Teammates lost under the stars
DICKINSON, N.D. -- The spot isn't meant to be found. It is somewhere at the end of 10 miles of haystacks, barbed-wire fences, and tan clouds of dust and gravel. At daylight, a local cop rattles off a list of rural roads and memorized directions that fill up half a handwritten page. He's been there at least three times, too many times, but not today because he's taking a few days off to go fishing and clear his head. At nightfall, it's pitch black and dead quiet, save for the sound of the dry tallgrass rustling in the wind.
When Kyrstin Gemar was younger and far less liberated, she shunned anything remotely country. A Southern California girl to the core, Gemar waffled about moving 1,600 miles away to play softball at Dickinson State, an NAIA school hidden in the rolling plains of western North Dakota. "Podunk, USA," is what her dad, Lenny, says was her first impression when she arrived on a recruiting trip. The nightlife consisted of two bowling alleys, several liquor stores and a Mexican restaurant named El Sombrero. Her first season, her only season, it snowed so hard that the team played only four home games, driving 80 miles west on I-94 to play the rest in Montana.
Softball, school and 25 teammates. That's all a girl needs, the Blue Hawks' coaches told prospective recruits, and it was clear, within weeks, that Kyrstin Gemar had found a sense of contentment. She would grab a couple of friends and steer her 1997 Jeep Cherokee into the night, away from town, and they'd sit on the roof, feet dangling over the windshield, laughing and counting stars.
Gemar never saw the stars in San Diego. There was never time to look or to get lost.
"It's peaceful," says catcher Erika Arvizo, a fellow Californian. "It's not that you're bored. It's just that the stars are so pretty out here.
"I do a lot of things out here that I would never do at home. But I feel invincible. I don't know how to explain it. I can go for a walk in the nighttime here, and nothing would ever happen to me. I would never do that at home."
Under a full moon, Gemar, Ashley Neufeld and Afton Williamson, three girls brought together from bigger, faraway towns to bond and play softball, took off in the Jeep the night of Nov. 1 to escape the dimming lights of Dickinson and gaze at the stars. They died at the bottom of a stock pond, 15 miles from their normal route, moments after desperately calling teammates for help.
Ten days -- and one massive rescue search with airplanes and horses -- later, there still are so many questions. Why did they take such a remote path, past two dead ends, up a narrow dirt road, through a wooden fence and onto a rancher's property? What were they thinking when the Jeep plunged into the water, windows closed, fate sealed? How long did they suffer?
"I try to find meaning in this kind of stuff," Lenny Gemar says, "and sometimes, it's just an accident. You can't tag it to some evildoer out raping and pillaging people. They didn't see it; they drove into it and didn't know it was coming.
"I don't know I feel guilty because it was my daughter driving. If my daughter hadn't chosen the direction they went, we'd all still be laughing and looking forward to the games next season. One [death] is tragic. Three is just horrendous."
The frantic phone calls
Most nights now, Nathalie Martinez wonders why it wasn't four. She was Neufeld's roommate, her best friend, and had gone on every stargazing trip before Nov. 1. Martinez was in her room at roughly 10:30 that night when the door slammed and the girls took off without her.
"At first, I was kind of like, 'Man, my feelings are hurt. I started these missions with you guys, and you didn't even take me on this one,'" Martinez says.
She texted Neufeld and said she was going out but would leave the door unlocked. At 11:17 p.m., Martinez's cell phone rang, and Neufeld's name popped up on the caller ID.
Nat, you need to get in your car right now. You need to help me.
Like most of the time, the softball team had spent nearly every hour together that weekend. The whole roster, all 26 of them, went to a Halloween party the night before at a trailer court with the baseball team. They helped each other get ready for the night. Kyrstin Gemar, who at 22 was one of the elder statesmen and was the team's power hitter, wasn't wearing a costume. But she followed her teammates down the street, and when one of the younger players ran too fast and Gemar couldn't keep up, she yelled, "I'm built for power, not endurance!"
They posed for a group picture at the party, never knowing it would be their last all together.
They were castoffs in some ways, high school stars who bounced to junior colleges and couldn't quite pass the Division I sniff test for a variety of reasons, from talent to economics. Former DSU softball coach Guy Fridley built his roster on those random reasons, recruiting mostly Californians and Canadians. They couldn't all go Division I, Fridley figured.
But he was choosy about his talent. His scouting reports didn't log just a player's ERA or her ability to put down a bunt. He always asked, "What kind of a person is she?" He knew chemistry would get the players through everything, the snowstorms, the hitting slumps, the boring nights at the bowling alley.
He did team bonding exercises to bring them closer, and when Fridley resigned earlier this year, his successor, Kristen Fleury, took the chemistry issue just as seriously. Before fall ball started, the players' first assignment was a Dickinson scavenger hunt. Squeezed into six cars, they had an hour and 45 minutes to find pieces of the town of about 16,000. Take a picture of the highest point in Dickinson? That was easy. The water tower. Find a yellow car? That one took a little more time.
So here they were, closer than ever, spending just about every free minute with their teammates. The afternoon of Nov. 1, Williamson pitched while Neufeld tossed the balls back for a catcher with a bum arm.
They spent that night playing intramural volleyball or watching their teammates play, then hung out at McDonald's. Williamson joked about her enormous feet and how she couldn't wear skinny jeans because it looked as if she had clown feet.
"We sat there and laughed and talked for over an hour," says catcher Jenna Kirksey, a Seattle native who is new on the team. "I remember sitting there and just thinking, 'This is a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to hanging out more with Ashley and Afton.'"
A few hours later, Kirksey got a call from Williamson. It was scratchy and filled with commotion and lasted about 30 seconds. Williamson was crying. She said there was something wrong with the car.
"I kept asking questions. 'Where are you? What's going on? What's wrong with the car?' I know she was trying to communicate with me, but we lost the call," Kirksey says.
It doesn't seem all that strange, to the teammates, that Williamson and Neufeld, desperately fighting for their lives in a submerged Jeep, would call them instead of the police. Their teammates were the ones they had learned to depend on, the ones they knew would always be there.
Only, Kirksey and Martinez had no idea where to find them. The call Martinez got was longer but nearly as fruitless. In between crackling cell phone service, Neufeld, possibly disoriented, kept asking for help, but the only thing Martinez could make out was "lake."
"She's screaming at the top of her lungs," Martinez says, "just crying. She's like, 'You need to come here right now. You need to hurry. Please, Nat, please.'"
Martinez went to her car, waiting for some hint of where to go, when the phone went dead. The last thing she heard was Neufeld screaming.
Kirksey called the police, and Martinez and Ryan Kanzaki, an outfielder on the baseball team, piled in a Ford Explorer and drove out of town, searching through cornfields and near lakes and on dirt roads, anywhere near water. They went to the places the girls had stargazed in the past. They finally stopped at 4:30 a.m. but kept texting and calling the three cell phone numbers. The phones had long ago bounced to voice mail, but Kirksey and Martinez kept speed-dialing. They called at least 300, maybe 400 times. They sent multiple texts to each player.
"Where are you?" Martinez texted to Neufeld. "You're scaring me."
They knew something was horribly wrong. Gemar and Neufeld always answered their phones.
On the afternoon of Nov. 3, after a massive search involving the highway patrol, the civil air patrol, the National Guard, the fire and rescue squad, and a handful of police departments, the Jeep was pulled from the stock pond, which is located roughly 13 miles northwest of Dickinson. Gemar, Neufeld and Williamson had drowned inside, along with Neufeld's dog, Easton, who was named after her softball glove.
Classes were canceled for two days. A memorial service in Dickinson was so packed that it was played on TV to other parts of the campus.
"I pretty much cry myself to sleep," Martinez says. "Because she was my roommate, my best friend. I look in the other room, and she's not the one in the other room. She was the first person I'd see in the morning and the last person I'd see at night."
Kristen Fleury looks diminutive behind the massive wheel of a Chevy truck. But this is ranch country and just about everybody tears around in a large piece of machinery, so Fleury climbs into the vehicle, country music playing softly on the radio, and heads for the softball field.
She's 24 years old. Two years ago, she was on these fields playing softball in a Blue Hawks uniform. So much has happened since then. In July, she was playing in a coed slow-pitch game across the park when a tornado hit Dickinson State's field. Four months later, she's making calls no coach should have to make, doling out strength she never knew she had. Fleury will acknowledge it -- before Nov. 1, she struggled making the transition from player to coach. That's what happens when you're that young.
"I feel like I had to grow up in 30 minutes," Fleury says. "From the time I got the phone call, within 30 minutes, I feel like I aged 10 years.
"I guess as any adult, you don't expect this. You don't know how to deal with it. I mean, how do you deal with it? You don't. Seeing those other 23, it's like, that's what breaks my heart the most. I have to wear a different hat. I had to grow up and I had to age and I had to be the one who has to be strong for them. They look to me. They react off my emotions. If I'm going to sit and cry, they're going to think it's OK for them to do it."
Fleury pulls up the sleeve of her coat and shows the tattoo she got a few days ago. It says "AKA," the initials of the three players. Fleury always had been anti-tattoo, but she had to do something. This way, she says, they'll always be there. Her assistants got the same tattoo.
If the Blue Hawks were close before, Fleury has made sure they're inseparable in the days since the accident. She has arranged group dinners every night -- at Applebee's and just about every other restaurant in town. On Sunday, the team piled into cars and trucks, and made the six-hour drive north to Brandon, Manitoba, in Canada, for Neufeld's funeral Monday.
Neufeld was the leader, Fleury says, the one the team looked to in the dugout between innings to hear what she had to say. Gemar was the nurturer who took care of the girls when they were sick. (Several players say Gemar would pick them up at all hours if they had been drinking and needed a ride.) Williamson was the brainy newbie, a pitcher from Riverside Community College who carried a 4.3 GPA.
On Fridays, Fleury would send group texts to the team, telling the players to be safe. Williamson always used to say, "You don't have to worry about me, Coach. I'm the good kid."
The Blue Hawks say Gemar, Neufeld and Williamson probably were the three most responsible people on the team. Toxicology results are pending, but Fleury is convinced they will not reveal that alcohol was involved in the accident.
"There's no doubt in my mind that they weren't [drinking]," Fleury says. "There's three kids you trusted and never had to worry about.
"I think the ones that might not be so responsible are going to take a step back and feel like stepping into a role. It's like a wake-up call. It's a bad lesson for everybody."
The pull of the stars
It's essentially the size of a swimming pool. It's possible 90 percent of the Blue Hawks' roster didn't know what a stock pond was before Nov. 1, didn't know the 12-foot hole in the earth was dug to provide water to grazing cattle.
Dickinson State University is in Dickinson, N.D., a city of about 16,000 people in the west-central part of the state. View
Whenever Fleury sees water now, she gets sick to her stomach. She wants to know why they ended up there, in a cow pasture, past a wooden gate on private property. Dickinson police Lt. Rodney Banyai says the patch of land is no different from thousands of other acres across western North Dakota. There's stubble field and cattle and open gates.
"[The ranch owner] does feel very badly about it," Banyai says. "Of course, there's nothing he could've done. There's nothing uncommon there, nothing that the public would normally access."
When the players went stargazing, they usually did it south of town, near the airport. They knew the roads somewhat. They'd park the Jeep and wrap blankets around themselves and stare at the sky for hours. One time, Gemar fell asleep watching the stars.
It's clear, judging from time frames, that their last journey ended before the stargazing could begin. Lenny Gemar suspects his daughter saw a house, realized they were on private property and tried to get out quickly, not seeing the water behind the grass.
Lenny was just settling in at work on the morning of Nov. 2 when he received word that Kyrstin was missing. He called his wife, who drives a school bus, and they immediately headed for Dickinson to help with the search. At first, he thought maybe the girls had been kidnapped, so he fielded the 2 a.m. phone calls to go on national TV to show pictures of his daughter.
By the afternoon, he knew it was something water related and quickly lost hope.
"That was the worst day of my life," he says. "Just horrible, the emotions you go through when you realize your only child is gone. We were looking forward to her playing her senior year in college. She was just a great kid with so many friends."
He never knew the depths of those friendships until he spent last week with the team in Dickinson. They cried during a group trip to the pond, then met for lunch in town. At first, the players were quiet when Lenny and his wife, Claire, walked in. Lenny told them that they had cried their hearts out that morning but now they wanted to hear fun stories about their daughter.
"It kind of lightened the whole mood," Lenny says, "and by the end of the lunch, people were tripping over themselves trying to tell us great stories. Kyrstin wouldn't have wanted them to keep moping around. If she saw everybody moping and crying and stuff, she'd reach over and kick them in the ass."
The Gemars also traveled to Canada on Monday to attend Neufeld's funeral. They knew how close Kyrstin and Ashley were.
The Neufelds have learned more about their daughter in the past 10 days, too. One little boy she used to baby-sit drew a picture of Ashley with a note that said, "I love you." A girl sent a card with a story about Ashley teaching her how to slide headfirst. Ashley kept making the girl do it over and over again until it was perfect. That's just the way Ashley was, says her mom, Bev, a former softball star herself.
Ashley had a list of recruiting visits she wanted to take years ago, and her first stop was in Dickinson. That afternoon, she told her mom that was where she was going. She canceled the rest of her trips. Are you sure? Bev asked. It's not very big
Ashley said she'd be comfortable there.
"It feels like a big family already," she told her mom.
'That's my star'
Williamson was Fleury's first recruit. In the days before the start of the fall semester, Williamson decided, at the spur of the moment, that she would leave her home in Lake Elsinore, Calif., and become a Blue Hawk.
The way Fleury tells the story, Williamson's parents were skeptical she would last even a semester in the frozen tundra. They figured she'd be back in weeks. Williamson's mom, Fleury says, came out last month to visit her daughter on her birthday.
"She said, 'I've never seen Afton so happy,'" Fleury says.
Williamson was a tough-as-nails pitcher who once got smacked in the face during warm-ups in high school. She broke her nose and had two black eyes but was back on the mound in a week. The team's end-of-the-year photo shows Williamson flashing a mug with two shiners.
She worked a part-time job while going to school and playing for Riverside Community College, and saved money by living with her sister and brother-in-law. She fit in seamlessly at Dickinson and wanted to be one of the best pitchers in NAIA on a team that finished third in nationals last season. Surely, with the addition of Williamson, plus the returns of Ashley Neufeld and Kyrstin Gemar, the Blue Hawks would be back among the softball elite. The day Williamson died, she had asked at least two teammates whether they would go out and throw with her.
"Remarkable woman," Riverside coach Michelle Daddona says. "Both on and off the field."
Williamson's junior college team had a memorial service for her last week, and the players gathered near the mound where she had stood. They cut the lights at the end, and the field was surrounded in darkness. They wanted to look at the stars, just as Williamson set out to do before she died. They forgot it was Southern California.
Daddona spotted a bright light in the sky and fixed her eyes on it. Her players laughed at her. It's an airplane, they said. But the light didn't move, and Daddona didn't budge. It's there, she said.
"That's my star."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer at ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.