SACO — Coaches and players often refer to their teams as families, with close-knit bonds being forged through competition.

For the Thornton Academy girls’ basketball team, those bonds have resulted in unprecedented success.

The Trojans (19-2) will play in the Class A state championship game Saturday for the first time in school history. Thornton, which ended the four-year championship reign of McAuley in the Western Class A final, will play Lawrence (20-1) at 3:05 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center.

“It’s all everyone is talking about,” said Ashley Howe, a junior forward. “We walk down the halls at school and everyone is wishing us good luck.”

But it’s not only competition that has brought the Trojans close this year. When they break each huddle, be it in practice or a game, they yell, “Family,” as a way of remembering who they are playing for.

Their hearts and their minds are always on Hayley Desjardins, a 12-year-old from Saco, and Nancy Marston, the wife of Coach Eric Marston.

Desjardins, a member of Thornton’s basketball family through her participation in summer camps and travel teams, is battling a rare blood disease, aplastic anemia. The team started a Hoops for Hayley fund-raiser this year and presented a $10,000 check to her family at the end of the season.

She is undergoing treatment in Boston.

Nancy Marston was diagnosed with breast cancer on Dec. 9 – the afternoon of the Trojans’ second game of the season. She has undergone two lumpectomies already and is expected to begin chemotherapy treatments in a couple of weeks. She is optimistic because the cancer was caught early and was Stage One.

“The girls were out there competing as hard as we can every game,” said Eric Marston, in his fifth year as Thornton’s head coach. “But when we see the fight that Hayley’s in and the fight my wife is in, people the girls are close to, I think it provides some perspective about what really matters.

“When we presented that check to Hayley’s parents at the end of the season, it’s like I told the crowd, this is just a game we’re playing. We’re not fighting for our lives.”

Senior guard Katie McCrum said the ordeals of Desjardins and Nancy Marston have brought the team closer.

“It’s just allowed us all to realize how fortunate we are to have this opportunity with each other and to have this close-knit group,” she said.

Added senior forward Abby Strickland, “I think it made us realize how important the team is and how much the team really is our family. I think that’s what makes us so good on the court.”

The team knew of Desjardins’ illness before the season. She had been diagnosed with it at age 6 but later was told it was in remission.

Last October the family learned the disease had returned.

“Many of our players had seen Hayley come out of it the first time, and it had been inspirational to have her as healthy as she had been,” said Eric Marston. “You never had to look for her too hard at the basketball camps we ran because she was the one with the biggest smile.”

Howe coached Desjardins on a sixth-grade travel team. “Just watching her play was so heartwarming,” she said. “When she saw me she would run and give me a hug. Now it’s heartbreaking to know what she’s going through.”

So they began the Hoops for Hayley program, not knowing how much they would raise. A percentage of gate receipts were donated from the season’s opening game against McAuley. The team sold T-shirts and donated $1 for every point they scored this season. “We’re still going,” said Strickland.

To have raised $10,000 is remarkable.

“It was way more successful than I thought it would be,” said McCrum. “But I think people realized this was for a special cause. She’s a kid who always had a smile on her face. And, just imagine not being able to play the game you love. So we wanted to do everything we could for her so she can be where we are some day.”

Then came Nancy Marston’s diagnosis of invasive ductil carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer.

Eric Marston met with the team in his classroom that night to inform them.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” he said. “But I had to tell them because they are my family during the basketball season. And when it was over, we had a tremendous team hug, there were a lot of tears and emotion. Instantly it was that family feel and it permeated the whole team.”

Victoria Lux transferred to Thornton for her senior year after three years at McAuley. Her grandmother, Connie Arnold, also had breast cancer and has been helpful in Nancy Marston’s recovery, introducing her to a macrobiotic diet.

“It was almost like (Lux) was meant to be back at Thornton this year,” said Nancy Marston.

She added that the players have been very helpful to her husband as he deals with everything.

“They have shown him immense support,” she said. “I think it shows how they felt about him, how he’s more than just a coach.”

Nancy Marston said she brought her daughter, Ella, to the Thornton gym one day during a practice.

“The team saw me, stopped what they were doing and ran over to give me the biggest group hug,” she said. “That showed the character of the girls, how compassionate and caring they are.”

Through it all the players learned they can count on each other. And that, said Lux, has been the biggest factor in the Trojans’ success.

“It’s motivation for us to play, to get the win,” she said. “I know when we break the huddle and say, ‘Family,’ it gets me going.”