We play for Madison

 The Lady Trojans pose as a team wearing shirts honoring their fallen teammate Madison Stokes, who tragically died in a car accident eight months ago.

The Lady Trojans pose as a team wearing shirts honoring their fallen teammate Madison Stokes, who tragically died in a car accident eight months ago.

LEESBURG — It’s not just her smile or her laugh that everyone remembers about Madison Stokes.

It’s the way she made everyone around her smile and laugh.

It’s the way she always cared, the quiet, sweet way she always gave back. She just knew how to give, always giving, always caring.

“She was really kind, always putting others before her,’’ said Tamia Mills, who was as close to Madison as anyone. “She knew how to make everyone laugh. She just knew how to put everyone in a good mood.’’

That was Madison, a light that shined on everyone around her.

It’s why she was so loved, and is loved now more than ever.

You can’t talk to a member of the Lee County girls soccer team about Madison without tears covering the conversation. This team has wrapped its arms around her memory and around each other in tribute to Madison, who was killed in an auto accident on Aug. 28 when a tractor trailer crashed into her car. She was 16.

When the Lady Trojans soccer team takes the field today to warm up for the opening game of the state playoffs, the kids will be wearing T-shirts that read “We Play for Madison.” The shirts are blue because that was her favorite color. The backs of the shirts have her name “Stokes” and her number, “16.” Everyone wears them in the warmups.

They’ve worn them throughout the season.

“We take great pride in wearing them,’’ said Elsie Mullins, a junior midfielder and one of Madison’s closest friends. “The shirt says it all: ‘We Play for Madison.’ It makes you want to win for her. No. 16 will always be Madison’s number in my heart. When I see that number I will always think of her.

“She was so sweet, so positive,’’ Mullins said. “You know, they say if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it. She always had something nice to say. That’s the way she was. She was never negative, always positive on and off the field. And she was always on the field. She never came out of a game. She played every minute. She was always there ...”

Then she stopped and fought back a few tears.

“It’s just hard to understand at this age,’’ she said. “It’s so hard. I’ve been playing soccer with her since middle school, and last year’s team was the closest team we’ve ever had. It was like losing a family member.’’

The bond is thicker, stronger and deeper now, holding this grieving team together. These kids have had one tribute after another to honor Madison in this season wrapped in courage and heartbreak.

“I think about her every time I walk onto the field,’’ said junior midfielder Courtney Ostrus as tears swelled in her eyes.

Ostrus continued: “People always think it’s the hardest when you are playing the game, but for me it’s harder at practice. We played on the same traveling team at Tifton for three years and rode to practice together every day. After it happened, when I would ride to practice, I would cry the whole time.’’

The team wears black arm bands with a blue strip that bears her name, and other players in South Georgia as far away as Lowndes who knew Madison have worn No. 16 to honor her. Many of the Lee County football players put the number 16 on the tape on their shoes to honor her, and the girls soccer teams at Worth County and Thomasville have also worn No. 16 in tribute. Madison was loved everywhere.

No one on the Lee County varsity team wears number 16, but the girls on the junior varsity team who knew Madison each wore No. 16 once in a game this year. Ostrus played in a tournament with the JV just to wear the number 16.

“It felt great to wear it,’’ Ostrus said. “I felt like I was representing her. It was a very special feeling for me knowing she is playing soccer up there, and I was playing down here for her.’’

It has been a brutal and emotional season for the Lee County kids, who have somehow managed to reach the playoffs with an 11-4 record, a season of success that came after one of the team’s top players, Nicole Polk, suffered an ACL injury in the first game and had to miss her senior season.

Somehow, they got through it, making a statement for themselves and a larger one for Madison.

“You just don’t understand it,’’ Mullins said. “You don’t have words for it. Like my dad, he’s a Marine and he has been deployed three times, once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan. It’s hard. You just believe he is going to be all right.

“But one of the hardest things in my life is when I found out she died,’’ she said, tears falling around her eyes. “You don’t realize how much one person affects you and your life.”

Mullins, Mills and others all said they gained strength through each other as the season wore on — especially the ones who were the closest to Madison.

“I think it’s easier for us to talk about it now,’’ Mullins said. “Maybe not for the girls who weren’t close to her but, we (Mullins, Mills and Ostrus) can talk about her now a little easier because we were closer to her.’’

That close-knit, lean-on-each-other feeling is only part of what these kids went through to get to the playoffs, and that’s part of what they will take with them when the Lady Trojans face Northgate, the No. 6-ranked team in Georgia, in the Class AAAAA state playoffs at 5:30 p.m. today.

Lee will be a huge underdog. And yet, this team has already overcome more than anyone could have imagined.

The season literally started in tears.

Before the opening game, all of the Lee County players and coach Dave Baltenberger gathered at Madison’s spot on the field — where the right defender plays — for a moment of silent prayer for their friend and teammate.

“We all just broke down,’’ Mills said. “The day after it happened in August we all went to (teammate) Danielle Brendel’s house. We were all together there, and we all cried together. But we didn’t cry together again like that until the first game.

“When we started practice and the season first started, we didn’t cry as much,’’ she said. “Having each other and being there for each other helped a lot. We’re a close team, so it made a difference. Losing her was so hard for all of us, but having each other helped us a lot. But when we were there at her spot, everyone broke down.’’

It comes and goes for all the kids on the team, that impossible struggle of fighting back tears and holding on to memories. It’s a cruel and bittersweet balance.

“I do break down from time to time when I think of certain things,’’ Mills said. “She was my best friend. It’s hard. That first home game really hit all of us.’’

After the silent prayer, Lee County played the first 16 minutes of the game one player short. There was no one playing in Madison’s right defender spot on the field — for a tribute of 16 minutes.

The kids have carried that memory and treasured it throughout the longest season of their young lives.

“We wear the blue shirts that say, ‘We Play for Madison,’ ” Mills said. “It’s pride. It’s a way of saying she is always with us and helps us remember she is always right there, and knowing she’s watching over us.’’

Somehow, they have fought through the tears.

“When we said the prayer and stood at her spot on the field, that was the hardest thing,’’ Ostrus said. “We all let it out then. I can’t even describe it. It was so painful. It hurt. It was awful it hurt so bad. Losing her hurt so much. It’s just something you shouldn’t have to wake up to.’’

Baltenberger, who lost a child of his own earlier in his life, knows all too well about the pain and anguish that comes with losing young loved ones.

“It has been such an emotional season. I think they have handled it really well,’’ Baltenberger said of his kids. “They remember her and play very hard for her. I’m proud of them for that. It’s the way she played. She was one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever seen. She never complained, Such a great kid.”

The coach knows how much this season — albeit painful beyond belief — has meant to everyone.

“It was hard on everyone,’’ he said. “They handled it in their own way, and we let them do it that way. Everyone has had their moments, and I think they were there for each other. Soccer teams tend to be that way, they’re close. That also makes it harder on everyone because they are close. But it helped, too. You’re not the only one going through it.’’

It’s been a season no one will ever forget, one that will linger a lifetime.

“They wanted to play well in her memory,’’ Baltenberger said. “And they did, no matter how it turns out (in the playoffs today). It’s been emotional. We had a great season. We managed to hold it together. No matter what happens now, it’s something they will always remember.’’