Tragedy rocks DSUJody Lantz supported herself against a wall and choked back tears following a prayer service honoring the lives her three Dickinson State softball teammates.
By: By Dustin Monke, The Dickinson Press, The Jamestown Sun
DICKINSON — Jody Lantz supported herself against a wall and choked back tears following a prayer service honoring the lives her three Dickinson State softball teammates.
“I never thought I’d ever have to go through this,” said Lantz, a senior third baseman for the Blue Hawks. “It’s just been a struggle. It’s just been a lot of crying, confusion, frustration and my stomach is turning. Now that we know. It’s just horrible.
“No one wanted this.”
Hundreds attended a prayer service to honor the lives of DSU students and softball players Kyrstin Gemar, Ashley Neufeld and Afton Williamson, whose bodies were found inside a submerged Jeep Cherokee on Monday afternoon in a stock pond northwest of Dickinson.
The women had been reported missing Sunday night after they reportedly placed two frantic phone calls to teammates.
Forty-one hours later, the DSU Student Center ballroom was standing room only as the service allowed members of the softball team to see just how big of a support group they have in what has been called one of the darkest days in DSU history.
DSU first-year head coach Kristen Fleury, who played two years for the Blue Hawks and had been an assistant coach the past two seasons, said she appreciated the outpouring of emotion but added that the service was a moment she hoped would never come.
“It’s the longest two days of my life,” Fleury said. “It’s been hard for everybody. It’s not a happy ending, but I’m glad we found them and three of them are above us and now they’re always watching us, and on the field with us, and in the classroom.
“Everything we do, they’ll always be above us.”
In light of the tragedy, classes at DSU have been canceled and tonight’s volleyball match against rival Minot State will not be played. Dakota Athletic Conference President LaVern Jessen made the match cancelation announcement in a press release Tuesday night.
DSU athletic director Roger Ternes said there had been no decision made regarding the weekend’s activities.
The DSU men’s and women’s basketball teams host against Montana State-Northern on Friday. Both basketball teams are scheduled to play the University of Great Falls (Mont.) on Saturday afternoon and the volleyball team is scheduled to host a DAC quarterfinal match later that night.
Yet, no matter what happens this week, life will carry on at DSU.
Students showed that Tuesday as several stood in lines and waited patiently to simply give hugs or offer support and condolences to members of the softball team and the families of three women.
Guy Fridley, who resigned as DSU’s head softball coach and women’s basketball coach in late July, said the past two days have been painful.
“There’s no question, there’s a piece of my heart tore out today,” Fridley said.
Fridley recruited both Neufeld and Gemar to DSU, where they quickly excelled and helped build a program that had been having limited success into an NAIA powerhouse and yearly national-title contender.
Gemar will be remembered not only as a powerful designated hitter, but also a clutch performer who lifted the team to victory more than once.
She had a pinch-hit RBI single in the top of the ninth inning to beat Mayville State 9-8 on March 28 and hit a towering two-run homer in the top of the seventh inning to push DSU past Minot State 4-3 on April 20.
Gemar routinely came up big hits in key situations throughout last season, Fridley said. She finished the season with a .475 batting average, 10 homers, 38 RBI, and team highs in on-base percentage (.602) and slugging percentage (.925).
Fridley said he watched as fans took an immediate liking to Gemar because of her abilities. However, he said few realized the kind of person she was off from the field.
“They don’t see the heart, the character that Kyrstin presented day in and day out,” Fridley said.
Neufeld was a skilled outfielder and speedy base runner who battled through injuries last season yet hit .314 and had 16 RBI and 16 runs.
She was a cornerstone of DSU’s rise from a regional to national power during her three seasons with the team. The Blue Hawks reached the national tournament for the first time in 2007, Neufeld’s freshman year. She hit seven homers and had 32 RBI, hitting 391.
Last season, the Blue Hawks finished in third place at the national tournament last May and were expected to again be key contributors as the team prepares to make a run at the championship again next spring.
“Ashley is one of those kids who left everything on the field,” Fridley said. “She’s a big part of what we built at Dickinson State.
“She’s a kid that I don’t think you ever saw without a smile on her face. She had a smile on her face all the time. That’s the images that go through your head right now and are just numbing.”
Williamson was the first recruit signed by Fleury after she took over the head coach position when Fridley resigned.
Williamson, a pitcher who DSU standout pitcher and captain Sara Jane Webster raved about, was in her first semester at DSU after transferring from Riverside Community College in California.
“I described DSU, and said ‘Do you think this is some place you could adapt to?’ and she said, ‘coach, I don’t care where it is, I just want to play,’” Fleury said. “That was something about Afton. She didn’t care, she just wanted the chance to play softball.”
All three women came from a distance to play softball for the Blue Hawks. Neufeld was a native of Brandon, Manitoba, Gemar was from Grossmont, Calif., and Williamson was from Lake Elisnore, Calif.
Shortly after the announcement was made that the women’s bodies had been found, Ternes said it spoke to the character of the three women that they would travel so far from home to take a shot at playing softball in a town and at a university they knew little about.
“They took a chance to come to western North Dakota with a dream of playing softball and they did an excellent job of that,” Ternes said. “It’s just unfortunate that a tragedy had to occur.”
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