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Hildale • Outside the gymnasium, there were hot dogs, pizza, soda and a classic rock soundtrack that included Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown."

That song is about a town deteriorating. Inside the gym was something that people here Wednesday night said was making their polygamous community better: basketball.

Hildale's school, called Water Canyon School, played its first basketball games Wednesday inside what used to be a storehouse owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Escalante was the inagural opponent. A girls combined junior varsity and varsity game tipped off at 4 p.m. followed by boys junior varsity and varsity games at 5:30 and 7 o'clock, respectively.

Escalante won all three games. Water Canyon's best chance to win came when the boys varsity team jumped to a 12-0 lead. Escalante came back to win, 74-50.

Water Canyon doesn't have any cheerleaders yet, but fans, many wearing blue T-shirts with orange Water Canyon Wildcat logos, cheered and chanted through all three games even when the scores were lopsided.

"I'm a little disappointed we lost, but I'm pretty proud of how we came back in the fourth quarter," said Mary Jessop, a ninth grader who plays center on the Water Canyon Wildcats' girls team.

Jessop's family left the FLDS in 2011. She hopes girls still in the FLDS see her playing basketball and decide they want to play, too.

"I don't want them to take my spot on the team, though," she said.

A few parents and other spectators wore prairie dresses or long-sleeve mono-colored shirts — garments customary of the FLDS and which some people continue to wear even after they leave the church.

"When you look around, you can tell there are polygamist families here, but they're great people," said Darin Thomas, Water Canyon's principal.

Hildale and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz., collectively known as Short Creek, are home to the FLDS. It's believed to be the first time prep basketball has been played in Hildale, though the high school in Colorado City has fielded teams for years.

FLDS President Warren Jeffs ordered all of the faith's children removed from public schools in the early 2000s. Since then, perhaps hundreds of families have left the FLDS.

The Washington County School District opened Water Canyon in 2014. It currently has about 300 students in grades kindergarten through 12.

The school district is spending $8 million to renovate the existing Water Canyon School and the old bishop's storehouse. The storehouse is to be the building for seventh through 12th grades. Construction is still underway on the classrooms and locker rooms, but the gymnasium and bleachers, with capacity for 700, were finished just days ago.

Bryce Barlow, a senior on the boys varsity team, said he was employed by the subcontractor and worked on installing the court and the bleachers.

Barlow said his family left the FLDS when he was 5 years old. He has younger brothers that attend Water Canyon and was excited for the new classrooms that are being constructed.

"So many of our kids are so talented," Barlow said. "they just need a teacher to help them."

The boys varsity coach is Brad Garrett, a St. George native who played basketball at Oklahoma State University, said perhaps only four of his players had played organized sports before. Some didn't even grow up with basketballs or hoops.

He's also heard from some of his players that they have been separated from their fathers for long stretches.

"They're pretty tough kids," Garrett said.

Jeffs has been more inclined to evict men than women or children. Men who escape with their families sometimes have to travel to other states for work.

There are other signs Short Creek is becoming a more normal community.

Residents in July threw an Independence Day party that was the first one in the towns in years and attracted perhaps a couple thousand people. A Dollar General store is under construction and in 2016 the Washington County Library System plans to open a branch in Hildale.

There are still divisions in Short Creek. The FLDS still do not attend public schools and residents at the games said they saw no one there they recognized as still following Jeffs.

Hildale's mayor and city council members also didn't attend.

Curtis and Christel Barlow, whose daughter was in the Water Canyon choir that sang the national anthem, said sports will give kids something to do and move Hildale closer to being a normal town.

"We're slowly getting there," Christel said.

"People need to see what life is about," Curtis said. "We've been living in such a sheltered environment, it's tough to function."

Curtis and Christel Barlow said they were evicted from the FLDS 10 years ago.

Dale Jeffs, a 58-year-old half brother of Warren Jeffs, said he separated from the sect three years ago. A daughter and two of his sons play on the Water Canyon teams.

Sitting in the bleachers before the girls' game started, Dale Jeffs said he basketball will encourage more FLDS to leave the sect.

"As people come around," Dale Jeffs said, "they'll take part in it."

The boys and girls basketball teams began this season and are the first sports at the school. Jack Eves, athletic director for the Water Canyon Wildcats, said the school wants to add wrestling, cross country and possibly softball next year.

Twitter: @natecarlisle