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Local team unites after tragic loss of teammate

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Randy Metcalf/The Explorer

The Marana girls’ basketball team has worked to come together on multiple levels this season after suffering the unexpected loss of a teammate earlier this year.

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Many high school basketball teams face their worst moment when an opponent hits the game-winning shot at the buzzer. The loss feels devastating. The locker room after the game is silent. Confidence is shattered. In the moment, nothing feels worse. It’s a wound only time can heal.

For the Marana High School girls’ basketball team, the pain felt throughout the season has come from something far bigger than a lost game, and it’s a wound that may never heal. 

On Sept. 7, 2011, the entire team was devastated when the close-knit group of players was told about the sudden death of their friend and teammate, 17 year-old Veronica Meade.

“I broke down,” said Shalise Borden. “It was the worst feeling imaginable. Incomprehensible. A piece of me was gone. There was nothing good about that day.”

Shalise said the news affected the entire school.

“There wasn’t one person not absolutely destroyed by what happened that day,” she said.

Not only was a teammate lost, but to Veronica’s family, a loving daughter and sister was lost.”

“I still can’t believe it,” said Kathy Eagle, Veronica’s mom. “She was my beautiful little girl. She had so much passion and love. Maybe too much love. I feel so blessed to have been her mother, and I am a better person for having known her. All we can do now is attempt to recreate ourselves in honor of her.”

Eagle has since joined a support group with other parents who have lost children. Those parents may be some of the only ones who can truly relate to such a huge loss.

As much as Eagle remembers Veronica for her loving nature, she said Veronica was equally loved in the Marana community.

“We would go to the store to try to shop, but every aisle we went down, there was Veronica and someone she knew, hugging,” she said. “She had so many friends. She taught people love and acceptance. Race, color and creed didn’t matter to her. She was a light-hearted, funny, silly girl.”

Veronica’s sister, Ashley Meade, still manages Veronica’s Facebook page, where people continue to pour out much needed love and support.

“Sister, my heart is heavy. I miss you so much. Please be with me. Help me to stay strong,” reads a post from Ashley.

The members of the Marana basketball team also post frequently on Veronica’s page.

“I’ll tell her to put in a good word for us, so that we do well in the game,” said Jamee Swan, who played with Veronica for three years. “I also post on her wall on the seventh of each month, which is the day she passed, and tell her what’s going on, or about the new CD that’s out that she needs to hear, or about one of our basketball games.”

Swan was one of the first to find out about her teammate’s passing. As with the other players who spoke about Veronica, Swan did so with tears in her eyes.

“I found out 30 minutes after they found her,” she said. “I went over there, and I remember being there and seeing her mom cry. I’ve never seen anybody cry so hard. It was the worst thing I’ve ever been through. I saw Veronica leave her house for the last time. That will never leave my mind.”

The days following were no easier for the Marana team, which began its next practice without one of their beloved teammates.

“It was so hard to walk onto the court that first day. I had a meltdown, because Veronica wasn’t there,” said teammate Mally McGarity.

Veronica’s family, Marana Coach Diane Swan, and several of the Marana players attended Veronica’s emotional memorial service in the White Mountains a few days after her passing. Veronica was later buried in North Dakota, where she was originally from.

“She loved Arizona and all of her friends here, but we wanted to take her back home,” said Eagle.

Now, almost five months after her passing, the family, and the team is still coping with the loss. Eagle said the basketball team has never ceased its support, and continues to help her through the difficult times.

“I love all those girls,” said Eagle. “I love them for who they are and what they will become.”

The Lady Tigers said Veronica will forever live on through the abundance of memories they shared with her, like the time she drank too much soda before a long bus ride, or the time she pretended a dead raccoon was the team mascot. And, of course, there’s the time she jokingly drove off in a coach’s car with some teammates packed in the back seat, and the coach giving chase.

“She was a fun person who really cared for everyone. She could always make people smile,” said McGarity.

Even with her passing, Veronica continues to make her teammates smile. Whenever a Nicki Minaj song plays, the team is remembering Veronica’s favorite artist. They’re visualizing Veronica dancing. They’re hearing her sing along. They’re remembering her witty jokes and unique sense of humor. If they’re knocked down in a game, they’re remembering how quickly Veronica would get back up.

“She was the spark plug. She got us all going,” said Swan.

The words of Veronica, even ones that weren’t meant to be life-changing, have since become exactly that to some of her teammates. Courtney Hade recalls a scrimmage against Veronica, who playfully taunted her throughout the game. “D me up, Court, D me up, Court,” Veronica said. Those words were some of the last Hade heard her friend say, but they have since lived on in her mind.

“I still hear those words all the time when I play ball now,” said Hade. “It’s like she’s still there. It’s like she’s encouraging me.”

As good of a friend as she was, Veronica was also an excellent athlete. In addition to her dancing abilities, Veronica ran the mile in about six minutes, and she had an admirable intensity on the basketball court.

“She was really good at shooting, and beating the post. She was a great team player,” said teammate Alyssa Ruiz.

To the Lady Tigers, Veronica is still part of the team.

The team has taken the approach of playing “with” Veronica, and not “for” her, something they hope will alleviate pressure and allow them to focus on their season, while also paying tribute to their lost teammate.

“Before every game, we say we are playing with six, because we know she is always there with us. Every game, every jump ball, every pass, every shot,” said Swan. “And, I’m sure she is probably pointing at us and laughing if we air-ball it.”

Still, the team says it’s tough not to apply more pressure on themselves in her memory.

“In the back of our heads, I think we are all playing for her, also. I know when I mess up, it’s hard, because I can’t do anything for her besides basketball,” said McGarity.

Veronica’s light-hearted spirit was infectious to those who knew here. Fittingly, Veronica, who was of Sioux descent,  was given the native name, “Good Spirited Woman” by one of her uncles.

“When I think about Veronica, that’s exactly what she was,” said Marana coach Diane Swan. “She had this spirit that brought people together. She brought something special to any group she encountered.”

In the days and months following Veronica’s passing, the team has found more unity and friendships than they imagined possible. When they lose a game, each person is supporting the next. For this team, there is no blaming anyone for a loss, and no one person wins the game for them.

“I’ve been on other teams before, and I’ve never seen any team like this,” said Marana’s Gabby Johnson. “I’ve grown a lot closer to everyone. We all like each other. It’s a terrible experience, but friendships have blossomed from it.”

The team’s unity was further demonstrated as all 11 players gathered at Marana High School on Jan. 25 to speak about Veronica. Before the conversation began, the girls played a game called “pterodactyl”. They played charades, and even coach Swan, who the team referred to as “Mama Swan,” took part. They laughed together, and when the conversation began, they cried together.

“Our team is like a family, and these girls are like my sisters. I would do anything for them,” said Hade.

Coach Swan, who has watched the team grow inseparable since Veronica’s death, has nominated her team for an award called “Together We R”.

This year, Russell Athletic is partnering with the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association to honor one female basketball team from high school or college that overcomes unforeseen or extraordinary circumstances during the season. The decision for the award is based upon the team’s ability to demonstrate togetherness, courage, work ethic, and heart in spite of their obstacles.

“When I read about this award, I thought, that is my team,” said coach Swan. “I am nominating them for this because they deserve it. I’m nominating them for this to honor Veronica.”

In their personal lives, the players have also taken new perspectives on life. Johnson said she has returned to church since her teammates’ passing.

“Veronica was really religious,” she said. “After she passed, I wanted to go back so I could better understand it all. Veronica has made me realize that any day could be my last. You need to appreciate the people around you. Enjoy life. Have fun. I always try to have a smile on my face, just like she did.”

Following the news, Marana High School held a candlelight vigil on Sept. 9 in Veronica’s honor during a football game. Coach Swan said the amount of people who were present for the event was “absolutely incredible”.

During the basketball season, the Marana girls released green balloons into the atmosphere, each with a handwritten, personalized message to Veronica.

“I just think about how blessed we are to have life,” said Hade. “All the people who care for us, our teammates, our friends, and families. As a team, we have tried focusing on the good that has come out of this. The little things don’t matter anymore.”

The team plans to do another balloon release on Senior Night. On the same night, the team will wear lime green warm-up shirts with a picture of Veronica on them. The team is calling this a “green-out”, the color being Veronica’s favorite.

“For these girls, it’s more than basketball. They lost their teammate. They lost their friend,” said coach Swan. “When I watch how they treat each other, it is an example of how we as human beings, as adults, should treat each other. Instead of getting caught up in the petty problems of day-to-day life, this team has taken a problem and turned it into something else. We are going to love each other. We may get mad at each other, but we’re going to love each other the next day… the next hour… the next minute.”

The headline on Veronica’s Twitter page reads, “I’m a young lady, and that’s all I want to be.”

To those who knew her, they remember Veronica as far, far more than that.

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Randy Metcalf/The Explorer

The Marana girls’ basketball team has worked to come together on multiple levels this season after suffering the unexpected loss of a teammate earlier this year.

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