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‘It’s a way to celebrate everything she loved in life’

Former Lee County soccer player Madison Stokes gives the thumbs up during a mission trip on behalf of Gillionville Baptist Church last summer. Stokes lost her life just a short time later when she was killed in an automobile accident not long before the Lady Trojans’ season was to begin. Nearly a year later, her teammates have put together a game in her honor that will be played today at Darton. (Gillionville Baptist Church Facebook Page/Special to The Herald)

Former Lee County soccer player Madison Stokes gives the thumbs up during a mission trip on behalf of Gillionville Baptist Church last summer. Stokes lost her life just a short time later when she was killed in an automobile accident not long before the Lady Trojans’ season was to begin. Nearly a year later, her teammates have put together a game in her honor that will be played today at Darton. (Gillionville Baptist Church Facebook Page/Special to The Herald)

Tears sprinkled the Lee County soccer field last season, falling like quiet reminders every time the Lady Trojans slipped on their jerseys.

Those tears reminded them of the gentle smile and warm laugh of fallen teammate Madison Stokes, a special player with an unforgettable passion for her church and its missions in Honduras.

Madison was tragically killed in an automobile accident last August, taking away Lee County’s defender who poured her heart into soccer when she stepped on the field and then took that passion straight to her love for missions when she stepped off.

Lee County’s season, which was dedicated to Madison, ended two months ago in the first round of the state playoffs, but the Lady Trojans are taking the field again in honor of their fallen teammate when they play Deerfield tonight in the inaugural Madison Stokes Memorial Soccer Game at Darton State College.

Two of the top girls soccer teams in Southwest Georgia, GHSA’s Lee County and GISA’s Deerfield, are playing each other for the first time in history, but it’s a game that is about much more than any public school vs. private school bragging rights.

It’s about Madison.

“Ever since I found out about what happened that day I have been playing for her,” Lee County’s Courtney Ostrus said. “But this game will mean even more. She definitely deserved this and then some. She was a very special part of our group and always will be.

“Of course there is pressure because we are playing Deerfield, but at the same time we are playing for Madison. It’s going to be fun but at the same time emotional.”

The game is officially being played as a camp scrimmage and all proceeds will go to the Madison Stokes Memorial Fund, which supports missions in Santa Elena, Honduras, where Madison and her Lee County youth group served last summer as missionaries representing the Gillionville Baptist Church youth group.

“She put her heart and soul into Honduras,” Ostrus said. “When we decided to do this, we decided that the funds should go there because that is what she poured her heart into. She loved every one of those children she was with.”

Tonight’s game is from 6-9 p.m., and a donation of at least $5 is being requested. Along with soccer, there will be inflatables, kids’ games, popcorn, snowcones and concessions.

“It’s a way to celebrate everything she loved in life,” said DWS rising junior Mallory Sammons, who attended Gillionville Baptist Church with Madison. “It mixes her friends and family, her love of soccer and her church group all together. I think it’s just a great way to represent her love for life.”

Madison’s life and legacy have continued to touch Southwest Georgia in the 11 months since she died, and her smile has stretched much farther than just Leesburg and Albany.

“The soccer community in Southwest Georgia isn’t the biggest, and we all stick together and do what we can for each other,” said Deerfield coach Aly Joslin, who jumped at the opportunity to play a memorial game for Madison. “A lot of our girls knew Madison and played with Madison. It didn’t just affect the Lee County community, but it affected our community, too. The day after her accident, we had four or five girls in the counselor’s office, as well. It went to show the type of person she was.”

Sammons, who grew up playing soccer with Madison, took the news as hard as anybody.

“Walking on the field, I had the realization that she would never be able to do that again,” Sammons said. “It crossed my mind that she won’t know what it feels like to win another championship or to play in another tournament.”

The Lady Trojans spent the entire season with Madison on their minds, sharing memories and tears and playing each game as a tribute to their friend and teammate.

They began the year with a team-wide prayer before their season opener, gathering in a circle around Madison’s position on the field — with each player wearing a black arm band with a blue stripe bearing her name.

They played the first 16 minutes of that game without a right defender to honor Madison’s position and her No. 16 jersey, which no one wore last season.

It was a season full of heartbreak and sadness, but one that brought healing to the Lee County community.

Now when they talk about Madison, many of those tears have changed into smiles, and Ostrus believes a memorial soccer game is exactly how Madison would want her friends and family to remember her life.

And Ostrus believes Madison would be the first one to keep score at today’s friendly camp game.

“You know she is. She is up there, saying, ‘Courtney, you gotta run. You gotta work.’ She is encouraging all of us,” Ostrus said. “She would tell us to kick their butt. She would joke, smile and tell us to kick some butt. I know she is watching us. She is here with us. She always is. She’s always encouraging us.”

Neither team will be wearing their uniforms -— Lee County will wear blue shirts that say, “We play for Madison,” and Deerfield will wear white shirts with Madison’s name on them.

Madison will be in everybody’s thoughts, but so will the intriguing matchup between two teams that fans have wanted to see on the same field for years.

“We are the two successful teams in the area, and I think deep down everyone does want to see Lee County vs. Deerfield, and not just in soccer,” Joslin said. “We certainly didn’t set this up because of that reason. We are out there for Madison and to raise money for Honduras, but obviously it is Lee County vs. Deerfield.”

And Madison wouldn’t have been the only one keeping score.

“If they beat us, they beat us. But I don’t think they will,” Ostrus said. “We have a very strong team. We will be missing a few of our really talented key players, so anything can happen. For me it’s not about winning. It’s about playing for Madison. But winning would top it off.”