One late-arriving field hockey player jumped out of a car that had barely stopped moving and ran to meet the rest of the group all gathered in the sparse shade alongside the brick-and-stone wall of Winthrop High School.

The field was bathed in sunlight, the air saturated in late-summer, sweat-inducing humidity.

The late teammate fumbled with her cleats, rushing to join the group — her family.

They laughed. She did, too.

At Winthrop, school population approximately 225, this sense of family is commonplace — has been for years.

When one of their own suffered an unconscionable loss this summer, the Winthrop community did what families do: It became even closer.

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“We’re like sisters, we’re such a family,” Winthrop forward Emily Molino said. “We were close anyway, but we’ve been able to use each other, to talk to each other. If one of us falls, we pick each other back up. We all need each other.”

Pick each other back up, like a family.

Tragedy

On the first Friday of August, when most high school athletes are starting to think about practicing for the fall season, Winthrop Athletic Director Joel Stoneton and his family rushed to the hospital.

Oldest daughter Kelsey, 17, a standout field hockey player and top-10 student, suffered a pulmonary embolism — a blood clot in her lungs. She struggled. She fought back. She survived for almost 24 hours before her body couldn’t take it anymore. She died early Saturday morning, Aug. 2.

That day, social media sites carried the news to all corners of the earth. News agencies picked up the story and people around the world read about the tragic news.

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At home, in Winthrop, a family mourned.

“We were together pretty early on after it happened,” Winthrop coach Jessica Merrill said. “We got together at a parent’s house. We did the wake together, we did the funeral together and we went in uniform, which I think definitely united them as a bunch.”

United, like a family.

Pulling together

Like many small communities beset by tragedy, Winthrop’s residents — and many from surrounding communities — banded together. Businesses donated proceeds to help the family with expenses. Dozens of private citizens stepped forward with contributions to a scholarship in Kelsey Stoneton’s name.

“The community has obviously been fantastic,” Joel Stoneton said. “It’s not something we just say because we have to. The people who have been involved have just stepped forward when they haven’t necessarily had to. The outpouring of financial support for Kelsey’s scholarship and those types of things have been fantastic.

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“Even further, though, the administration here and the schools have been … the schools feel like a family atmosphere,” he added. “That family atmosphere has really filtered down to the sports programs.”

“They’re really taking Kelsey’s positive energy and putting it all out on the field,” Merrill added. “That’s what we’ve been talking about since the first day. They really have this attitude of playing like Kelsey, having fun, smiling on the field. It’s keeping a lot of the pressure off them.”

Coming together as one has also helped the community — and Kelsey’s teammates — begin to heal.

Healing, like a family.

Moving forward

One of Joel Stoneton’s reasons for vacating the football head coaching position he’d held for a decade and becoming the school’s athletic administrator was to watch his daughters — Kelsey and Haley — compete.

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“I quit coaching football to become an athletic director so I could watch my kids play together,” Stoneton said. “That didn’t work out. It’s unfortunate, and it’s very sad for me.”

The players and coaching staff have encouraged Haley, a freshman, to join them.

“Our goal is that she’s going to be playing,” Merrill said. “She’s coming to the games right now, and the goal is that she’ll be playing if she wants to play. It’s going to take some time, but I want her to be as much a part of the team as possible.”

“My youngest daughter may not play,” Joel Stoneton said. “But the field hockey team has been so great about everything. They keep telling her, ‘We don’t want you here because Kelsey’s not here. We want you here because we want you to be a part of our family.’ To me, that has been such a wonderful thing for them to say. They’re not expecting her to fill any shoes, or, ‘Hey, there’s Kelsey’s sister.’ They’re saying, ‘Hey, we love you and want you to be with us.’ That is just so awesome.”

With Kelsey’s passing still at the forefront of the community’s thoughts as a new season begins, Merrill and assistant coach (and longtime head coach) Sharon Coulton are doing their best to ease the team’s transition into competition.

“We all know there’s this kind of cloud around us, people are very sensitive with us,” Merrill said. “The girls have been really good. Their resilience has been amazing, and I like to think Coach (Coulton) and I have made it a safe place to be regardless of how they’re feeling. We’ve had our ups and downs, but mostly ups. They’ve been pretty eager, and we have this motto, we’re going to ‘Play like Kelsey.'”

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“It motivates us more, to win for Kelsey, and to play like her,” senior captain Julie McConnell said. “She was one of our best players, so I think we all aspire to play like her. It’s really brought our team together. In a way, it’s made us stronger.”

Stronger, like a family.

Team honor

In a formal, final tip of the cap to the Stonetons — Joel, wife Kim and Haley — the field hockey team will retire Kelsey’s jersey Wednesday prior to its first game of the season.

“I think we’re all really excited for that, so we can show our support for Kim and Joel, and we’re really excited to give that to them,” Molino said. “It’s going to be really special, probably really emotional. I don’t want to see them upset, we don’t want to see them upset, but I think it will be really nice, like, ‘Here, this is what we can do for you.'”

While Kelsey’s death won’t ever be completely removed from the community’s collective rear view mirror, her father is encouraging her teammates, friends and classmates to push forward.

“I think it’s time to let people play field hockey for the 2014-15 season,” Stoneton said. “It’s not Kelsey’s season, it’s all the kids’ season, and they need to just go play. That’s what it’s all about.”

Together, like a family.


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