CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Senior night is an emotional event for any high school team.
It is a celebration of achievement mixed with remorse knowing teammates will soon be going their separate ways.
The 12 seniors on the 2021 James River girls soccer team know all too well how fast emotions can change.
The team had planned to make the regional playoffs, just like it did two years ago.
But before the very first game, the girls learned their 32-year-old coach Ian Stowe had passed away suddenly.
"Most of these girls have known Ian since they were young. He was either their coach directly or indirectly," James River Girls Soccer Coach Kieley Thomas said.
"Honestly, it didn't feel like he was my coach," James River soccer player Hannah Calliott said. "He was that great of a person and he was there for me whenever I needed it."
It can be difficult to get teenagers to agree on anything. But all 40 members of the JV and Varsity teams at James River thought of Stowe as far more than a coach. He was a mentor and a confidant.
"He would ask me what my goals in life were and I felt like I could tell him because he would be the most understanding and most supportive person about it," James River High School goalie Callie Slack said.
"I would text him every day, call him every other day to talk about anything. Even if it was a problem I was having, he would give the best advice back to me," Calliott added.
"He was a perfect girls coach," Coach Thomas said. "Girls don't do well with being screamed and yelled at. But he had a way, a tone about him that the girls knew when he was serious and meant business without raising his voice."
The day after they received the news, players on both teams spent the day together inside the school library. They shared stories and supported each other. There were as many laughs as tears.
"It brought us together as a team," James River soccer player Jenna Rieck said. "This tragedy showed us how strong we were and it really brought us together."
"It was a roller coaster. I told the girls that's what it's going to be like for a long time. We all grieve in different ways. There were moments of giggling together and then it would hit somebody and it's kind of a chain reaction," Thomas said.
That's also how the season has gone.
In front of their families, friends, and Stowe's widow who took his customary seat on the sidelines, the Rapids rode a crest of emotion to a 3-0 victory in their final regular season home game.
Stowe's presence was missing, but his voice lives on inside the imaginations of those to whom he meant so much.
"I feel like I hear him telling us enough crying already, let's play some soccer. He just wants us to go out and have fun," Thomas said.
The win was gratifying but does little to answer the questions these young ladies might have forever.
"I question it a lot because he was just an amazing person," Rieck said."It just makes me wonder why him?"
While the Rapids lost a great coach and friend, they gained a bond and closeness few teams might ever know. A bond which will stay with them far beyond this night on this field.
"As long as we're doing it together as a team and we're trying our hardest to win, that's all that really matters to me," Slack said.
"I've never been this close to so many girls," Rieck added. "I feel like we bonded over this in a way that not many teams can bond."
"This is life and these things kind of happen," Thomas said. "We can't always explain it, we don't know the reason but we just have to move on. They all know Ian wouldn't want them crawling in bed, sitting in a dark room, and grieving for him. He would want them to go out, live their life and have a good time."
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