Courting the Gospel

by Spencer Garvey

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    Most Latter-day Saints who achieve any amount of fame or success will say that in spite of their dedication to their chosen field, the Church comes first. But the girls on Kirtland, New Mexico’s record-shattering basketball team won’t tell you that.

    It would be impossible for them to separate the Church from any one facet of their lives, because the gospel is the dominating force in everything they do. To rank it in one place, leave it there, then go on to others would be absolutely ridiculous to them.

    Take basketball, for example. That’s what they spend most of their time doing, and the gospel is always a part of it. There were five LDS girls on the team that won a record-breaking eight straight state championships, and the coach was the first counselor in the bishopric. With that kind of a roster, you can bet the gospel was never far from their minds.

    “The Church is the whole backbone of everything in life,” says Paige Manning, a perky five-foot, two-inch guard who resembles a pixie more than a basketball player. But Paige will surprise you. She’s a skilled starter with some deadly shots that have earned her high-point honors in more than one game. “We pray about everything, and we know we represent the Church wherever we go, whatever we do,” she says.

    And the players on the Kirtland Central High girls’ basketball team get to do a lot of representing. Since they set their record, they’ve appeared on radio and television stations nationwide, including ESPN, and have been noted in many newspapers, including a featured article in USA Today. One player, Collette Hatch, has even had her picture printed on the side of milk cartons all over the state as part of an antidrug campaign. And that kind of recognition isn’t common in Kirtland.

    You see, Kirtland is an unlikely place to produce a team that rolls over the most powerful schools in the state. Kirtland is hardly even a speck on the map in the northwest corner of the state. But the town, like its LDS residents, is permeated by the gospel. It originated in the late 1800s as a little offshoot community of nearby Fruitland, which was mostly settled by Saints sent out from Salt Lake City. Yes, it is named after the famous Mormon settlement in Ohio. Today most of the town’s residents are non-LDS, but there are still descendants of the original settlers. You’ll find LDS family names like Cluff, Foutz, Ashcroft, Biggs, Farnsworth, and Hatch wherever you go.

    Kirtland never was exactly what you’d call a boomtown, either. The population hit about 3,000, and has stayed close to that mark ever since. It’s mostly flat, rocky desert land, although the red-brown scenery is dotted by a Navajo willow every now and then. There are a few stores in Kirtland, a post office, a couple of churches, and a ball diamond or two.

    And there are schools there. Schools that feature superlative female basketball players. The winning tradition has become a legacy that many of the little girls in town dream of joining. “I’ve always wanted to be on the team,” says Gaylene “Gidget” Gallagher, an energetic guard. “I’ve been trying to learn how to play since I was little. When the coaches finally started us in a program, I spent all my time in the gym.”

    It was the same for Collette. “When I was just little I remember my dad saying, ‘Here—take this basketball and go dribble it around the house—and don’t use both hands!’”

    Once Collette got to high school, basketball seemed to dominate just about everything else. “You just go to practice, come home, study, and go to bed,” she says. “You have no social life. Except after the games you might go get pizza or something, but that’s about it. All during the summer, you just practice.”

    All that work seems to have paid off for Collette, who fits most people’s description of the all-American girl. In the summer of 1987, she was selected to be on a high school superstar team that traveled to Israel. She has managed to be active in seminary, Mutual, and student council, and she is rated second in her class academically, so you can tell she finds time for some other interests.

    During the season, practices last at least three hours a day. And in the summertime, some of the players have been known to practice up to 12 hours a day. Coach Cluff, a loving, fatherly man who knows how to take charge, uses basketball as an opportunity to help his players learn the gospel.

    “I’m simple enough to believe that everything is spiritual with Heavenly Father,” he says. “Whether it’s basketball, math, science, or whatever.” He always makes sure that there’s a prayer both before and after a game. “Kids can learn a lot about their Heavenly Father through basketball, if they use prayer, and hopefully those lessons will stick with them for the rest of their lives.”

    What are some of the lessons they’ve learned? They’ve learned to stick to their standards, for one. “The community knows we’re not the partying type,” says Collette. In fact, the town residents know just about everything about the players on their championship team, from their grade point averages to the color of dress they wore to the prom. “The community knows that we’re probably the straightest people in the whole town. We can’t give in to temptation, even just a little bit, or everything will go down. Not just our reputation, but our abilities and our potential.”

    “And it’s not always easy to set a strong example,” adds Paige. “It’s hard in a small town. You don’t have much to do that’s exciting. Everything gets real old real fast, so a lot of kids just turn to things like alcohol and drugs, and they think that makes them happy. I’ve seen them go through a lot of pain, and I’ve been able to avoid all that by following the Word of Wisdom and keeping my standards where they should be.”

    They’ve learned that the missionary work they do through example is invaluable. Over the years, several team members have joined the Church thanks to the examples set by their LDS counterparts. And most of the LDS players today bring friends to Church activities and seminary. You might think there would be a certain breach between the LDS and non-LDS players, but they go out of their way to be unified.

    “There’s never a division between the LDS girls and the others,” says Moni Ahlcrimn, a raven-haired forward with a sparkle in her blue eyes. “But they do watch us, and many times they kind of follow along with what we’re doing.”

    Gidget thinks that that cohesiveness is the main reason for Kirtland’s success on the courts. “You have to be truly dedicated to teamwork to win,” she says. “We work so much together as a team. One of the reasons the other teams lose is because there’s conflict from within. But we really help each other. I think the main reason we do so well is that we’re like one big family.”

    But even on a winning team, there are lessons to be learned about defeat. Angie Harris, the team center, hyperextended her knee during the second quarter of the first game of the record-breaking season, and was sidelined for the rest of the year. At least two surgeries have been necessary to get her back on her feet, and she’ll probably never play school ball again. Many players might be bitter over this, but not Angie. She reads the scriptures faithfully every day, and from them she’s learned that “the Lord isn’t going to give you challenges that you can’t handle. This injury wasn’t that bad. I played on the state championship team last year. This keeps it from going to my head.”

    Oh, and of course there are the basic lessons to be learned about taking care of the temple which is your body. These girls are so into fitness that in the few seconds of spare time they have left over, they do things like coach little girls’ softball, work as a lifeguard at the community pool, play church volleyball and softball, compete on the school track team, and run just for the fun of it. That’s the main reason Moni is involved in basketball at all. She’s only been playing about three years, but she says, “The running is what I like best. I play to stay in shape.”

    And they’ve learned to play, to eat, to drink and sleep—to live under pressure. Many people think the girls’ basketball program is the best thing that ever happened to Kirtland. “Now that we’ve got a streak going, nobody wants to be on the first team to lose,” says Coach Cluff. “The girls work real hard, under intense pressure from the community and from themselves and their teammates, to continue the winning tradition.”

    With that kind of pressure, you can see why most of the girls are a bit relieved come graduation day when they hang up their tennies and go on to college. A few of them continue playing basketball—BYU’s star Karina Zapata is a product of Kirtland, and Collette hopes to play for a four-year university. Most of the players from the Kirtland basketball legacy, however, will give up ball in favor of books.

    But they will never regret, and they will never forget, the things they learned from their magical years on the basketball team. Sure, their hook shots may fade, and they might not recall how they ever managed to pull down so many rebounds, but because they took their coach’s advice to “consider all things spiritual,” they’ll never forget the eternal principles they learned on a high school basketball court.

    Photography by Spencer Garvey and Robert J. Bond

    Helping is a way of life for the LDS girls on Kirtland’s team. They are Paige Manning, first from left; Moni Ahlcrimn, second; Collette Hatch, fourth; Angie Harris, eighth; and Gidget Gallagher, tenth. LDS Coach Cluff is seated in front, third from right.

    When they’re not setting records on the court, you’ll find the LDS girls on Kirtland’s basketball team in church, above, or at work, like Angie, below. There’s hardly a minute to spare.

    LDS team members helped tiny Kirtland, New Mexico, gain national recognition by sharpening their basketball skills, but they also hope to gain celestial recognition by sharpening their gospel skills in seminary.