Dickinson State coach takes on a burden no one could foresee

DSU softball team dealing with deaths of 3 players
2009-11-25T00:30:00Z Dickinson State coach takes on a burden no one could foreseeMARK EMMONS San Jose Mercury News The Billings Gazette
November 25, 2009 12:30 am  • 

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The best move Kristen Fleury ever made led to the Great Plains of North Dakota, where in August the San Jose, Calif., native became softball coach at Dickinson State University.

But then came the late-night phone call that changed everything.

“I feel like I’ve aged 20 years the last couple of weeks,” Fleury said. “I’ve been through it all now.”

On Nov. 1, three of her players went missing under mysterious circumstances, setting off a frantic search that drew national headlines and ended in heartbreak two days later. Their bodies were discovered in an SUV submerged in a pond — the victims of a terrible accident.

Throughout the days that have followed, grief-stricken players have turned to Fleury for guidance as they try to make sense of something that seems so unbelievable.

Not an easy position for someone who is just 24.

“These girls are basically my life and I’m trying to stay strong for them,” said Fleury. “I don’t know what else to do. What can anyone do?”

Those close to Fleury are not surprised she has been able to shoulder such a heavy a burden.

“I don’t know how anyone deals with the loss of three people who are basically family,” said Joe Gron, the coach at San Jose’s Leland High who has known Fleury for years. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, let alone a first-year coach. But while I still call Kristen a kid, she’s never acted like one.”

When Les Fleury talks about his daughter, he recalls a daredevil athlete who was the only 12-year-old girl playing Little League Baseball and always a bit more mature than other children.

“She just had this knack for handling things pretty well,” he said.

That has been put to the test this month.

Fleury was a four-year starting catcher at Pioneer High and was named second-team All-Mercury News her senior season in 2003. She was playing third base at West Valley when a friend called her from a recruiting trip at Dickinson State.

“I had never heard of the place,” Fleury said. “I asked her jokingly: ‘Do they need a third baseman?’ “

They did. That’s how Fleury ended up at the small NAIA school in Dickinson — a slow-paced city of 16,000 near the North Dakota Badlands.

“Unless you experience it yourself, it’s hard to explain how nice it is here,” Fleury said. “But so many of us from California love it because it’s just a completely different way of life. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

After two seasons as a standout player, Fleury stayed on as an assistant coach. Last season, even though the team played only four games on its home field because of record snowfall, the Blue Hawks went 42-5 and finished third in the nation.

The coach moved on after the season and Fleury was promoted.

At their first meeting this year, Fleury put the team in a circle. She asked the players — more than half of them are Californians — to look at one another.

“I told them, ‘This is going to be your family. Most of us are from somewhere else and everyone’s family is a couple states away. So these are your sisters and the people you can depend on,’ “ Fleury remembered.

Word spread quickly that something was wrong that night.

Three players were missing: Afton Williamson, 20, of Lake Elsinore; Calif.; Kyrstin Gemar, 22, of Grossmont, Calif.; and Ashley Neufeld, 21, of Manitoba. Gemar, the team’s powerful cleanup hitter, and Neufeld, an outfielder, were talented and well-liked returning players known for their smiles. Williamson, a pitcher, was Fleury’s first official recruit and new to campus.

Two other teammates had received garbled cell phone calls from them that mentioned something about water and that they needed help before the lines went dead.

“I just had a really, really bad gut feeling,” Fleury said. “In North Dakota, after you get outside the city limits, it’s pretty much open land and nothing.”

On Nov. 3, the women, along with Neufeld’s dog, were found in Gemar’s 1997 Jeep Cherokee sunken 10 feet down in a small pond off a gravel road outside of Dickinson. They apparently drove into the water during a stargazing trip. Autopsy results, released Thursday, found no drugs or alcohol in their systems.

“The first couple of days all you could do was sit there waiting, hoping, wondering, wishing,” Fleury said. “Then after you get the news ...”

Her voice trailed off.

There were memorials, including one at the pond where flowers and three softballs were tossed into the pond. Then came the funerals.

Fleury made sure the team stayed together, hosting dinners at her house and going to restaurants as a group. Her mother, Lisa, flew in for the first week to help.

“She’s been on the phone a lot with her mom,” Les Fleury added. “She holds it together for me, but I know she’s having a hard time when she’s talking to my wife.”

Whatever she is bearing, Fleury said, it’s nothing compared to the suffering of three families.

This week the team returned to what passes for a normal routine. Fleury was back in her office, going through sympathy cards that she has received from around the county. Players went to class.

Only nothing is normal. Players have text-messaged Fleury from classrooms saying: Coach, it’s not fair. They’re supposed to be sitting here next to me.

“Something like this makes you take a step back and look at life differently,” Fleury said. “The things that you would stress over, like money or bickering about something petty, you wonder why you ever cared about that stuff. In the end, you have to be happy in the moment because you never know when life is going to take that turn.”

North Dakota was experiencing a rare mid-November warm spell with 65-degree weather last week. Fleury said the team was going to the field Tuesday night to play slowpitch and just be together.

“We’ll laugh and joke,” she said, “and shed some tears.”

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