By JAMIE STENGLE, SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN and CEDAR ATTANASIO
HOBBS, N.M. — Laci Stone had a special request for her mother. The 18-year-old wanted to get tiny matching heart tattoos before leaving her Texas hometown and returning to New Mexico to finish out her freshman year at the University of the Southwest.
She begged her mother.
And now Chelsi Stone is glad she didn’t chicken out.
“I’m so forever grateful that God gave me the courage to go through with it and always have this memory with her,” Chelsi Stone wrote on her Facebook page.
She is among the parents, other family members and friends who have been left brokenhearted and devastated after a fiery crash killed Laci, five of her teammates and a coach while they were returning home from a golf tournament in Texas on Tuesday.
Most of the students were freshmen who were getting their first taste of life away from home at the private Christian university with enrollment numbering in the hundreds. Some of them were far from home, having come from Canada, Mexico and Portugal.
Chelsi Stone said she wouldn’t wish the pain she was feeling on her worst enemy. She described her daughter as a ray of sunshine and said her family will never be the same.
Stone graduated from Nocona High School in 2021, where she played golf, volleyball and softball. Her high school announced on social media that it would be canceling Wednesday’s softball game, saying the community was heartbroken over losing one of its own. Instead, dozens of people gathered on the field to pray.
The other victims included golf coach Tyler James of Hobbs; junior Karisa Raines of Fort Stockton, Texas; junior Jackson Zinn of Westminster, Colorado; freshmen Travis Garcia of Pleasanton, Texas; and fellow players Mauricio Sanchez of Mexico; and Tiago Sousa of Portugal. The school and authorities did not release hometowns for Sanchez and Sousa.
The two injured students were identified by authorities as Dayton Price of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada; and Hayden Underhill of Amherstview, Ontario, Canada.
Authorities identified the occupants of the pickup truck that collided with the team’s van as Heinrich Siemens, 38, of Seminole, Texas, and a 13-year-old boy who also was from Seminole. Police have yet to release his name.
Authorities said James was bringing the students back to New Mexico on Tuesday night when the crash happened. Those who knew him said it had been his goal to be a head coach, and he was excited to be there.
“That was his dream job, to be a head coach and he was living out his dream,” said Ryan Erwin, vice president for student engagement and athletics at East Texas Baptist University in Marshall.
James graduated from ETBU in May with a master’s of science in kinesiology. While there, he had been the graduate assistant coach for the golf program.
Erwin said James had not only a love for coaching, but for mentoring students as well.
After beginning his college career playing golf at Ottawa University in Kansas, he transferred to Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas, according to his biography on the University of the Southwest website.
Troy Drummond, Howard Payne University’s head golf coach and associate athletic director for operations, said James played for three years at Howard Payne and helped coach the team his last year.
“He had a passion for golf, you could tell that from the very start. He’d pretty much eat, sleep and drink golf,” Drummond said.
Drew Underhill, Hayden’s older brother, said his parents were on a plane headed for Texas so they could be with his brother. Hayden Underhill was going to school on a golf scholarship.
“Hockey was a big part of life for a while, but his true passion is golf,” his brother said. “He loves golf. His favorite is Jordan Spieth. And he always loved to watch Jordan, follow Jordan.”
Friends of Raines, who was a biology student, started a fundraising page for her family. They described her as “a beautiful and kind soul who will be deeply missed by everyone.”
Aside from golf, what tied the teammates and their families together was their faith. Social media pages were inundated Wednesday with a steady stream of offerings of prayers and condolences from fellow college golfers, community members and others.
A short drive from the campus, local golfers set up a memorial at the course where the team practice. Groundskeepers placed flowers, golf balls and a handmade sign with a Christian cross and the initials USW.
“We have a memorial. It’s the very least we could to for the players and of course coach James,” said Rockwind Community Links Manager Ben Kirkes. “It’s a tough time.”
Kirkes said he saw the team members nearly every day, and was close with them.
“These kids were great kids and they were great, great community members,” Kirkes said. “They were polite and they were just a pleasure to be around.”
He knew that many of the kids were from overseas, and tried to make it a welcome place for them.
“Pursuing a collegiate career in anything sportswise is a great opportunity for kids overseas,” Kirkes said. “We wanted to make them feel like they were at home.”
Stengle reported from Dallas. Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque. Associated Press writer Robert Gilles in Toronto contributed to this report. Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.
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