.

White, who coaches all extracurricular activities, from debate to basketball, said he feels especially grateful for the issues they face in West Desert and Eskdale when he talks with other administrators.

“When I hear of all the headaches these other principals face, I’m happy to go back and have my nice little nine students,” he said laughing.

Asked what he does if a student skips school, he doesn’t hesitate.

“Let ’em go,” he said. “Where are they going to go?” While he may not have many of the issues faced by modern principals like cyberbullying or drugs, he said they do face other challenges.

“I have to worry about things like this,” he explained. “Last year we had a mountain lion get in and kill some sheep. So I had to let school out so (the kids) could go slaughter them so they didn’t just lose them.”

Sometimes road conditions cause issues, too — more mud than snow, as all of the roads are dirt. And he cautions visiting drivers to beware of the cows that like to sleep on the valley's dirt roads at night.

When the school isn’t being used to educate the area's children, it becomes something else entirely.

“The school is also the place for our community events,” White said. “Meetings, celebrations, even wedding receptions.”

After basketball games, everyone gathers in the gym for dinner. On this night it is a special treat — pizza.

“People like to visit,” White said. “If you’re going to drive 60 miles to see a ballgame, you want to visit. And farmers want to compare notes. They’ll visit 45 minutes to an hour after the game, just sit and eat.”

Everybody is part of the team

“Did you want to buy a shirt?” Samantha Dexter asks Dennis Timm as he pays his entry fee.

The shirts are specially made performance shirts that display the name of both high schools. Most fans purchase them and immediately put them on over whatever it is they happen to be wearing that night.

Dexter, a junior, is West Desert’s student body president. She is also a team manager — taking stats, helping videotape games and handing out water and Gatorade during halftime.

She and the school’s other four girls practice with the boys most days, as there is no girls team and officials won’t allow them to compete on the boys team.

A couple hours before West Desert takes on Mount Vernon, Dexter, Reil, Devin Timm and Kirk Lewis gather around a computer screen to watch the team’s game against Intermountain Christian. It was their season-opener and there is plenty they find fault with as they discuss what they’re seeing on the screen.

The room in which the teens gather, both before the game and at halftime, is the school’s only classroom. It is where students in grades seven through 12 study that which is required and that which interests them.

At the front of the room is a massive television that is also a smart board, a technology not available in many urban schools.

“They can say what they want about trust lands, but for us small schools it’s vital,” White said, referring to how the technology was purchased.

While White moves between the classroom, the gymnasium and the cafeteria, he fields questions from his athletes and the parents who’ve come early to help set up for the game.

Lewis is looking for music requested by one of the parents.

“They usually use ‘Rawhide,’ Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ and ‘High Noon,’ ” White tells him as he leaves the school’s library stocked with classics by Steinbeck and modern serials like "The Hunger Games" and "Harry Potter."

The elementary school students have painted signs welcoming Mount Vernon and the officials, whom they address by name. Alder welcomes the crowd, leads them in the Pledge of Allegiance, and then heads for his job running the clock at the scorer's table.

“This is a big social event for us,” said Dennis Timm, whose son Devin is a junior at West Desert and was Wednesday’s leading scorer with 32 points in the 79-61 victory. “A night on the town, so to speak.”

Mount Vernon is a private school of about 70 students located in Murray. The principal, Mike Lambson, drove the school’s van to the game, and said this was his first trip to the remote school. It turned out to be a memorable visit as the team left right after the game, only to return about 30 minutes later as the van was overheating.

As Alder tries to help Lambson assess the problem, the students head into the cafeteria where the West Desert students and parents serve them pizza and salad.

Lambson discusses the issues unique to small-school experiences with his counterparts as he uses the school’s telephone to try reaching someone on his staff.

A second attempt to leave fails, as someone determines the 50-mile drive on dirt roads may have jarred an aging part out of place. With nothing to repair it, the van will need to be towed, an impossible task at 10:30 p.m. on a Wednesday.

Reil’s father, John Reil Sr., offers to transport the team in his vehicle to Nephi, where someone from the school will meet them with another van.

Mount Vernon’s travel issues are a reality faced by Utah’s smallest schools as urban private and charter schools travel to rural communities, creating trips that can last up to 14 hours.

It seems like a lot of trouble to go to so that children can play sports. But to communities like Eskdale and West Desert, it’s worth the trouble.

“I think it’s an awesome arrangement,” said Eskdale administrator Nomi Sheppard. “It’s the result of a lot of hard work by the parents. They wanted to find a way to do it, and I think it’s awesome. An opportunity for sports in the middle of nowhere is an amazing opportunity. … To me, it’s priceless.”

More than sports

Baker and Conrad sheepishly admit that if they had to pick between the school’s heralded music program and playing basketball, they’d choose the games.

“My dad played sports in high school,” Conrad said smiling at Baker. “I just enjoy it more.”

The West Desert players said they don’t really see their team as two different schools.

“If we didn’t have Eskdale join us, we wouldn’t have enough to play,” Reil said. “I personally didn’t know them very good before we started playing. But they're good guys, and it’s been fun.”

Dennis Timm, who served on the UHSAA Board of Trustees for several years, said that while the boys may not have known each other well before the season started, they’re learning to play well together very quickly.

“They come from similar backgrounds,” he said of the players, who do not seem to notice a difference between the Eskdale boys and the West Desert guys.

For the parents, the team provides their children the same kind of opportunity that those attending larger schools enjoy without giving it a second thought.

“It’s fun to watch your kids compete,” said Tom Baker. “It’s a privilege to watch your child grow up, to be able to do things that they’re good at. … I’m glad the school districts were able to work together to make it work.” Devin Timm played basketball in fifth through eighth grade when his family lived in Delta. He loved wrestling, but said he may prefer basketball.

“It just seems more rewarding to win as a team,” said the 16-year-old.

The boys said that having basketball may even allow them to have a homecoming dance, something they host when they have a team sport.

“We usually just invite girls from Eskdale,” Reil said, when asked about the uneven number of girls versus boys at the school.

Tom Baker said he sees participation in athletics helping his son off the court.

“Competition helps their confidence in so many other ways, in a lot of other places,” Tom Baker said as his son knocks down another jump shot. “It gives them a sense of success.”

Adds Dennis Timm, “Competing allows them to be the best they can be.”

The parents discuss how well the boys are playing together, something no one expected this early in the season.

“It brings the community closer together,” Baker said. “Otherwise, we’re 50 to 70 miles apart and we might not get together.” Baker commended the school districts for finding a solution as unique as the communities they serve.

“It’s really nice for all of the kids,” he said. “It’s nice to see my son be able to pursue a passion.”

Adds Timm, “There are a lot of life lessons in sports.”

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EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com