Kelly: Basketball again unites community following tragedy


The scene before the Lakeville North, Lakeville South boys’ basketball game on Tuesday. Photo by Nick Lieser

No person, group, nor organization can do what a regular season boys’ basketball game has now done twice for the Lakeville community.

Lakeville North junior Alyssa Ettl died in a car accident on Dec. 4, 2013, and two years later to the day, Lakeville South students Johnny Price and Jake Flynn also died in a car accident.

Shortly after both accidents, the Lakeville North and Lakeville South boys’ basketball teams faced each other, and this game has twice helped the Lakeville community heal in a way no other event could, uniting a community faced with significant grief.

It is one thing to see a community unite through social media and #LakevilleStrong, but it is another thing to see a community physically unite at a sporting event, showing how strong Lakeville really is.

I covered the game between Lakeville North and Lakeville South two years ago, and last night had a similar feel to it.

Fans and community members filled the Lakeville North gym bleachers on Tuesday night. Those who couldn’t secure a seat lined the track above.

Even more overwhelming than the amount of people packed into the gym was the amount of blue fans wore; it was Ettl, Price and Flynn’s favorite color. From sky blue and dark blue to azure and periwinkle, the array of blue t-shirts and sweatshirts made it almost impossible to distinguish who was from Lakeville North and who was from Lakeville South.

The circle of basketball players best illustrated the unity of the community, though. Before the Public Address announcer bellowed the lineups, both the Panther and Cougar teams created a large circle on the court. North and South players and coaches alternated in the circle, with all holding hands.

Drew Stewart, a senior point guard who took part in the game two years ago shortly after Ettl died, stood next to Lakeville South senior Jack Swanhorst who Stewart went to school with in middle school.

Once everyone in the gym had taken part in an emotional moment of silence to honor the lives of Flynn and Price, the final score of the game became insignificant.

“Tonight, Lakeville won,” Stewart said. “It is a beautiful thing when all of those people get together. Tonight, under the circumstances, we were a community as one.”

Playing in the game also helped athletes grieve. Many of the basketball players from both Lakeville North and Lakeville South had played either baseball or football with Price and Flynn, respectively.

“A lot of the guys were up in the air whether they play in this, but everyone thought about it as a huge celebration instead,” said Jack Sorenson, a junior point guard for Lakeville South.

This boys’ basketball game played an integral role in helping the Lakeville community move forward two years ago, and it did the same last night.

It wasn’t easy for many players to take part in the game, but Lakeville North coach John Oxton, who was close with Ettl, sees it as a necessary part of the healing process.

“Life is going to go on, and that is hard,” Oxton said. “That doesn’t mean we have to forget. We are going to honor these kids, but it is important too that we do move on. We can honor them by competing and doing our best.”

The competition level between the Panthers and Cougars was high as many played in Flynn and Price’s honor. The game came down to a basket from Lakeville North with five seconds left, leading to a 78-77 victory for the Panthers.

Most players, coaches and fans will likely forget the final score of the game five, ten or fifteen years from now.

What they won’t forget, though, is how the community came together to help grieve and celebrate the lives of Flynn and Price at a boys’ basketball game.

“In tragedy, great things happen,” Oxton said. “People pull together.”

And that is the definition of Lakeville Strong.