In mid-January, Huntley Project head coach Mark Branger lost his wife to a battle with cancer. In the heart of basketball season, his team, led by grandson Noah Bouchard, rallied around him and served as an escape from the realities of life.
“I’ve reached the lowest low that you could ever experience on this roller coaster with the loss of my wife, and at the same time I’ve experienced some of the best highs with this group and what they’ve done," Huntley Project head coach Mark Branger said. "I guess I have to believe in God’s plan that I was meant to come back, because these gentleman have helped me get through some of the most horrific days that I’ve ever experienced.”
Branger and Bouchard each other to lean on, but the grind of the season was adding to the mental toll Bouchard dealt with. When he lifted Project’s third-place trophy at this past weekend’s State B tournament, he sent a smile to the heavens.
“The overwhelming support, then to be able to experience this ride with Noah, when at times I think he felt the heavy burden of the load of always showing up, always having to have a good game," Branger said. "I just told him, ‘I love you as much today as tomorrow, whether you have two or 20. It doesn’t matter.’”
“Every single time I step on the floor you see me point up because I know she’s watching down on me. I’m thinking of her every single time I step on the floor and every single day I wake up," Bouchard said.
Lodge Grass head coach Josh Stewart was one of the first to reach out to Branger in January, and the two programs have forged a tremendous relationship. The support for Branger grew larger as the season wore on.
“The love that they showed and the compassion. I don’t really have words because it’s so overwhelming. I get very emotional because I feel the love and support," said Branger. "It’s been statewide from other teams, other coaches. Our whole conference multiple nights wore pink. There was moments of silence. The support, again, I just don’t know the right words to tell everybody, thank you. God bless them all for everything that they’ve done to help our family get through these difficult times.”
“It’s great to be able to put aside rivalries, put aside basketball and just come together as a community, as a group of people that understand each other’s hardships. That they can show support and that we can take it without basketball involved," Bouchard said.
As for Project’s biggest fan this past weekend?
“She’s ecstatic. I know the words she’s saying. I know the cheers. I know what she’s saying, what she’s doing, how she’s dancing, all that. She’s so happy for us," said Bouchard.