In difficult times, athletes, coaches and parents are able to lean on each other for supportBy DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When a high school lacrosse player scores his 100th goal, it’s a joyous occasion and usually prompts a hug from mom after the game is over. On May 11, Egg Harbor Township senior Zach Wechsler netted his 100th tally in a 14-0 victory over Vineland, but he didn’t wait until the game was over to trot over to the bleachers and give his mother, Sandy, a hug. It wasn’t a quick embrace. It lingered, and it looked as if neither wanted to let the other go.
In early April, Zach’s 21-year-old brother, Tyler — a member of the U.S. Marine Corps stationed in Hawaii — had gone missing from his post. Less than two weeks later, Zach, his father, Paul, and Sandy got the news that Tyler was dead, his body found along a remote hiking trail. Zach spent a couple of days away from the team as the family had funeral arrangements to attend to, but was quickly back in action for the Eagles, needing the sport and the support of his teammates to lean on during a difficult time emotionally.
Former Ocean City standout lacrosse and soccer player Kristi Rohrer saw her beloved mother, Antoinette, pass away in April after battling breast cancer for several years. One of her former teammates, Mackenzie Pearce, lost her mother, Jamee, to the same disease when Mackenzie was just a freshman.
And earlier this spring, the Holy Spirit football family received a gut-punch when former head coach and current assistant Bill Walsh — one of the most well known coaches in all of South Jersey — was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
To say it has been a tough spring for Cape-Atlantic League athletes, coaches and sports fans would be an understatement. But the great thing about being an athlete, or having involvement in athletics, is that when tough times hit, you have a lot of people around you for support. Rohrer said she realizes now just how much she has meant to both the Ocean City High School and Widener University lacrosse programs.
“I have a lot of friends from all over. Obviously, my team (at Widener) and my friends from high school. It’s very helpful because they can help take my mind of it for a while and it’s good to stay busy with them, hanging out or playing sports. When my mom passed, my Widener team got a bus, came down and was there for me every step of the way at the funeral and services. Every single girl on my team and my coaches came to the viewing and the reception,” Rohrer said. “Ocean City and Widener, every single girl has been so supportive, texting me and calling me. It’s nice to feel supported and have them there. No one really knows what to do, but everyone is trying really hard and trying to give their best. I know they would do anything for me. I’m just surrounded by a lot of support, which is crucial at this time.”
A few years ago, when Jamee Pearce passed away, Rohrer was one of the veterans on the Ocean City lacrosse team who tried to help Mackenzie get through a difficult period. Now, it’s Kristi leaning on Mackenzie for support.
“She reached out to me because she obviously went through what I’m going through now. It’s comforting, because no one really understands until it’s happened to you. So it’s nice to be able to talk to her because she went through exactly what I’m going through. It’s nice having someone to talk to. As much as people try, no one knows what to say or do except people who have gone through it,” Rohrer said. “I had no idea what to say to Mackenzie when it happened to her, but now it’s different because she does know what to say. It’s nice to have each other and to have her because she knows what to say. When I talked to her before, I would try to put myself in her place, but I still had my mother so I really couldn’t. So it’s really nice to have someone like that.”
The Egg Harbor Township boys lacrosse players are in that same situation now with Wechsler, wanting to help in every way possible but not really knowing what to say. But teammates say Zach has made it easier for them by taking it upon himself to be strong emotionally despite the pain and heartache he is going through.
“He’s such a team player. He’s always out here for the team. It’s not an individual sport, and he’s out here every day just playing for the team,” fellow senior captain Zachary Rodriguez said after Wechsler scored his 100th goal. “Even when he got his 100th goal he was like, ‘I wouldn’t have gotten it without you guys.’ So he’s always giving us credit and never taking the reward for it.
“He’s been doing awesome. He’s actually been the anchor to the team. Whenever we get upset, he’s the one saying, ‘hey, keep your head up.’ We should be saying that to him, but he’s the one pulling us up,” Rodriguez added. “He’s been like that since his freshman year. He’s always been a team player and always has so much pride in the team. He loves lacrosse and loves the team, and just wants to play for the team. He turned it into something positive and something beautiful. He took all that grief and turned it into something beautiful and just plays his heart out.”
“I have no words for it, honestly. I have to thank my teammates, they really grinded with me. I missed a couple of games and I was struggling, but my teammates really helped me out. It feels great. It’s my biggest milestone,” Wechsler said after that win over Vineland. “It feels amazing, honestly. I feel like my brother always has my back and I can’t thank him enough for that. I have no words. I’m speechless right now. It’s been a heck of a ride. My teammates have been so supportive and my coaches, my pastor, they’ve all been by my side helping me through every game. There’s been a lot of moral support from everybody.”
Deirdre Cooke knows exactly what these young athletes are going through. Her family suffered a tragic loss when her daughter, 14-year-old Aisling, was killed in a car accident just days before beginning her high school soccer career at Mainland in September 2015.
“Aisling spent so much time with her teammates. They sweated, they cried, they had great times. Her teammates and their families all became extended family for us. When tragedy hits, family shows up — and they all showed up. The support we got extended even past Aisling’s teammates. Teams she played against showed up in uniform (to the funeral), other club teams, they were all there supporting. Some of the girls she played against traveled a distance to be there. A local kid in college, he didn’t know Aisling and we didn’t know him, but he got the basketball team, volleyball, baseball and girls soccer teams at his college — he sent us a basketball, a volleyball, a baseball jersey and a soccer jersey all signed by the team members. He had no connection to Aisling, but it was one of those moments where it’s team, even beyond your own team. It’s family,” Cooke said. “There are huge rivalries on the field, but if something happens, everyone comes together and supports each other. That’s definitely what we saw. Ocean City is our huge rival, and at the time, they made a presentation to our girls. So many of the teams were wearing the green arm bands, or they would use a marker to put green hearts on their wrists. They truly were there for all the girls, and us. The teams we didn’t even know, they let us know they were thinking about us. It’s incredible to know that it’s bigger than just you and that you have the support.”
Rohrer echoed those sentiments.
“If you play a sport, your team comes along with that,” she said. “My teammates would do anything for me, and some people don’t have that solid 20 kids who will have your back. Training and playing take my mind off things. That’s what is helping now, staying busy and working out. A team is a crucial part because it’s a solid group of girls who I can rely on no matter what.”
The support for Aisling has not waned in the years since her death. Dozens of athletes at Mainland continue to wear the green arm band that has A.C. and her number, 4, on it whenever they compete, and others draw green hearts with markers on the insides of their wrists. Aisling’s brother, Colin, is a member of the boys lacrosse team and most of the players on that squad wear the green bands around their calves.
“There was no way we could have gotten through it without all this support. Neither myself or (husband) Hugh are from the area. When you get back to everyday life, it’s her teammates and classmates who are there supporting us like family,” Deirdre Cooke said. “Even now, with Colin being at Mainland, it’s incredible the support he gets and Aisling’s friends are so good to him. They wear the green bands, and I don’t think the kids realize how much that means to us. Some have even requested Aisling’s No. 4 for their jersey number. It’s heart-warming.”
EHT lacrosse coach John Ohlsen said seeing Wechsler score his 100th goal brought a huge amount of joy to a team that for weeks was struggling emotionally.
“I spoke to a couple of players as the season went on, and one of our goals was to get him to that milestone. It’s very gratifying as a coach to see him reach that. He’s worked so hard the last four years, and for him to get it was really a good thing. To a season that was somewhat disheartening, it brought some happiness to the whole team’s hearts today. It was nice to see,” Ohlsen said. “Even though he was going for his 100th goal, he passed the ball more than ever. He wasn’t taking all the shots. He was working as a teammate for all the other players.”
When asked what Zach said to his mother during that embrace on the sideline after netting his 100th goal, the reply was short, but heart-felt.
“I went up to her and I said, ‘mom, I did it for you. I love you so much.’”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays