PHOTO BY ERNST MAHLER

Stoneman Douglas girls' lacrosse team opened its 2018 season at West Boca after a 17-second moment of silence for the victims of the tragic shooting on Feb. 14.

Finding Solace in Lacrosse: Stoneman Douglas Teams Building Out of Tragedy


The scene around West Boca High School was reminiscent of a typical spring night in Boca Raton, Fla. — the sun setting over the Everglades, creating a show of colors as day turned to night.

But something about the atmosphere on the field was different that night.

There, lined up in a circle around the center of the field, was the West Boca girls lacrosse team and its opponents, Marjory Stoneman Douglas. The teams held hands and stood for a moment of silence, as did the supporters doning maroon shirts that read “#MSDStrong.”

Everything stood still for 17 seconds — an ode to the number of Stoneman Douglas students, teachers, coaches and administrators killed in a tragic shooting on Feb. 14. The past two weeks had been filled with grief, but coach Kelly Fenton and her team were ready to get back on the field for their first game of the 2018 season.

Five games had been postponed, but Stoneman Douglas made its debut on March 1.

“In the beginning, I was anxious, in a good way,” Fenton said. “Excited to get our players out on the field competing, and nervous since it felt like it's been a lifetime since we've been out there. While there is a constant reminder of what we've been through from the other teams, there is nothing more therapeutic for us all than to be playing lacrosse.”

Whatever pressure and anxiety the Eagles felt entering the game at West Boca quickly vanished, as they jumped out to an early lead and cruised to a 17-3 victory.

While the tragedy was still fresh in the Parkland, Fla. community, the Stoneman Douglas girls' team finally felt at home, if only for two hours.

“After the game, it was like a huge weight had been lifted off our shoulders,” Fenton said. “In the beginning of the game, the first few minutes, it felt kind of foreign to be coaching, after everything that had happened. Once we got started, as the players got in their groove, so did I, and it all came naturally again.”

“There’s been a lot of adrenaline and energy building up because we had been postponed and missed like five games,” senior Sabrina Fernandez said. “It was emotional, but really fun. It was really nice to be as a team, together, on the field.”


While there is a constant reminder of what we've been through from the other teams, there is nothing more therapeutic for us all than to be playing lacrosse. - Stoneman Douglas coach Kelly Fenton


Together again. The Stoneman Douglas’ girls' lacrosse team let out a collective breath on the field at West Boca. Players from all over South Florida made the trip to support their friends from Parkland. 

After the game, players found their families, gave hugs and flashed smiles. Then, they headed to the bus for the 25-minute trip back home, where memorials, flowers and balloons lined the entrances.

But that night, the girls on the team felt as close to normal as they had in weeks.

“Getting back to normal is a big thing,” senior Emily Mox said. “Getting into the flow of things, back to how they used to be.”

Stoneman Douglas took another step in that direction on March 6, when they traveled to Pine Crest. Fenton showed the team a slideshow of all the support across the Florida lacrosse community. She wanted to remind the team that they were still healing, but they had a plenty of people behind them.

“I have never seen all our players and coaches, as a team, be more of a family than we are now,” Fenton said.

“Now we play for the 17.”

Ryan Burton’s boys' lacrosse team doesn’t practice at Stoneman Douglas. Instead, players make the short trip up Pine Island Dr. to Pine Trails Park.

That’s where you can find the varsity and junior varsity teams every weekday. The two teams have converged in order to create an environment conducive to mentorship between the upperclassmen and underclassmen.

Stepping onto the practice field is a type of release for the Eagles’ boys' lacrosse team – a way to forget for a short time what they’ve been going through.

“In the heat of it, the guys’ minds were definitely not on [the shooting],” Burton said. "I don’t think in those two-and-a-half hours, they had time to think of anything, which was good, because, for two hours, their minds were off of it.”

Just about two football fields away from the lacrosse practice field sits a memorial to those that were lost on Feb. 14. Seventeen angels line the amphitheater at Pine Trails Park, with a number of separate tents scattered across the field that bordered it — each with an assortment of candles, crosses and signs. 

It’s where a candlelight vigil was held in the days after the tragedy. The same place where a memorial run was arranged in honor of former cross country coach Scott Beigel.

But the Stoneman Douglas boys’ lacrosse team marches on in the heat on March 1, preparing for its first game of the 2018 season. The routine isn’t any different, but players now have the 17 victims on their backs, and they’re playing for a greater purpose.

“We’ll have the same goal,” senior captain Adam Brodsky said. “The same everyday practice. The same mentality going into games. It’s just a bit different playing for our school, to now playing for the victims and playing for a change. That’s what we really want. We’re getting our voices out. Mr. Trump even heard us. Even at the town hall meeting with Marco Rubio — they’re hearing us. We’re the biggest voice that anyone has heard from a high school. That’s what I love. We need change immediately.”

Some players are still dealing with the pain of what they witnessed on Valentine’s Day. The images are still fresh in their minds. Some are making their voices heard on the national stage. Some are sitting in classrooms next to their peers that appear on national television daily. 

Whatever way these players choose to express themselves, their teammates will be there to help. 

There are brief moments of happiness, like when an assistant coach tossed Brodsky a Central Florida hat to congratulate him on choosing UCF as his future home. Brodsky threw the hat on his head and his teammates helped him have a mock Selection Day press conference.

“I’d like to thank UCF,” he announced to his teammates clapping. “Thank you.”

It’s moments like these that allow the Stoneman Douglas team to have normalcy. The pain isn’t over, but Brodsky and his teammates have each other. And they’ll step foot on the field in honor of those they lost.

“Now we play for the 17,” said senior Andrew Bonchick, pointing at the number inscribed by Sharpie on the lower part of his helmet.

Stoneman Douglas played its first game at home on Friday in front of a large crowd. Players released 17 balloons into the air during the national anthem. The Eagles won 11-4 over Cardinal Gibbons in an emotional game back.

Plastered on the players' helmets were decals with the names and photos of the 17 victims, a reminder what this community has lost but what it will continue to honor.

“It feels really good,” Burton told the Sun Sentinel. “The kids got the emotion off their chest. For at least two and a half hours, they didn’t have to think of anything else and they could actually control something. The past month, they really haven’t had the opportunity to control anything.”








Living A Nightmare

For the players and coaches of Stoneman Douglas’ boys and girls' lacrosse teams on Feb. 14, the minutes felt like hours and hours felt like days. It was supposed to be a normal day at school — Valentine’s Day — but it turned into one they’ll never forget.

Students at Stoneman Douglas had a fire drill earlier that day, so when the alarm rang again, there was no panic. Junior Josh Gallagher headed into the hallway and toward the stairwell in Building 700, adjacent to the freshman building. That’s when he heard gunshots ringing out near the stairwell.

He rushed back toward his classroom, but he said the door was locked. He and a number of his classmates were stuck in the hallway and could hear the horror so close to them. He eventually found shelter in another classroom.

“It’s not something you ever want to go through,” Gallagher said. “It’s not something you ever want to experience.”

Gallagher’s teammate, Jack Haimowitz, had to walk over a coach’s body to exit the building.

Brodsky and Bonchick, who were in separate parts of the building, evacuated and headed toward the nearby middle school. They began texting teammates to make sure each was safe.

“‘Yeah, my classroom just got shot at,” teammates texted Brodsky. “‘My window is shattered.’”

No one knew the extent of the damage. All they could do was run amid the sound of gunshots.

“We didn’t know if there were multiple people or if there was one in the freshman building and one somewhere else,” Brodsky said. “Who knew? The sound just carried.”

Emily Mox, whose brother was in the freshman building and texted her that it was not a drill, jumped onto the team group chat, answering teammates like Lauren Figas, who messaged, "What is happening?"

The sound of sirens and helicopters filled the air shortly after — an indication of the seriousness of what everyone had just experienced. Once news of the shooting that left 17 dead began to spread, Fenton and Burton worried for their players.

Fenton, who works with children with special needs, was not at Stoneman Douglas. She got a call from one of her seniors, letting her know what was happening at school. She turned on the television and watched the news of the shooting trickle in.

"The first thing I thought was that those were 19 of what feels like my daughters, my little lacrosse children,” Fenton said. “I was already emotional at that point because I wasn’t really sure what was going on and if my girls were OK.”

She wanted to drive to school to be with her players, but was encouraged to stay away, so she headed home with her assistant coach. She texted the team captains to account for each player. It took hours to make sure her team was safe.

Still three hours after the shooting, Burton had six players unaccounted for. He reached out to all 40 or so players in his program, but some had to leave their phones in the building. 

“The biggest thing was that you wanted an instant notification that they’re OK, and it took some six hours to find out about some those guys,” he said.

Fenton and Burton had made sure their teams were safe, but it was just the beginning of a week they’d never forget. Each met with their teams in the coming days, and called each parent personally to check in.

Some players wanted to talk. Some were not ready. All the coaches could do was be present. 

The next week was filled with viewings and funerals for friends and families. Brodsky lost two close friends in Joaquin Oliver and Meadow Pollack. Others lost friends of family and former coaches.

Some players attended up to three funerals in one day. Stoneman Douglas was supposed to be starting its seasons, but its players were living a nightmare.

“It was a sick itinerary really, looking back at it,” Burton said. “It was just an email for a whole week of services here and viewings here, and that went on for five or six days. You look back on it now and it’s like ‘Holy [crap]. This was one whole week.’”

“It’s rough having to go to your friends’ viewings and funerals and having to see their families,” senior Ryan Ditsch said. “You’re not replaying it, but you have to rethink it.”

It took over a week for the boys' and girls' lacrosse teams to get back to practice on a regular basis, but it was needed. After what they had been through, lacrosse was something to which to look forward.

Fenton and Burton watched as teams across the state paid tribute to their teams and the 17 victims. The support was “overwhelming,” but both coaches just wanted to get back on the field with their teams.

“Playing lacrosse helps,” Bonchick said. “You’re with all of your friends, your teammates. It helps cope with the pain a bit, just being able to play the sport you love."




PHOTO BY LARRY PALUMBO

Before Stoneman Douglas' first home game, the boys' team released 17 angel-shaped balloons in honor of the victims of the tragic shooting.


Community Comes Together

Seth Lehrman, the president of US Lacrosse’s South Florida Chapter, checked the news on Feb. 14. He saw that Stoneman Douglas student Meadow Pollack was still unaccounted for, and his heart sank.

Meadow’s father, Andrew, an assistant at St. Thomas Aquinas, played on the same Master's team as Lehrman — the Parkland Buzzards. He was devastated to hear than Pollack was one of the 17 killed in the shooting at Stoneman Douglas.

Lehrman’s staff was also hit hard by the shooting. Joe Chiarella, his vice president, found out that his daughter’s boyfriend, Nicholas Dworet, was one of the victims. Fenton, the girls' lacrosse coach, was the disability chair for the chapter.

The Florida lacrosse community certainly shared in the pain of the Stoneman Douglas community. The connections between those that were lost and the game of lacrosse were plenty. 

“As this was unfolding, the impact on the Florida lacrosse community was immediately evident and heartbreaking,” Lehrman said. “We have all these connections with folks, not only the next town over, but the next county over. This really highlights that.”

Within a day or two of the tragedy, Pine Crest coach Eileen Pliske had reached out to coaches from across South Florida, and they flooded Fenton’s email with ideas to honor the victims at Stoneman Douglas.

Ideas ranged from moments of silence, gathering at midfield, holding hands in a circle and red ribbons on cleats to helmet decals and memorial funds. Coaches went back and forth, often using their colleague's ideas.

"Our message is simple: We need to honor the victims, those who lost their lives, those who continue to fight for their lives, and those who witnessed such horrific acts that they have to learn to live with," Pliske said. "We play to honor our friends at Douglas High School with every step we take on the lacrosse field."

Pliske and her team brought gear to Pine Trails Park for Stoneman Douglas' first practice, because many of the girls had left their equipment at school on Feb. 14.

Lehrman pitched the idea for helmet decals to US Lacrosse Southeast Region Manager Lou Corsetti, who helped him get in touch with Ayser Deutsch at Lacrosse Specialties. Within 15 minutes, Deutsch had a design ready to be produced and offered 5,000 decals as a donation.

The following days, Deutsch drove all around South Florida distributing the decals, He entered a courtroom to hand some off to a judge whose son played for American Heritage-Plantation. He gave them out at his daughter's high school game.

Stoneman Douglas alums from all over the country reached out to see how they could help. The Florida Launch offered free tickets to Stoneman Douglas students for the 2018 season. Hofstra men’s lacrosse, where Andrew Pollack’s former player, Kevin Crowley, is a member of the team, wore special Stoneman Douglas shirts and donated to a special memorial fund.

There was no shortage of ways that the Florida lacrosse community was touched by the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas, but that same community rallied behind the school and its victims.

“When it comes to the lacrosse community down here, I've just been in awe,” Fenton said. “People making warm-up shirts with the word 'MSD Strong' on it or wearing arm bands and ribbons on their shoes. It’s amazing. It’s overwhelming. It’s a beautiful thing.”