While it’s true the last race Jeff Sommer coached was the Estero High girls 3,200-meter relay team that won a state championship, what was somewhat forgotten was the race immediately afterward.
The boys relay team of Jacob Dorn, Dillion Vallette, Christian Slater and Arye Beck also qualified for the final race of the season, and they too had to run that fateful May 2 morning on the track at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
They had to run with the uncertainty of knowing whether their coach was all right. It wasn’t until the team completed their race, finishing 11th out of 16 teams, that they realized bad news had accompanied the previous race.
“Someone who worked at the track called us over and said, ‘We have some news,’” said Dorn, an Estero senior who was the anchor on last year’s boys relay team. “We all huddled up as a team and that’s when they told us he was rushed to the hospital.”
Not an hour later, it was Dorn who received another phone call in the caravan back to the team hotel. His mother had called him to say Sommer had died. Dorn and his father, Dean, had to relay another call to the girls van, breaking the news to the team.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” he said. “We were bawling our eyes out. We didn’t know what to do.”
In the year since, Sommer’s death has had a far-reaching impact on many. Perhaps the most arduous task was handed to Ben Pignatone, who was hired to follow Sommer as Estero’s cross country and track and field distance coach just a few months after his death.
When the Wildcats decided to hire a new coach, they decided on Pignatone because he had been with the program for four years. He had met Sommer at the age of 25, during his last semester at FGCU. He reached out to the Estero coach to see whether he could shadow him for coursework. But soon enough, he was on the team as an assistant. He was hooked.
“I still remember the call,” Pignatone said. “I was nervous to talk to him as I’m still nervous talking on the phone.”
But it’s difficult for any coach to replace a legend, and Pignatone continues to understand what that means in the face of building his own program. He’s had to deal with the weight of honoring a legacy while making sure to impact the lives of his athletes.
“Anything worthwhile takes great sacrifice, and we both knew that,” Pignatone said, offering Sommer’s core principles of discipline, desire and dedication. “The 3Ds are more than three words. It’s a lifestyle that portrays in every facet of life. It’s not for everyone, but if you live by them, anything is possible.”
His athletes appreciated his desire to keep them engaged.
“He was put in that position to be that new coach,” said Daley Cline, a member of Estero’s state championship girls relay team last May. “But he was also supportive for us, because a lot of us were like, ‘What’s the point?’ He was always texting us. He was motivational.”
For Dorn, some of the most difficult moments of his senior season came in the fall. In the team’s first cross country meet at Estero, the 3D Invite, he felt the pain of losing his biggest inspiration.
“That was a hard one,” Dorn said. “I remember talking to Daley about it. We were the only four year seniors there that day. And now I lean on Daley more than anyone when I want to talk about him.”
It shouldn’t be forgotten, either, how Sommer’s death impacted his son, Adam.
Adam, 20, had run for his father for four years and had won a cross country state championship in 2010 with him. It remains the highlight of his career.
“I remember finishing and then saying, ‘Coach, where are you?’ He was getting a jacket at a booth,” Adam said. “I screamed, ‘Dad!’ and I jumped into his arms. It was so surreal.”
Adam didn’t attend the meet in Jacksonville last May, deciding not to follow the team at the state championships in favor of studying for a test he was taking the following Monday. One of the last conversations he had with his father was debating the question of whether to go to the meet. He remembers the feeling of being powerless when hearing the news of his father’s death.
“When you get news like that, it can be really hard for someone to do anything,” he said.
In the year since, Sommer has felt the struggle of losing his father. Simple triggers always do it for him, like a time last summer when he was at Busch Gardens eating at a buffet.
“It took me back to the times I didn’t even remember I spent with him until then, it was such a long time ago,” he said.
While the impact of Sommer’s death will continue to reverberate across the Estero community in the years to come, it also presents a time for growth. Dorn believed Estero runners showed that as early as the fall.
“Not many people thought we could bounce back,” Dorn said. “But we made it to states for cross country. We’re showing more heart than anything.”