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PREP NOTEBOOK: Phoenix boys build more than just bikes

Two years in the making, a project of giving back to the community finally came to fruition this past Saturday at Phoenix High School.

Partnering with Together We Rise and a local distribution agency, the Phoenix boys basketball team bought and built 10 bicycles that will be donated to youths in the foster care system in Southern Oregon this Christmas.

“It was a really beneficial experience for me as well as the rest of my teammates,” said senior forward Ethan Hutsell. “It was just a really fun thing to be able to actually see our hard work go into something that kids will be able to have and enjoy.”

The recipients of the Pirates’ labor of love are especially near and dear to Hutsell’s heart. His parents, Justin and Misty Hutsell, have been foster parents for a dozen years now and he has two younger sisters who came to the family as foster children and were adopted about 11 years ago.

“It’s just nice that we can help out our community because Phoenix and Talent, even Medford, we’re all just one big community where everybody knows everybody in the Rogue Valley,” said the 18-year-old. “It’s just a really big thing for us to be able to help out the kids who can’t really help the situation that they’re in and to be able to give them a better life, basically.”

“I feel like there’s a lot of people that don’t truly understand the numbers of foster kids that are out there,” added Hutsell, “and they don’t actually put forth enough effort that they can be putting out there that could really benefit the kids and the community as well.”

All the Pirates, including head coach Troy McNichols and his staff, hope Saturday’s effort helps raise awareness to the Together We Rise organization, as well as simply giving back whenever you can to help those in need.

McNichols first learned of Together We Rise, which is a program that provides much-needed resources for youths in the foster care system, through his work at Central Medford High School and its principal, Amy Herbst.

McNichols works for the College Dreams organization through a full-time grant that pays for him to be at Central and help students devise a game plan for their future once they graduate, be it moving on to college or any other post-graduate trade or program.

“This is a project that’s kind of near and dear to her heart that she had shared with me a couple years ago,” said McNichols, in his fourth year with the Pirates. “It kind of resonated with me because we deal with a lot of at-risk kids here at Central so I immediately took it to a couple of my players. We thought it was a great idea but we just didn’t have any money so we decided to plan for it, and it all kind of came together this year.”

McNichols said about $2,000 was raised last year after the players put together an online video to solicit funds for the project.

“Within a couple of days we had what we needed, and we spent it all,” said the coach.

McNichols let his players know a few weeks ago that they would be taking a day off of practice to finally take part in their long-awaited project, and the reaction couldn’t have been better.

“When coach announced it at the beginning of the season this year,” said Hutsell, “everybody was really gung-ho about it and was ready to do it and seemed genuinely excited to help out people.”

Senior guard Nik Goff added that it felt good to give back to a community like Phoenix-Talent because of all the support the high school receives in all of its events.

Saturday saw the group working to put all the parts together.

McNichols said the sight was something to behold, and one he won’t soon forget.

“To be honest with you, it really so far has been one of the highlights to me as a coach,” he said. “Just to see 30-something kids get into the gym, all wearing the same T-shirt and they’ve all got a smile on their face and they just got right to work.”

“It felt good, it just really felt good,” added McNichols, “and I really think it capped off a great week for us. Our attitude has been good, our work ethic has been good. Hopefully the kids realize this is all just a little bit bigger than them, this is about making someone’s life better.”

The only sticking point really was where to put all the big boxes that showed up a week ago. Otherwise, everything has gone to plan, and maybe even brought back a few good memories for those building the bikes.

“One of the things we talked about was think back to when you got your first bike and all of the independence that came with that and all of the self-confidence that came with that,” said McNichols. “You just felt good about life, so that was a big sticking point. You guys are in so much better shape than a lot of these kids and you’re going to be instilling some confidence in them. You don’t know how much turmoil they’ve been through, and that turmoil could be something that lasts a lifetime, so you’re adding some really positive mojo.”

A side note to the project was how “Together We Rise” has also become the mantra for McNichols’ team and how it can best succeed.

“‘Together We Rise,’ it really speaks highly to the culture that we want and have tried hard to build,” said McNichols. “We think of it like (Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s) fist example, where you’ve got four fingers and one thumb and they’re all kind of weak by themselves but you clench those five nubs together and all of a sudden you’ve got something that’s pretty powerful. That radiates teamwork and all those life lessons of teamwork.”

“This is really what we want from our middle school to our AAU program right on up through our administration,” he added. “There are all of these fingers we need to clench together and really create something powerful, and I think we can. Winning and losing aside, there’s a culture that we want and it’s all about being better people.”

And this past Saturday certainly was a wonderful place to start.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry