Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Seminole freshman finds solace in soccer

SEMINOLE — In a season defined by a flurry of electrifying goals, Seminole High School's Gabrielle John cannot escape the sadness.

On Nov. 12, John's older brother, Gregory, watched her play high school soccer for the first time. Gabrielle, a freshman, did not know her brother was there until he yelled her name.

"I looked in the stands and saw him," Gabrielle said. "I was so excited."

Gabrielle had the game-winning assist. She planned to catch up with her brother after the game, but he left early to visit friends in Orlando.

It was the last time Gabrielle saw Gregory.

At 4 a.m., a highway patrolman delivered the news that Gregory had died in a car accident that injured four other people. The driver was suspected of drunk driving.

Gabrielle had little time to grieve. Seminole was just a few games into its season, but the players did their part to help. They attended the funeral. They came to her house. They brought food for the upcoming holiday.

Still, Gabrielle thought playing again would be an excruciating effort. After all, soccer was the sport that defined the family.

Gregory, 24, and younger brother Brendon, 21, both played at Seminole. When they were not practicing or playing on a team, Gabrielle would kick the ball around with them in the backyard or at a local soccer field.

But their time together would not last.

Gregory, nicknamed "Grog," attended St. Petersburg College before working on an oil rig in Williston, N.D., where he lived with Brendon and two cousins.

"They would work three weeks there and have two weeks off," Gabrielle said. "Gregory would come more often to visit, and that game in November was the first time he could make it here to see me play.

"We were all pretty close, and it was tough when it happened. I was still mad and debating whether to ever come back. I thought it would be too hard."

Eventually, she decided to return — and not just for rah-rah reasons.

"Gabrielle told me how hard it would be to return to the field," Seminole coach Gary Kolb said. "It was the last place she ever saw her brother and that image was still fresh and painful.

"But I remember asking her what her brother would want. She told me he would want her to keep playing."

And Gabrielle also had support from Brendon, who stayed for three weeks after the funeral and attended several of her games.

Gabrielle sat on the bench her first game back, still unable to convince herself to play. The following game she started. She scored quickly. Then she scored again. Within a four-minute span, she had five goals.

"I kind of let all my anger out on the field," Gabrielle said.

Soon, the repetitive act of running and kicking a ball allowed the memory of her brother to sink deep into her subconscious.

"It's been an escape for her," Kolb said.

The goals kept coming. Gabrielle leads the team with 21. Her ability to score helped the Warhawks — who have been wearing black armbands in honor of her brother — finish the regular season 20-3-2 and earn the top seed in this week's Class 4A, District 10 tournament.

"We expected her to come back physically," sophomore forward Olivia Red said. "But we didn't think she would be there mentally. She was devastated at first and told us she would often stay in her room. But she was the one who was all fired up when she came back, even motivating us to score and win.

"Then she started scoring all these goals this season and it was insane."

Last week, Gabrielle sprained her neck and sustained a slight concussion after a hard fall in the Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship. She said the injury will not prevent her from playing this week.

"It's turned out to be a memorable season," Gabrielle said. "I'm surprised because I didn't know if I would play this much, and I think we're all surprised at how many wins we've had. Hopefully, it will continue."

But she is more focused on her future in soccer. Her ultimate goal is to play in college, something neither of her brothers did.

"I know both of my brothers had said they regretted not playing in college," Gabrielle said. "That's something I want to do, to keep the family tradition going in the sport."

Bob Putnam can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.

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