February 27, 2014

Stories of the Year: Tragedy and #PlayForSetonHill

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

On March 16, a busy Saturday in college lacrosse, tragedy transcended the sport. "Play 4 Seton Hill" became the rallying cry across the country after a team bus accident claimed the lives of Griffins coach Kristie Quigley, her unborn son and the driver.
© Brian Kunst

The Seton Hill women's lacrosse team on Thursday will play its first game since the team bus accident last March 16 that killed coach Kristie Quigley and her unborn son. The team this year is dedicating its season to Quigley. Game time is set for 4 p.m. ET at home against Notre Dame College of Ohio.

This story originally appeared in the December issue of Lacrosse Magazine and as part of LM's Stories of the Year package online Dec. 31, 2013. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription.


Getting back on the bus was the hardest part.

Less than seven months after losing their coach and her unborn child in a tragic team bus accident, the Seton Hill women's lacrosse team took its first steps toward closure on an unseasonably warm October night in Greensburg, Pa.

As the players boarded a similar bus for a Thursday scrimmage at Duquesne, they confronted their grief in a very tangible way. It's only 20 miles, about a 40-minute drive, from Seton Hill's campus to Pittsburgh, but it was "a long bus ride for us," senior midfielder Rachel Hilbert said.

They said a prayer together before boarding. Some players cried. Others consoled them. Memories from the accident came flooding back.

Their new coach, Courtney Tamasitis, tried to prepare them for this moment. She was Seton Hill's coach before the late Kristie Quigley, leaving after four seasons for a promising assistant coaching job at Division I Marquette. In May, Tamasitis decided to return to Seton Hill, a small Division II Catholic school, to help with the healing. She originally recruited most of the juniors and seniors.

Tamasitis spoke with Seton Hill's grief counselors, who knew the depth of players' responses to the accident. How would she get them back on the field? How would she get them back on a bus? She met with trainers, who set up doctor's appointments with players to get them medically cleared when they returned to campus in the fall. She designed a playbook for dealing with tragedy.

Seton Hill's commencement speaker in May was Haley Scott, a former Notre Dame swimmer who survived a bus crash that killed two teammates in 1992. She was paralyzed and had to learn to walk again. Tamasitis asked Scott to come back and speak to the team in September, before they would take the field for practice. Each player left with a copy of her motivational book, "What Though the Odds," and important perspective.

"It will always be there with us, but we can move on with our lives and still not forget [Quigley]," junior midfielder Emma Simmers said. "It was helpful for her to talk to us, encouraging us to get back on the bus again, and riding it together. Being there as a unit, as a team, after everything that we've been through."

When the Griffins returned to campus in September, most of the 14 returning players had not picked up a stick since March 16, the day of the crash. Twelve freshmen joined the team. At first, Tamasitis focused solely on conditioning.

"Our first practice with sticks was a tough one." Tamasitis said. "But we went out there and said, 'This is how it's going to be.' We said in our team meeting that we're going to walk out there as if this is a brand new year."

But first they had to get back on the bus.

Tamasitis wanted the team to accomplish the feat in the fall — as a team — so they were prepared for the upcoming season. ("You can't forfeit any games in the spring, unfortunately," said Tamasitis, known for setting a hard-working attitude among players.) On multiple occasions, when a bus was on campus to take another Seton Hill team to an away game, the lacrosse players had dedicated time to get on the bus if they wanted. Just get on and sit.

Seven players showed up the first time. By the third outing, everyone came, but not all of them had the strength to step on the bus. Then came the Duquesne game Oct. 3.

"It was a scary feeling on our first trip," Hilbert said. "A few girls struggled more than others. Everyone was very aware of what was going on. For me, it was more about making sure my teammates were OK."

Simmers decided to chaperone her mother's elementary school class on a summer field trip. She boarded a school bus and took the seat right behind the driver — the same spot Quigley took the day of the accident — and said a prayer.

"I didn't want to feel the emotions that all the other girls were feeling on top of my own," Simmers said. "Emotions were very high on that ride. But after that game, when everyone came back on the bus to go to school, it seemed like nobody even realized we were on a bus. We play lacrosse. This is what we have to do."

***

Simmers was sleeping across a row of seats toward the middle of the bus before the accident in March. She woke up in the hospital, and knows only what she is told about the crash.

Seton Hill was about 2 hours, 30 minutes, into a nearly 4-hour chartered bus trip eastward across the state to Millersville, Pa., for an away game. The bus veered off a highway in southeast Pennsylvania, traveled some 70 yards down a grass embankment and hit a tree.

Simmers slammed into the back of the seats in front her. She lost consciousness and was carried out by emergency personnel.

Hilbert remembers standing up to see a partially uprooted tree piercing through the middle of the bus. The front left side of the bus was shorn off by the collision. Photos and videos of the crash were shown on CNN and other news networks that afternoon.

Quigley, 30, was flown to a local hospital and died from injuries sustained in the crash. She was six months pregnant. Twenty-one others on the bus, 19 players and two assistant coaches, were sent to the hospital. The driver, Anthony Guaetta, also died.

***

Tamasitis was close with Quigley. They played together for one season at Duquesne, where Quigley then started her coaching career as an assistant. They talked multiple times a week. When Tamasitis left Seton Hill for Marquette after the 2011 season, Quigley, then the coach at Erskine in Due West, S.C., called her and asked if she thought she had a shot at the job vacancy.

Courtney Tamasitis returned to her former position as Seton Hill head coach. She felt the players needed somebody they were familiar with.
© Brian Kunst

Two years later, Tamasitis was back in Greensburg for Quigley's memorial services. Privately, former colleagues floated to Tamasitis the idea of returning to coach. With emotions still raw — players wore their uniforms to an on-campus service — she wasn't thinking about the possibility.

Seton Hill officially canceled its season April 5. Some people wanted to play one more game to honor Quigley, much like the lacrosse community at-large did with a "Play 4 Seton Hill" campaign and online fundraiser that generated nearly $88,000 for Quigley's husband, Glenn, and their son, Gavin. But too many players physically were unable to play.

Then at the end of May, after more reflection and conversation with Seton Hill coaches and administrators like men's lacrosse coach Brian Novotny and field hockey coach Whitney Harness, Tamasitis decided to return.

"I felt like I needed to come back and be here for the girls," Tamasitis said. "I knew they needed somebody that they were familiar with, because this is going to be a trying year for us. I knew they would walk back out on that field with me. And then also for Kristie — let me continue what I had started and what she was also doing, making this program a better program and putting us on the map."

By the time Tamasitis moved back, players were already on summer break. In a way, it was a blessing. She had time to prepare for what was to come and also hit the recruiting trail, "to get Seton Hill's name back out there, that we're still going to be a program, that we're going to move forward from this," she said.

The cause of the accident remains unknown, even to those on the bus. Most were sleeping. Toxicology results showed Guaetta, the 61-year-old driver, didn't have any drugs or alcohol in his system. Nor did he have a medical emergency, but a state police investigation reconstructing the accident is still ongoing.

A couple of players who suffered concussions or broken bones remained sidelined in the fall. "Fingers crossed, everyone will be cleared to play," Tamasitis said.

The Griffins now talk of an underdog mentality heading into their first season in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC). "We're ready to go out there and prove to the lacrosse world that we can hang," Simmers said.

Seton Hill students, faculty and administration have rallied in support. After the accident, every athletic team at the school wore "KQ" patches. The men's lacrosse team made shirts with "In Loving Memory of Coach Quigley" printed on the back, and bought one for every member of the women's team. The women's volleyball team hung crimson and gold ribbons — the school's colors — on campus in remembrance.

"A lot us were worried that everyone was going to stare at us, like, 'She's on the lacrosse team,'" Hilbert said. "It was nice that they were here to support us, and not judge us or talk about us."

Nine days after the emotional trip to Duquesne, Seton Hill boarded a bus again for a play day at Mercyhurst, about a 2-hour and 30-minute drive north to Erie, Pa. Many players slept on the ride there.


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