SARASOTA, Fla. -- Bluffton University played its season-opening baseball game Sunday on a suburban high school diamond, with the bleachers behind the backstop filled mostly with families and friends of the players.
But the enormity of the event wasn't lost.
On the same day last year, a horrific crash of the team's charter bus in Atlanta killed five Bluffton players and two others and forever changed everyone from the small Ohio college who survived it.
Bluffton was scheduled to play the same team, Eastern Mennonite University, on the same high school field later on the day of the crash. So Sunday's game was about moving forward while reflecting on the past.
"We haven't forgotten our teammates, but we've kind of taken the next step," said Bluffton junior Matt Perkins, who pitched eight strong innings in a 4-3 loss. "We're getting over it, and we're trying to work through it, and I think today we focused a lot on baseball, and I don't think a lot of us were thinking about the accident."
The driver of the team's bus apparently mistook an exit ramp for a regular highway lane, crashing it into a concrete barrier at a T-intersection at the top. Then it flipped off the overpass and fell 30 feet back onto Interstate 75. Besides the five players, the driver and his wife died. Twenty-eight others were injured.
The crash rocked the campus of 1,150 students tucked amid the farm fields of northwestern Ohio, an hour south of Toledo. But the baseball team was eager to get back to work. Starting a month late, the Beavers struggled to a 5-19 record.
"We played the whole season with very heavy hearts and wandering minds," said fifth-year head coach James Grandey, who broke every bone in his face and fractured a leg in the crash. "It was very hard to focus on what we were trying to do. In some sense, just being out there was a victory."
Tom and Gwynne Freytag of Wapakoneta, Ohio, have seen the changes in their son Brandon, a pitcher who walked away from last year's crash with bad cuts and bruises.
"He's much attuned to other people than what he ever was," the player's father said Sunday, watching the game from a lawn chair near the team's dugout. "He doesn't miss a day without saying, 'I love you.' Before it wasn't cool. He's much more attentive that way, and concerned about our feelings and our concerns. He's much more attentive, and I think he's got a little different outlook on life."
The team flew to Florida for the spring trip this year, arriving Saturday night. Twenty players who were on the bus a year ago were in the dugout at Sarasota Christian School on Sunday for the first game of the team's annual southern swing. With snow on the ground back in northern Ohio, the Beavers played in sunny, 80-degree weather.
"Today in general was a tough day, last night was tough, knowing what time we left last year was tough," said sophomore left-fielder Cody McPherson. "I just think that being here, and being here as a team just shows the integrity of the team and how much we like to fight."
Bluffton University president James Harder said the team needed "to return to the field in a normal way."
"And certainly coming back to Sarasota to this location that they wanted to be in last year and they didn't make it, I can't think of a better way to start the 2008 season," Harder said.
"Personally, it's ever present," Grandey said. "I think about it all the time. And I think playing on March 2 is the appropriate way to go about the first year anniversary."