As much as he wished he could keep his team focused on the task at hand Saturday against Blue Springs, Lee’s Summit North football coach Jamar Mozee couldn’t shield his players from the pain and anguish the school and community are feeling right now.
He had no intention of doing that anyway.
“You don’t want to act like the elephant’s not in the room,” Mozee said. “And they’re young men, and you have to help them balance that and work through those things.”
It had barely been 24 hours since Gemesha Thomas, a 17-year-old Lee’s Summit North senior, shot herself inside the school the morning of Sept. 29. She died later that day at a Lee’s Summit hospital.
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The morning started with Mozee preparing the Broncos for powerhouse Blue Springs but quickly shifted to helping them cope with a horrible tragedy.
In many ways, except for the Saturday afternoon setting after school officials postponed the game from Friday night, it seemed like just another football game on the sidelines — one the Broncos lost 42-6 due to two costly turnovers and an inability to halt the Wildcats’ yard-grinding ground game.
Still, for many players, the shock and sadness from Thomas’ death lurked just below the surface.
“It’s been pretty tough on everyone,” Lee’s Summit North running back John Eldridge said. “I had a class with her; she was a good friend. I didn’t expect that to happen.”
North quarterback Christian Carter said many players on the team were friends with Thomas, but even those who weren’t still felt a loss, as did so many other North students.
Saturday’s game at Bronco Stadium was the first chance for many to gather after Friday’s incident, and most who did show up dressed in purple and released purple balloons at kickoff to raise awareness for suicide prevention after observing moment of silence.
“They’ve been really resilient through this and it’s brought them all together,” Lee’s Summit North athletic director Mike McGurk said. “I think we had a pretty good atmosphere to begin with and, to have this event, it kind of shows how quickly our kids and our community have accepted where we are.”
McGurk liked playing the game on Saturday because it gave the students a chance to gather before returning to class on Monday. That included the football team, which dedicated the game to the memory of their fallen classmate.
“It’s hard,” Mozee said. “Every young man on the team didn’t know the young lady, but that’s hard. It’s part of our Bronco family. When that happens, it’s tragic. You just don’t shake things like that off.”
North is a talented but young team, and like most young teams, the Broncos can be mistake-prone.
Two big gaffes particularly hurt Lee’s Summit North against Blue Springs.
On its first possession of the game, North (4-3, 3-2 Suburban Gold) drove to the Blue Springs 1-yard line only to have Carter get the ball stripped from his grasp as he tried to score.
That gave Blue Springs (5-2, 3-1 Suburban Gold) the ball on their own 8-yard line. The Wildcats proceeded to to march the length of the field during a 15-play, 8-minute drive, grabbing a 7-0 lead thanks to a 2-yard run by fullback Caleb Marquez.
North trailed 14-6 when Carter fumbled again on the first play of the second half.
Blue Springs recovered on the Broncos’ 9-yard line and running back Michael Warmack scored from 2 yards out two plays later.
From there, Blue Springs scored on their next three possessions, all on long drives.
“I didn’t expect that, to be honest, but it happened,” Mozee said. “That hurt us. That puts them on a short field, they score, and they’re up three possessions.”
The second fumble was the most galling, because North appeared ready to make a game of it just before halftime. The Broncos put together a 10-play drive that ended with Carter tossing a 23-yard touchdown to Jordan Murray, who outleaped a Blue Springs defender and barely stayed inbounds on the right sideline as he came down with the ball.
North trailed 14-6 after a missed extra point.
“I was just thinking adjust to the ball and the play,” Murray said. “I knew we needed to make a play and we needed some momentum going into the half.”
The momentum quickly shifted back to Blue Springs, which overwhelmed North with its running back trio of Warmack, Aveion Bailey and Jaylen Ivey. Bailey and Marquez scored two touchdowns each for the Wildcats.
“They’re hard to get off the field,” Mozee said. “They’ve got multiple guys they can (run the ball) with and they’re big and strong up front. They wore us down a little bit.”
The Broncos have some things to work on, Mozee said, both on and off the field. In both areas, he expects his team to bounce back.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Mozee said. “It’s something we’ll have to deal with as a school, as a family. As a football family, we’ll move forward.”