- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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This isn't a story about finding a happy ending. For the Loyola Marymount women's soccer team, making the NCAA Tournament has more to do with finding a happy beginning.
Even in the non-revenue world of women's college soccer, pursuit of the postseason often becomes an all-or-nothing dash to the finish line. There's nothing wrong with that; it's part of what distinguishes sport from simple exercise. But after what Loyola Marymount's players and coaches have been through in the last 15 months, postseason aspirations are less about the culmination of one season than about proof of the same beauty of the human spirit that those who knew her saw in Jessica Hanson.
On Aug. 5, 2005, just days before she would have returned to Loyola Marymount's campus for preseason practice with the women's soccer team and days before her 21st birthday, Jessica was killed in a car accident near the Nevada-California border. She and her boyfriend Adam, a cross-country runner at Loyola Marymount, were among four fatalities, along with Jessica's father and her sister's boyfriend, when the van they were riding in on the way to a family vacation at Lake Havasu blew a tire on Interstate 40 and crashed.
As the world grows steadily smaller, it becomes easier, even necessary in some respects, to insulate ourselves from the sights and sounds which confront us. Modern technology and the scope of modern media make us privy to any number of tragedies every day. And it's easy to lose sight of the fact that each event, each three-paragraph wire story or 15-second video clip changes the world for a group of people every bit as dramatically as cataclysmic events such as Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 alter our collective landscape.
At approximately 10:45 a.m. on that morning in August, the world changed in almost unimaginable ways for everyone who knew the passengers in that van, including the coaches and players who shared a soccer team with Jessica.
"The most beloved person on the team, the most beloved person in the school," Loyola Marymount coach Gregg Murphy said over the phone, his steady and confident voice even now breaking in talking about her. "The best teammate that you could ever want; the best player, in terms of character, attitude, personality and trustworthiness, that you could ever want as a coach; the best sister that anybody could ever want; the best daughter; the best girlfriend. Inside, just a beautiful, beautiful person."
A psychology major from nearby Pasadena, Calif., Hanson played a key role all three seasons she was on the field for Murphy, even though the coach recalled that instead of selling his program to her during the recruiting process, he had to sell her on the fact that she was good enough to play in one of the country's top conferences. Murphy was so convinced of Hanson's ability that he told her she had the potential to play at an international level.
Sure enough, two months before she died, Hanson traveled to Mexico to represent the United States for the USASA National Select Team.
But a complete picture of Hanson is one in which soccer appears very much in the background.
"She was a person who would go out of her way to make other people feel comfortable," teammate Tana Smothermon, one of this season's captains, recalled. "She was funny, but in her own cheesy way. Her jokes were terrible, but she was hilarious. I was actually talking to one of my friends after it all happened, and I was talking to her and describing Jess, and if you had to pick one person on our team that really would be an angel, it would be her."
Whitney Temple, co-captain of this year's team with Smothermon, ended up at Loyola Marymount in no small part because of the sense of family Hanson helped create.
"My memory of her goes back to my recruiting trip when I was in high school," Temple recalled. "I stayed with her and another teammate when I came out, and it was Halloween, so I went out with them on Halloween. And she was just so warm and inviting. I remember [her] just looking at me once, she was asking if I was going to come here, and I was like, 'Yeah.' And it was just a really sweet welcoming to the LMU program."
News of the death of two students, two friends, sent shockwaves through the school. The soccer team, among the most traumatized, was left with no choice but to confront the start of a season even as they grieved.
Services for Jessica and Adam were spread out over almost a month's time, in part because Jessica's mother and sister, who survived the crash, sustained serious injuries and had to remain in a Las Vegas hospital for more than two weeks. The extended period of mourning made it that much more difficult, Murphy recalled, for the players to begin to get closure.
Grieving themselves, the coaches had to put aside their own emotions.
"The difficult part was one day you would feel good, and then something would happen within that day and it would just hit you again," Murphy said. "From a coaching standpoint, that was difficult for us, because we had to deal with it ourselves, but then, as coaches, we've got to be more concerned with our players. And that's what we were doing; our focus was our team, our girls, getting through this tragedy. And as hard as this is to say as a coach, soccer was the furthest thing from our minds."
Even the soccer field, which might have provided momentary escape as athletic reflexes honed over years of practice replaced conscious thought, turned against the Lions.
Instead of falling apart on the field, the team played well during the opening two weeks. But in a cruel twist of fate, the Lions saw each of their first six games go to overtime, a conference record. The result was just three ties and three losses for a team desperate for anything resembling good news, or at the very least, a distraction from bad news.
"We experienced more than ever the cruelty of our sport last year," Murphy said. "We didn't get rewarded for playing good soccer in our first six games; we came out of those six games with the tie or with the loss, and that was just emotionally and psychologically draining."
For most of the players, the joy of playing soccer had long since vanished by the time a season which held so much promise on Aug. 4 drew to a close with a 6-10-4 record three months later.
"When you have something like that happen, and you're also losing -- losing itself is hard enough -- it's hard to keep a good attitude, it's hard to keep having fun when you're just not winning games," Temple said. "So on top of everything else, it was just one of those seasons that you hope to get through without it being too painful. It was just go through the motions, get it done, see if you can get anything out of it."
In addition to replacing the on-field void left by the graduation of seniors Lori Sims and Kelly Lewandowski, who left the school among the top three career-goal scorers, Murphy had to figure out a way to address the emotional void left by the death of Hanson, who would have been the fifth senior to walk with her parents on Senior Day.
"Our recruiting -- normally we bring in four or five kids every year -- our recruiting was to bring in as many freshmen as possible," Murphy said of adding 11 new players for this season. "Just to add new life, new vision, new blood, new energy, new fresh faces, as many of them as we possibly could, just to reenergize and refresh the team in the fall."
But before the newcomers arrived, the returning players began their own healing process in spring practice. As Temple recalled, the end of the fall season gave players their first opportunity to slow down, take a step back from the game and go home for the holidays. When they returned in the spring, they rediscovered something that had been missing for a long time.
"We really just kind of said let's really enjoy ourselves out here on the field again," Murphy said. "Let's have fun and remember how great this game is again in the spring. And that's what we did, and we won some games. And I think everyone remembered how fun the game is and how fun it is to win. That was a huge priority for us in the springtime, just to enjoy ourselves again and enjoy our time together again."
For Smothermon, the spring offered the first signs of a unity forged by the adversity of the previous fall.
"My class, I think this year is the closest we've ever been, surprisingly enough," Smothermon said. "In previous years, especially freshmen year, we weren't necessarily the best of friends, but this year we're all really, really close and we work together. I think not only Whitney and I, but we're getting senior leadership across the board, from all the seniors."
Fittingly, this season began with reminders both of what had come before and what had changed. Opening the schedule against San Jose State, the Lions found themselves headed to overtime and then to double overtime, eventually earning a 1-1 tie. For the returning players, it was a feeling that was all too familiar, a reminder of a dark time they thought was behind them. But something was different.
"At first, it was kind of frustrating because we ended up in overtime again, tied, which was kind of a flashback of last year," Smothermon said. "But our team is so different this year, and we have so many young faces, that they didn't really experience that last year. It was a totally different vibe about how they reacted and how the rest of the team reacted to the tie. As upperclassmen, we were a little like, 'Oh man, not again.' But because we had such young players that reacted better than we did, our whole team spirit was so much better."
The Lions scored two goals in the opening 60 minutes of their second game and cruised to a 2-1 win against Oregon. That launched a streak of seven wins, four ties and one loss in the team's first 12 games, including a win against a nationally-ranked Oklahoma State team. Loyola Marymount landed in the top 25 entering conference play but still surprised some by not only tying national power and conference rival Santa Clara on Oct. 13, but by most accounts, decisively outplaying the Broncos.
While the team's strongpoint might appear to be defense -- having allowed just 10 goals in 13 games -- Murphy is more focused on the offense. Junior Jamie Bell has stepped up as a budding goal scorer, leading the team with five goals, and eight other players have scored, including two goals from Smothermon and one from Temple, as part of a balanced attack. More than anything, Murphy is looking to keep the game fun for players who know how much that means.
"We wanted to become the best passing team possible, to have fun passing the ball, to play beautiful soccer, to play attractive soccer and to try and win as many games with an attractive, fun, possession-oriented fashion," Murphy said.
What comes next on the field is anyone's guess. A 2-1 loss against San Diego on Oct. 15 left the Lions 0-1-2 in conference play and 7-2-5 overall. The West Coast Conference routinely sends four or even five teams to the NCAA Tournament, but work remains if Loyola Marymount is to advance to the postseason for the first time since 2002. There are no easy games in the league anymore, but two road games against San Francisco and Saint Mary's represent good opportunities for wins before a season-ending swing against Gonzaga and Portland.
There is no doubt that the players and coaches desperately want to reach the NCAA Tournament. Temple talked of achieving a goal she had dreamed about since attending postseason games at Santa Clara as a young girl. Going through last season did not permanently dampen their competitive fire and wanting to win again is part of healing.
But talk to Murphy and it's clear a new perspective goes hand in hand with the old fire.
"There's a way bigger picture," Murphy said. "Not to take for granted the beauty of our game and the beauty of teaching people great life lessons. That's what I've done last spring, this summer and this fall, is just to really get back to helping these guys enjoy their experience as much as possible and hoping that through that, it's going to help them get results which are required in Division I athletics. For sure, I'm a better person today for what happened. I'm back to really, really trying to help these guys enjoy their college experience to the best of my ability, and through that, letting results and rewards take care of themselves."
That is Jessica's legacy.
She remains very much in the minds of her friends and teammates. Temple said the returning players haven't brought her up all that often in team settings, preferring to remember her in their own private ways, but she related a story suggesting Hanson will forever be a part of the soccer family at Loyola Marymount.
"I remember we were in Michigan and some of the freshmen were wearing their screw-in cleats for the first time, and Kim Feeney actually got Jess' pair and they said No. 4 on the bottom," Temple said. "And a lot of people decided not to wear their screw-ins because it wasn't muddy enough, but she wanted to wear them for Jess, even though she didn't know who Jessica was."
For those players who did know Jessica, this season isn't about putting her memory behind them. It's about moving forward as best they can in a changed world, a world where a friend's warmth and smiles are missing in body, but not in spirit.
"It's not something you just kind of got over, or will ever get over," Temple said. "Besides the soccer aspect, just losing a friend or someone that's close you, is something that doesn't go away. You know, you don't forget about them and you go to their graves, and you think about them all the time, and it doesn't just go away. With time, you get to move on and keep playing, and life goes on with time. But it doesn't just go away ever."
It seems there is no better way to celebrate the memory of Jessica Hanson than by celebrating the love of life, people and experiences, she embraced. And for her teammates, that is best done by continuing to play for as long as possible.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.