Tragedy still lingers at DSUThere isn’t a day when Sara Jane Webster doesn’t wonder, “what if?” What if Krystin Gemar, Ashley Neufeld and Afton Williamson decided to stay home instead of taking a midnight drive? What if the Dickinson State softball players’ innocent stargazing excursion outside of Dickinson wouldn’t have resulted in their tragic and untimely deaths.
By: By Dustin Monke , Forum Communications Co. , The Jamestown Sun
DICKINSON — There isn’t a day when Sara Jane Webster doesn’t wonder, “what if?”
What if Krystin Gemar, Ashley Neufeld and Afton Williamson decided to stay home instead of taking a midnight drive? What if the Dickinson State softball players’ innocent stargazing excursion outside of Dickinson wouldn’t have resulted in their tragic and untimely deaths.
What if Gemar still stepped into the batters box representing a perpetual home run threat? What if Neufeld was still diving for fly balls in the outfield and making pitchers jumpy as she navigated the base paths? What if Williamson, a highly touted transfer from California whom Webster helped bring to DSU, was there to give the All-American a pitching partner during those tough doubleheaders?
“To know what we potentially could have had with Kyrstin, Afton and Ashley, it’s frustrating,” Webster said. “We are good, but they would have added so much stuff to our team. I mean, you can’t take back what’s already happened and you can’t change the past. But I do wonder.”
When the Blue Hawks open the NAIA national tournament against Columbia (Mo.) College today in Decatur, Ala., it will be exactly 200 days since Gemar, Neufeld and Williamson drowned in the vehicle they were in after accidentally driving it into a stock pond 12 miles northwest of Dickinson.
While the days of mourning the loss of their friends and teammates have long since passed, the memories haven’t faded.
In fact, there is a universal sentiment among the team that if not for the tragedy, the Blue Hawks might not be the close unit they are today.
“Our team, I would say, is one of the closest teams,” said second baseman Nathalie Martinez, who was Neufeld’s roommate. “When we play, we don’t play for DSU. We play for the three girls. That’s all there is to play for.”
However, DSU’s season has been turbulent, filled with highs and lows and a few head-scratching moments.
After taking third place at last season’s national tournament, the Blue Hawks entered the season ranked second in the NAIA.
When DSU opened its season, almost from the first pitch, there was a sense that something wasn’t right.
It its first game of the year in Tucson, Ariz., DSU had just two hits and committed 11 errors in a 16-0 loss to Robert Morris College — a team that didn’t even reach the national tournament.
The Blue Hawks finished 9-6 during the mid-March trip to open their season. While the trip wasn’t a complete letdown — DSU beat two team ranked in the NAIA Top 25 and pushed No. 1-ranked California Baptist to the brink before losing 8-6 — it was worse than anyone expected.
Senior first baseman Kelly Jahn explained the trip as nerve-wracking in more ways than she ever imagined it could be. Not only were the Blue Hawks playing for their fallen teammates, they were also — at least in the back of their minds — trying to live up to their preseason ranking.
“We went in there thinking, we’re the second-(ranked) team in the nation and everyone is going to be watching us,” Jahn said. “We’ve never had to defend everything. We’ve always been the underdogs. I was scared to death to play and I know some of the other seniors were too.”
Things didn’t get easier when the Dakota Athletic Conference season began either. DSU fought weather and improved rivals out for blood after the Blue Hawks went unbeaten in the conference during the 2009 season.
DSU lost three of its first eight DAC games and dropped its overall record to 14-9 on April 11 after being swept by Jamestown College in a doubleheader.
Those losses, Webster said, became lessons.
“They’re more aggressive,” she said of DSU’s conference opponents. “People have that drive to beat us. I think that’s given us not a wake-up call, but a reality check, that teams are going to come out hard against us and we’re not invincible.”
The Blue Hawks won 17 straight games before falling to Minot State in the DAC tournament. They eventually lost to the Beavers again, 3-2, in the conference championship game.
“It’s definitely been a rollercoaster,” said DSU head coach Kristen Fleury, who is in her first season and still holding her position on an interim basis.
“It’s been tough, but just getting through the year, when it hasn’t been our greatest year from the start and just getting back to the national tournament is something huge. When a lot of teams could just break and give up or whatever, we’ve fought.”
There’s a lot of fight left in this team, Fleury said, mostly because they know what they’re fighting for.
Now, they have three games to prove it.
One loss in pool play and in all likelihood, the Blue Hawks’ season will end Saturday.
But, if they win and reach the bracket portion of the tournament — something DSU has done in each of the three previous years it has qualified — then the story continues and the “what ifs” may begin to disappear.
Fleury has faith and believes that will happen.
“It’s not going to be easy until the end,” Fleury said. “We’re just going to keep on fighting.”
Dustin Monke is a reporter at The Dickinson (N.D.) Press, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.