Chippewa Falls soccer team sticks together after tragedySometimes it's the most basic things that are the most therapeutic. The simple lacing up of cleats. The casual kicking of a ball. The everyday presence of teammates.
By: By Joe Ziemer, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, Superior Telegram
CHIPPEWA FALLS -- Sometimes it's the most basic things that are the most therapeutic.
The simple lacing up of cleats. The casual kicking of a ball. The everyday presence of teammates.
The Chippewa Falls boys soccer team still is hurting. But the Cardinals are together. They hurt together. They grieved together. And they've begun to heal together.
And when the Cards step on the field, they play together for a common goal: to honor the memory of their friend, teammate and captain, Zach Lato.
"It helped the most just us talking about what happened and holding each other close," senior forward and tri-captain Tye Kreutzfeldt said. "I think that was the biggest part that helped us get through it."
Lato would have been a senior on this year's team -- and a darn good one too. But his life was cut tragically short at the age of 16 when he died in a diving accident June 13.
Lato's death was the beginning of a heartbreaking summer for the Cardinals, the Chippewa Falls soccer community and the city as a whole. A mere one week later, 17-year-old Evan Bresina was killed in a cabin fire. Bresina, who played youth soccer for the Chippewa Strikers, was the brother of Cardinals sophomore forward Aaron Bresina.
Then, on July 18, former Chippewa Falls varsity coach Stan Williams passed away unexpectedly at age 56. At the time, Williams was coaching many of the current Cardinals on the Strikers U-18 team.
"It's just a tough thing," Chippewa Falls coach Ben Goeman said. "But getting together and playing together has helped them through that."
When the season began, the Cardinals spent a lot of time talking. Those team conversations did wonders for a group still trying to come to grips with the loss of one of its leaders.
There was a lot to like about Lato, a hard-working player and dedicated student who always had a smile on his face. He was the first one on the practice field each afternoon and the last one to leave it each evening. In the summer, he was a fixture in the weight room and always tried to bring as many teammates with him as he could. And when the Cardinals wanted to set up a summer practice schedule, it was Lato who took the initiative.
"Zach was the kind of player and the kind of a kid that's one of a kind," Goeman said. "He was the heart and soul of this team."
In many ways, Lato still is. Chippewa Falls dedicated its season to Lato's memory. On a very emotional Senior Night last month, the Cards presented his No. 21 jersey to his parents -- something Goeman said gave a degree of closure to the team and the family.
Lato may be gone in body but he's never far from the program in spirit.
"It hurt at first but, after a while we just played for Lato," said senior defender Kevin Lambrecht, another of the Cards' captains. "We knew that's what he would want us to do."
Chippewa Falls would love to win a few more games for its captain, starting with Tuesday's WIAA Division 1 playoff opener against 11th-seeded Rhinelander.
The Cards steadily have improved throughout the season, and thanks to the sectional being seeded 1-16 for the first time, face more favorable regional matchups than in years past. A playoff run is a very real possibility.
But win or lose, they'll keep things in perspective. If there's anything they've learned, it's that there's more to life than soccer.
"It just taught us to look at life differently," Kreutzfeldt said. "Don't take anything for granted because it can end in a second."
NOTE: Chippewa Falls defeated Rhinelander 1-0 and will next play Thursday at D.C. Everest.