As the stadium lights flickered on at 4:30 a.m. and orange jerseys began to line the Estero High track on Monday, it marked an important day for the Southwest Florida running community.
May 2 marked exactly one year since Jeff Sommer, the longtime Estero athletic director and cross country coach, died in Jacksonville leading his girls 3,200-meter relay team to a state championship. The 58-year-old collapsed on the track’s infield moments after watching the girls win.
Ben Pignatone, who took over for the coach following his death in May, began the morning at 5 a.m. by holding a moment of silence.
“It’s a huge honor to have all these former athletes and parents come out and support him still,” said Pignatone, who wore a hat emblazed with ‘DDD,’ which stands for Sommer’s core principles — Discipline, Desire and Dedication. “They always will.”
Known for holding his practices at 5 a.m., Sommer was represented by a large gathering of runners, parents and friends. His wife, Sue, was in attendance, as was his son, Adam.
Sue Sommer spoke about a dedication planned in the fall during Estero’s first football game. The school plans on naming the facility after him. He’s also being inducted into the Lee County Hall of Fame on May 15.
“It’s amazing how far his influence went,” Sue Sommer said.
Estero High planned an ‘Orange Out’ and a moment of silence for the former coach and athletic director during school Monday.
“Seeing all these positive things, how he impacted other people’s lives and how they appreciated it, that’s what’s good about today,” Sue Sommer said. “It’s a celebration, but there’s some sadness, too.”
Those in attendance ran an honorary “all-out 400,” which is one full lap around the track.
A case of Mountain Dew, coach’s drink of choice, was placed at the foot of the track. A picture of Sommer with flowers was also positioned on a picnic table near the workout Monday.
A group of Estero athletes ran a lap around the track with hands held. Some took pictures in front of the picture. Others drank an honorary Mountain Dew.
“This day builds up, and we’ve all been waiting for it, so it’s going to be a rough day,” said Estero senior Jacob Dorn, a four-year runner with the Wildcats program. “But it’s so much better when you have everyone here from your family.”
Estero graduates like Antonella Valencia and Aja Curth were present for the dedication along with parents of athletes and members of the team. Valencia completed the 400, then continued on with the workout, Sommer’s favorite, which was four 400s and four 200s.
Senior Daley Cline, who won two state championships in cross country and another two in track, said the day was bittersweet. She was on the 3,200-meter relay team that won states before he passed away.
“Over time I’ve grown as a person and have come to accept it,” she said. “I use it as a positive. Coach influenced everyone’s lives in a good way, and while turning something bad into something good is hard, it prepares you for other things in life.”
Monday marked a day of remembrance for a man that touched many lives.
“This morning was hard,” Adam said. “But once everyone started coming out, it got better. To see the support and the love my dad has brought together over the years and years, it means a lot. It helps the healing process a little bit.”
Losing Sommer: A story examining the toll of what losing a beloved coach and mentor for the four girls who were a part of that 3,200-meter relay team that won the state championship moments before Sommer died last May.