After tragic crash claims five athletes, Harwood (Vt.) teammates struggle to carry on

Harwood's Payton Randolph (12) hugs a teammate after the Highlanders' 2-1 win against U-32 on Thursday in Duxbury. (Photo: AUSTIN DANFORTH/FREE PRESS)

Harwood’s Payton Randolph (12) hugs a teammate after the Highlanders’ 2-1 win against U-32 on Thursday in Duxbury.

They started with nine.

For the hardest game they would ever play, bearing a sadness that staggered communities throughout Vermont, the Harwood Highlanders returned to the soccer field Thursday in a formation they’ll likely never use again.

Two Harwood substitutes waited patiently on the sideline as the whistle sounded for kickoff. Each of the 19 players — the opponents began with 10 themselves, a marker of their own lingering grief this season — touched the ball before co-captain Jonathan Zacharias drove a pass out of bounds near the home bench, allowing the Highlanders to assume something resembling full strength.

“We started the game with 11, it’s just two of them weren’t there,” Harwood boys soccer coach Don Haddox said.

“We wanted to, very visually and symbolically, represent that we’re now going to take a step forward doing the thing we love, that Cy and Eli love, without them,” Haddox said. “And even though they’re not there physically, that we’re going to move on with their spirit taking the place of those two spots.”

Cy is Cyrus Zschau, and Eli is Eli Brookens, two of the five Mad River Valley teenagers killed in a car crash the night of Oct. 8.

The 16-year-olds were on their way home from a concert in South Burlington with friends Mary Harris, Liam Hale and Janie Cozzi when a wrong-way driver barreled head-on into their blue Volkswagen Jetta on Interstate 89 in Williston. The suspect in their deaths has pleaded not guilty to murder charges.

Four of the five were Harwood juniors, prompting support to stream in from across Vermont — a collection of letters, notes, signs, pictures, posters, flowers and mementos near the school cafeteria that grew daily throughout last week. Several high schools organized black-and-gold days, wearing Harwood colors in shows of solidarity.

Thursday afternoon’s contest against league rival U-32 was the first Harwood game of any kind since the tragedy left the community with five deep, overlapping wounds.

“The last three days, four days has really been spent in a support, triage mode,” Haddox said the night before the game. “How much normalcy can we get back? How much resumption of day-to-day things can we do? At this point, the answer is almost none.”

The cold luck of the accident has only compounded the shock: The Jetta was far from the only carload of teens headed home from Higher Ground that night; Harwood wasn’t the only school whose students had attended the show.

“That’s the painful thing for all of us,” said Harwood junior Jasper Goodman, close friends with Brookens and Zschau. “All of us know that it could’ve been anyone. It just so happened to be these five wonderful individuals who did absolutely nothing to deserve what happened. … The epitome of what being in the wrong place at the wrong time is.”

Five lives gone

Harwood and U-32 soccer players lock arms at midfield for a moment of silence before their game on Thursday in Duxbury. (Photo: AUSTIN DANFORTH/FREE PRESS)

Harwood and U-32 soccer players lock arms at midfield for a moment of silence before their game on Thursday in Duxbury. (Photo: AUSTIN DANFORTH/FREE PRESS)

Who were the five victims? Their high school coaches remembered vibrant personalities, valued teammates, five young adults with their own passions and dreams.

At Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire, where Janie Cozzi, a 15-year-old from Fayston, was a sophomore, her girls soccer team took its first steps forward with a game Wednesday. Undefeated going into the match, the still-reeling Wildcats suffered a 1-0 defeat against Brewster.

“The girls left every ounce of love, everything they could do, on the field. At the end the score was completely inconsequential,” Kimball Union coach Dan Weintraub said. “The girls at the end of the game jogged across to applause from the fans, and we came together and held each other tight.”

The goal for now is to be present day to day, said Weintraub, who also taught Cozzi’s European history class.

“For me I’ll be going through the day, and it’s just a wave of incredible sorrow,” Weintraub said. “She had that sparkle in her eyes, she was so alive.”

Cozzi, a former member of Capital Soccer Club with Cyrus Zschau and Eli Brookens, was an occasional starter at Kimball. But she usually came off the bench to play right back for the Wildcats.

Her speed and athleticism defined her contributions on the field, but her warmth and infectious smile provided the essence of what she meant to the team. Many of them were among the 20 or so who traveled to Harwood for Monday night’s candlelight vigil.

“Even kids who have their moments are still great kids, but Janie was just, her life force was so strong,” Weintraub said. “She would walk into a room, and that room would light up. She would come down to soccer practice, and that field would light up.

“We are completely devastated. The kids are absolutely shattered. And we press on, and we’ll get through it, but she was so deeply loved by this group of girls.”

Liam Hale had competed for two years on the Harwood track team. He gravitated toward the sprints and hurdles as a freshman — throws and distance running weren’t his thing — and really “arrived” as an athlete last spring, coach Amber Broadaway said.

“Taller and more muscular, he displayed a sense of self-confidence I hadn’t seen the year prior,” she said of the Fayston 16-year-old.

As a sophomore, Hale had become a “go-to” athlete, Broadaway said, a team leader who would help run group drills and organize relay handoffs.

He emerged as the school’s top high-hurdler, qualifying for the Essex Invitational and the Division II state championship, and a starter on the 4×100-meter and 4×400 relay teams.

Always trying to learn new stretches and drills, asking Broadaway if he could bring hurdles home to practice, Hale set a personal record eight of the 10 times he competed in the 110-meter hurdles last spring.

“Every time Liam ran he got faster,” Broadaway said.

Mary Harris played varsity basketball and soccer for the Highlanders, but the Moretown 16-year-old never appeared limited to those sports.

“I definitely saw her as an athlete. She could do anything,” recalled former girls basketball coach Garret Folsom. “She had that ability to step in and play any sport well.”

A great rebounder with quickness to boot, Harris could play on the wing or in the post and carved out a reserve role as sophomore last winter.

If there was fun to be had in practice, Harris, the second of five children in her family, was usually right in the middle of it, Folsom said.

“She showed flashes of being an excellent player,” Folsom said. “She missed time once in a while, but one of the things I always admired about her, she had a large family and had to miss time once in a while for family events, and she was always helping out her younger brothers and sisters. She was getting her driver’s license so she could drive them around.”

Folsom also coached Eli Brookens and Cyrus Zschau when they were junior varsity baseball players. He recognized the pair were cut from a similar cloth to Harris.

“They never gave you trouble,” Folsom said. “They were all very respectful, worked hard, were kids that would come and say hi if they saw you in the hallway.”

In Brookens, Harwood soccer coach Don Haddox recalled a consummate soccer player, someone who made varsity as a freshman and only ever strived to get better.

Harwood soccer players hug their parents during the pre-game ceremony before Thursday's game against U-32 in Duxbury. (Photo: AUSTIN DANFORTH/FREE PRESS)

Harwood soccer players hug their parents during the pre-game ceremony before Thursday’s game against U-32 in Duxbury. (Photo: AUSTIN DANFORTH/FREE PRESS)

“He was really the prototypical attacking soccer player, these incisive cuts, super-fast feet, this flair and panache for one-on-one play — you knew he loved it,” Haddox said. “He loved soccer, and that’s what he wanted to do. He loved the game, and, man, he was an offensive dynamo.”The Waterbury resident was a huge Philadelphia sports fan, loved skiing and had been a promising baseball player before deciding to focus on soccer.

“He got along with everyone and was just a really sweet kid,” Jasper Goodman said of his good friend.

And Zschau, a key part of Harwood’s semifinal run in baseball last year, had been the Highlanders’ leading scorer in soccer despite not starting a game this fall.

Haddox characterized the Moretown teen as a “stereotypical Midwestern four-sport athlete transplanted in New England,” someone who thought he could accomplish anything on the field and had the work ethic to back it up.

“He just plain scored goals if the ball was anywhere near him. I’ve gotta believe his goals-per-minutes-played have to rank up there with the best ever,” Haddox said. “He’d come in for seven minutes and score a hat trick. How is this even possible?”

The striker also was impossible to predict.

“Every ball coming to him, I’d wonder how he was going to play it,” Haddox said. “He entertained me all the time, and it was a never-ending source of a chuckle between he and I.”

Back on the field

Laughter was scarce on Thursday, though, with Brookens and Zschau, the Highlanders’ two starters in spirit, prominent in everyone’s hearts.

Their families lined up arm-in-arm with the Harwood team during an emotional pregame ceremony. Their younger brothers and sisters wore their jerseys.

Nine Harwood players huddle on the field before Thursday's boys soccer game against U-32, the Highlanders' first since the death of players Eli Brookens and Cyrus Zschau in a tragic car accident on I-89 on Oct. 8. (Photo: AUSTIN DANFORTH/FREE PRESS)

Nine Harwood players huddle on the field before Thursday’s boys soccer game against U-32, the Highlanders’ first since the death of players Eli Brookens and Cyrus Zschau in a tragic car accident on I-89 on Oct. 8. (Photo: AUSTIN DANFORTH/FREE PRESS)

Rain began to fall. Haddox cleared his throat to speak over the muffled pounding on umbrellas and jacket hoods. Hundreds of spectators — three and four deep lining one side of the field — locked arms, as well.

The Harwood players gave soccer balls to their fallen teammates’ siblings, the same balls their brothers trained with every day. Hugs bandaged the rawness of the moment.

Before kickoff, the Highlanders huddled near their bench. The pregame message was one to last a lifetime.

“I told the boys they’ve all got a little spark of Cyrus and Eli in them now, and they’ve got to go forward and honor and protect that spark,” Haddox said.

How far can that carry Harwood? It’s impossible to know.

For one game, at least, it was a glimmer of hope.

The Highlanders scored twice in the second half to capture a 2-1 win over a U-32 team with playoff aspirations of its own. “Man of the match” honors went to Zschau and Brookens without hesitation.

But grief never fades that quickly. While adrenaline might reign on the field, heartache lies in wait outside the lines.

“As they would come off, you could see the absolute collapse in each of them,” Haddox said.

“That hurt me, hit me, a bit harder, because it is easy to have a 6,000-foot view and say, ‘OK, we’re starting to come around,'” he said. “And then when you get 6 inches (away), you see that we’re not there yet, and we’re not gonna be for a long time, and that’s OK.”