×

For Janie: KUA Finds Strength in Teammate’s Memory

  • Janie Cozzi. Photo courtesy Kimball Union Academy.

  • The Kimball Union Academy girls soccer team celebrates its 2-1 win over top-seeded MacDuffie in the NEPSAC Class C semifinals on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in Granby, Mass. The Wildcats won the championship the next day, their first in 20 years.

  • The Kimball Union Academy girls soccer team poses with its NEPSAC Class C championship plaque, secured in a 1-0 win over Marianapolis on Sunday in North Andover, Mass.

  • The Kimball Union Academy girls soccer team begins the celebration following a 1-0 defeat of Marianapolis Prep in the NEPSAC Class C championship in North Andover, Mass., on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016. The blue ribbons were in memory of teammate Janie Cozzi, who died in an October automobile accident in Vermont.



Valley News Sports Editor
Wednesday, November 23, 2016

In the darkest of times, sport has the power to heal … and reveal.

Dan Weintraub has seen things in the past few weeks he’s never witnessed before, and he’s been coaching high school, prep school and club soccer for the better part of three decades. It isn’t that his Kimball Union Academy girls soccer team won the NEPSAC Class C championship on Sunday, nor is it the fact the victory — a 1-0 decision over Marianapolis Prep at the Brooks School in North Andover, Mass. — ended a 20-year title drought for the program.

It’s more of what’s occurred in the six weeks since the Wildcats lost sophomore Janie Cozzi and four of her friends to the actions of a wrong-way driver on a Vermont interstate.

“Before the championship game, I went with the kids to the locker room; they were hanging out and getting ready while my assistant coach and I were on the field, walking around, looking for where we were going to warm up — nervous energy,” Weintraub recalled on Monday. “I go back to the locker room an hour before the game and knock on the door. I walk in, and they’re all singing a song that Janie must have loved. And they were all in tears.

“They’re doing this; it’s inspiring them, and they’re inspired by her memory, inspired by each other, gaining strength from their vulnerability. They are really extraordinary.”

They are sisters now, 25 of them together, one absent but still very much there.

Julia Surgenor felt the anticipation: This was going to be the year.

Kimball Union hadn’t won a New England girls soccer championship since 1996. The Wildcats hadn’t made it past the tournament quarterfinals in her three previous seasons. But the combination of talent and depth had the 17-year-old wing midfielder and captain from Meriden thinking big things as early as preseason.

“From the beginning of the season, it was our ultimate goal; there was a realization,” Surgenor said on Monday. “We have eight seniors, and that was a big part of the team, but we had a lot of younger players who are really talented. … We also had a lot of depth, a lot of players we could put in, and we haven’t had that option. We usually had a starting 11, then a big dropoff.”

Buoyed by that notion, KUA reeled off wins in its first six matches. After battling to a 1-0 victory over rival Brewster, the remaining matches weren’t close: 6-3, 3-0, 5-0, 4-0, 5-1. Kimball Union had a solid foundation, with three captains — Surgenor, Charlotte Greenspan and Ella Bankert — manning the midfield and a fourth, Julia Denny, marshalling the defense.

With that much dominance, the Wildcats were able to spread playing time throughout the roster, occasionally calling upon a certain 15-year-old wing defender from Fayston, Vt.

“She didn’t start usually, but she came off the bench,” Weintraub said of Cozzi. “She was incredibly fast, very athletic. We have a pretty good team; to break into the starting 11 is hard, but she was fearless. She played with joy.

“When my assistant coach and I would call her name to come into the game, she would jump up and run down to the corner to get warmed up, then she’d be up at the midfield stripe. She wanted every possible minute on the field.”

It all changed as the dark Saturday night of Oct. 8 gave way to a darker Sunday morning of Oct. 9.

Returning from a concert in Burlington, Cozzi and four friends — all Harwood Union High School students — died when a truck driven the wrong way on I-89 crashed into the youths’ car, killing all of them. (Steven Burgoin, of Williston, Vt., has pleaded not guilty to five charges of second-degree murder and is awaiting a competency hearing to determine if he’ll go to trial, according to media reports.)

KUA students were on a short fall break. The head of the school’s history department, Weintraub was using the Sunday morning down time to work on mid-trimester student evaluations.

“I was parked at the Hanover Inn and writing comments when I got an email from the headmaster: ‘Call me ASAP,’ ” Weintraub said. “I must have found out at 11 that morning. I jumped right in the car and went to the headmaster’s house, and we convened there.”

With students away, Weintraub had to spread the news to his players electronically.

“Writing that email maybe was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do,” he said. “I had to tell them that Janie had been killed in a car accident. I wanted them to hear it from me before they heard what would go out to the KUA community.”

The team reconnected within two days of the accident. As a group, they joined Cozzi’s family and some 300 other people for a celebration of their teammate’s life at a Sugarbush Resort lodge. Still in pain, the Wildcats had a decision to make: head to Brewster for a scheduled match in the next 24 hours, forfeit or postpone.

“All I felt was love for this team, and I wanted to be with all of them,” said Greenspan, 17, of Hanover. “(That Tuesday), we cried together, we laughed and practiced. We were all crying through practice. It was so nice to be with each other.”

“We all decided it would be best to be together on the field, although it would be extremely hard,” added Bankert, of Cuttingsville, Vt. “We had to start somewhere. We might as well start there.”

Janie Chase Cozzi loved two songs in particular, Greenspan said, and they became fixtures in the Wildcats’ locker room as the players grieved over their teammate and friend.

One, Niall Horan’s This Town, recalls the singer’s regrets over thoughts not expressed to a loved one:

And I wanted to tell you everything

The words I never got to say the first time around

And I remember everything

From when we were the children playing in this fairground

Wish I was there with you now

“Her best friend sang it at the celebration of her life,” Greenspan recalled. “It always reminds us of her, about how it always makes us happy. I’d heard it once or twice, but it didn’t mean anything to me until the celebration.”

The Wildcats found various — and numerous — ways to keep Cozzi in their world. The songs stayed. The team employed their teammate’s favorite color in blue wristbands for everyone to wear. The players started writing Cozzi’s initials and a heart on their left hands, because “that’s the one closest to the heart,” Surgenor said.

KUA’s opponents also showered them with cards, flowers and sympathy. The Wildcats struggled through their first few games, losing the Brewster rematch after Cozzi’s death and falling into a 3-0 hole at Phillips Exeter on Oct. 19 before surging back for a 4-4 draw.

“We had no control over the first 20 minutes, and they scored three goals,” said Denny, 17, of Windsor, Conn. “It was kind of symbolic of how the past few weeks had felt. … It felt like our emotions and all of our struggling was into that. Coming back had so much purpose, and it felt so right.”

The Wildcats were back to their dominant selves from that point onward. Kimball Union went 9-1-1 the rest of the way, claiming one-goal victories over Rye (N.Y.) Country Day, top-seeded MacDuffie and Marianapolis on the way to the Class C championship. A 4-2 win at Holderness on Nov. 2 came on what would have been Cozzi’s 16th birthday.

Bankert, who is bound for the University of Vermont women’s soccer program next year, turned 18 on championship day. She scored the goal in Sunday’s title win with eight minutes left.

“We actually had a pig pile (afterward) and dislocated our goalie’s shoulder,” Bankert admitted. “That was a bummer.

“Janie’s mom was at the game, which was special. It was so cool to see how much of an effect we have on her and hopefully, I think, we can be there for her.”

Sometimes we pause after a time of tragedy or heartbreak. Sometimes we plow forward. Neither way is right or wrong. Either way, sport helps. It permits us, if we allow it, to put aside our differences — team against team, nation against nation, cause against cause — and share in a common humanity that few other outlets offer.

In the face of Rozzi’s death, the girls of KUA soccer chose to plow forward. The Wildcats found a strength of purpose in their shared grief and loss. Love, of one person and for each other, did the work. Soccer simply provided the medium.

“No matter who was on the team, we’re all a family now,” Bankert said. “No matter their background or anything about the game, going through something like this brings people together. I don’t think I’d ever realized that before this.”

“I’ve been on a billion different teams, three different sports, but I’ve never felt more emotionally supported by a team,” said Denny, who hopes to ski competitively in college next year. “Another player has my back, even if it’s not soccer-related. Having that much trust in other people is not something I’m used to on sporting teams, knowing that others have equal trust in me. I care so much less about wins and losses than I used to. It’s not what it’s about for me anymore.”

“She was so outgoing; we were all friends with her,” Surgenor said. “It’s not like it was a small group; we’re all very affected by it. I really understand where it was coming from with the emotions. … That brought us together. It made us realize you can’t take any friend or sport for granted.”

They’re all sisters now, 25 of them together, one absent but still very much there.

Weintraub: “I know it sounds cliche, but it was a beautiful moment I will hold in my heart forever.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.