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COMMENTARY: Small town opens up big heart for coach

She knew at the stop sign, like one does when the telephone rings in the middle of the night. Nothing ever good comes from that.

She knew the news that awaited not a block away, that when she pulled into the clinic’s parking lot and walked inside her doctor’s office and sat across from the person who would deliver test results that could forever alter the course of her life, a diagnosis of breast cancer was inevitable.

“I knew it was bad,” Amy Huntsman said Friday. “It just hit me at that stop sign. I just knew.

“So I drove to the clinic, got the news and began the fight.”

There is something magical about a small town. Something perfectly dreadful and yet charmingly nostalgic. The people of it understand each other, seemingly always straddling a line between love and hate, acceptance and resentment. Until heartache arrives. Then a small town unites.

It has been 21 years since Pahranagat Valley High School wanted a woman to coach its girls basketball team, since Huntsman volunteered with the idea that she would be fired and run out of town within three seasons. She had played a little growing up in Idaho, but spent much of her time there as a cheerleader.

Now, at 11 a.m. today at Orleans Arena, the Panthers will try to win a 13th state championship under Huntsman’s guidance when they meet Smith Valley in the Division IV final.

Alamo sits 90 miles north of Las Vegas, a ranching community inside Lincoln County whose population as of a 2010 census was 1,080. It is named for the poplar tree and dotted with lakes that produce some ridiculously good fishing.

The hardest part for Huntsman was telling her three children. The next hardest part was telling her team, her other children.

She is 46 and was diagnosed in February of last year. Weeks later, she won a state championship on a Saturday, drove home from Reno on Sunday and underwent a second operation on Monday. The first surgery hadn’t removed all the cancer. They needed to go back in.

This is when Huntsman saw most the love and devotion and absolute commitment those in Alamo have for her, from the fundraisers to the meals they cooked to the small but significant gestures of stopping by the house with her favorite ice chips when she wasn’t able to hold anything down from the chemotherapy.

“I can’t really talk about the support I received without getting emotional,” Huntsman said. “Every time I thought about whether I should move closer to home in Idaho, closer to family, I realized what an amazing place Alamo is and what the people there have meant to us. We’re a rowdy town and crazy and don’t always get along, but when times get tough, we are there for one another. We stand behind each other.

“It doesn’t feel like I’ve been the coach 21 years. That blows my mind. In the beginning, I asked a lot of questions and went to a lot of camps. At first, I had no idea what I was doing. I’m not a great coach, but I have great athletes, and my job is to get them to play to their potential. But having (cancer) also made me a better coach. I don’t stress about the little things anymore. I don’t freak out on the bench as much. I’m not as intense. This entire journey has taught me a lot. I can do hard things with the love and support of others.”

There would be six rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation, treatment that concluded in mid-September. She was checked in November and again last week. All looks good. The fight has been won thus far. Her next appointment is in six months.

Small towns mean those who participate in high school sports almost always play a little of everything. Some of those from Pahranagat Valley who will go for a second straight state championship and fourth title in five years today will next take the softball field and earlier competed on the volleyball court.

But while small town kids also still dream big, they are raised on the ideal that without a sense of caring, there can be no community. That they are part of something special, and that in the worst of times, you run toward the challenge together and not from it.

“Coach Huntsman tells us all the time that we’re the reason she’s in Alamo,” said senior Jamie Hansen, who scored 11 points in a 57-38 semifinal win against Pyramid Lake on Friday. “It has been such a difficult time for our team and town, but we know who we’re fighting for. And it has been incredible, seeing everyone come together. The fact it was (breast cancer) hit home to our entire team. It was more personal. It could happen to any of us. It was scary. Very emotional.

“She’s our role model. If I can grow up and be just a little of the type of person Amy Huntsman is, my life will be complete.”

Not a great coach?

You just read a sentence that defines the epitome of one.

Amy Huntsman knew at the stop sign, knew it was cancer, a sense of unfathomable loneliness.

A year later, she understands the strength that surrounded her in the moment.

That of a small town.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 100.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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