Class 1A • Loss of coach's son drove Mustangs through emotional season.
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Richfield • Sometimes sports become a metaphor for life, a crucible of obstacles to overcome, a drama of triumph and tragedy.
Such was the storyline of tiny Bryce Valley's basketball season, a year that began with the death of the coach's son and one that ended with the lows and ultimate high with a 68-59 double-overtime victory over Duchesne.
"There was a lot of meaning here," said Bryce Valley coach Eric Jessen, who lost his son Jesse when the 6-foot-7 junior starter was driving home from basketball practice in August. "It was not about basketball. It was about overcoming obstacles."
Jessen tried not to make the season about Jesse, a kid affectionately known as "Big Red." He tried to get his players to not dedicate the season to his son, but they kept asking. He asked the cheerleaders not to chant his name during introductions, something they honored until the game was won, when chants of "Jesse! Jesse! Jesse!" echoed through the Sevier Valley Center.
After all, he wasn't the only person in the tight-knit communities of Cannonville, Henrieville, Tropic and Bryce Canyon city that lost a family member this year.
"There were a lot of deaths in the community, and it affected the kids in the school," said Jessen. "They were struggling in their personal lives. I am a counselor and I am a P.E. teacher. I have these kids in the classroom. I feel for them."
In the end, the championship game proved to be a microcosm of an emotional year. Bryce Valley raced to a big lead and watched a Duchesne team motivated by the retirement of its revered coach Stan Young, who was coaching his last game, come back to lead much of the second half. Ultimately, the Mustangs needed a miracle or two to pull out the win.
The first of those came with time running out in the first overtime when Logan LeFevre banked in a shot as the buzzer rang to tie the game.
"I didn't know it was coming to me," said LeFevre, who had to be the Mustangs' big man when Jesse Jessen died. "Somebody tipped it to me. I just turned and let it fly. It felt good when I let it go."
He said Jesse was always on the team's mind.
"He's always been there for us when we've been down," said LeFevre. "When we got down after that second half, I thought we were done. But we pushed through and kept pushing and never gave up. We had a little help from above."
The second unlikely happening came with 52 seconds left in the game and Bryce Valley nursing a one-point lead. Out of nowhere, freshman Kix Roundy launched a 3-pointer that was too much for gutty Duchesne to overcome.
"I decided to shoot it for some reason," said Roundy. "It was open, so I took it. I don't think a freshman would ever do that, but I guess I did."
Jessen admitted that it was one of those "Oh no! Oh yes!" moments.
He knew just how good a Duchesne team was that came from 12 points down in the first half to lead by as many as eight in the second half. The Eagles' Trent Roberts and McKade Nielsen burned Bryce Valley from inside, and Kaden Moon hurt the Mustangs from outside.
So Jessen turned the game over to Braxton Syrett, an emotional and quick senior leader who responded with 23 points, 10 rebounds and four steals and just would not be denied a championship.
"I am so happy for my team, for the community and for everybody who stepped up in the game," said Syrett. "I couldn't ask for anything better than this."
As for Jessen, he knew this game was about much more than basketball.
"Jesse is in his spot where he is at now," said the emotionally drained coach. "These kids have to live their life and go through challenges. It's about them living their life and becoming better people."
It was obvious Saturday night that Bryce Valley fans lived their lives to the fullest. People like Jesse Jessen would be remembered, but there was still much to celebrate.
Storylines Mustangs 68, Eagles 59 (2OT)
R Bryce Valley remembers coach Eric Jessen's son, who died in a car accident, in the team's title win.