Nearly an hour and a half before their Class A state semifinal contest was scheduled to tip off against Inkster High School, a group of five Grand Haven junior girls — who were on their way to the Breslin to cheer the Bucs on to victory — were involved in a horrific single-car accident on Interstate 96 near the Lowell/Alto exit.
The girls were in a Honda sport utility vehicle that swerved off the eastbound highway, broke through a metal barrier fence and ended up on its side on the shoulder of the westbound road.
It was still unclear late Friday the exact extent of the injuries suffered by Emily Bogner, 16; Madison Case, 17; Hannah DeVecht, 17; Danielle Michaels 16; and Brittany Olds, 16 — although earlier reports from firefighters at the scene said that three, perhaps four, were in critical condition at Spectrum DeVos Hospital in Grand Rapids.
Grand Haven players were not informed of the accident prior to their game on Friday. It was the right decision to keep them in the dark; but, at the same time, it didn’t make it any less of a severe jolt to the system once they were informed by Grand Haven High School Principal Tracy Wilson after their 43-40 victory. The win lifted the Bucs to their first-ever appearance in the Class A state championship game, which will tip off at noon today. Afterward, it was probably the last thing on their mind.
“They came and told us after the game,” said Grand Haven junior Abby Cole. “Girls were celebrating and, when they told us, we broke down crying. We went from yelling and cheering to sobbing.
“It’s crazy. It’s just awful,” she added. “These are girls we see every day.”
Cole’s words spoke volumes. It was as if she was in disbelief because these were girls she rubbed shoulders with on a regular basis in the halls of Grand Haven High School. They were likely on hand for a schoolwide send-off for the Bucs on Friday morning.
“They were nice girls and great people,” Cole said.
In one sense, I hope that when (if) Grand Haven clinches its first-ever girls basketball state title today, the celebration won’t be with a somber mood. The team’s achievements should not be downplayed because of tragedy, yet the message that life is so precious should be the overlying theme.
Basketball, in the end, is just a game. A win or loss isn’t life or death.
Cole said they held a team prayer in the locker room and many left with tears, not knowing how their friends were doing, or when they would be able to see them again.
The Bucs turned the sorrow into a rallying cry.
“We’re playing for them,” Cole said. “We’re going to win for them.”
Cole’s father, Scott, was traveling a few cars behind the girls’ SUV. He was one of the first on the scene that included other Grand Haven fans and strangers who stopped to provide aid. He stayed with one of the accident victims for more than a half-hour. He missed half of his daughter’s game at the Breslin, but that was the least of his concerns, Scott Cole said.
“My heart goes out to their families,” he said while shaking his head, still distraught over the experience. “It could have been my girls. It could have been your girls. It’s just heartbreaking.”
Cole’s right. State championships happen to just a few every year, but tragedy can affect any family in the blink of an eye.
It’s a rude realization that Grand Haven has been dealt — and hopefully becomes closer because of it.