Southeast soccer team returns to the field after death of teammate
Cindi Herndon stood behind the podium and smiled while she told the crowd in Houck Field House about how passionate and stubborn her daughter Meg was about her plan to play soccer and attend nursing school at Southeast Missouri State University.
Cindi is a nurse and was skeptical that her daughter would be able to manage both nursing school and soccer, even after the Herndons were told by a representative from the nursing program that it could be done.
"So, on her own, she kept calling coach Heather who probably was thinking 'Who is this child from Fenton that keeps calling me?' She persisted. She did it on her own," Cindi said.
"Then I remember the day, her dad and I were either coming home from a game or practice, and Meg just comes be-bopping in, and she says 'Yeah, I just talked to coach Nelson. I'm going to SEMO to play soccer.'
"'We're both like 'Oh, great, what'd you get?' She's like, 'Nothing,' and I'm like 'What do you mean nothing? We want some money here. That's what you want, right?" Cindi said before laughing. "And she goes, 'No, mom, I just get to play soccer.'
"That's all she wanted to do was to play soccer, and I didn't tell coach Nelson this, but if you would've told Meg 'Hey, you need to pay us,' she would've."
A memorial event was held in Houck Field House Thursday night for Meg, a senior soccer player and nursing major at Southeast, who died Sept. 20 from injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident on Sept. 9.
Meg earned some playing time her freshman and sophomore seasons before starting every game her junior year when the Redhawks won the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season title. She had also started all seven games this season before the accident.
At the memorial event, senior soccer player Sarah Uptmor said the she and her teammates had repeatedly been asked, "Were you close?"
"Yes" doesn't quite suffice in describing our team's relationship," Uptmor said. "You can only run so many gassers and 120s alongside someone else before you're inextricably bound by your dread of hearing the words, 'Just a couple exercises after this, girls.'"
The defending OVC regular-season champion Southeast soccer team knew that Meg would have wanted it to continue to play, and it opened its OVC season Tuesday against defending OVC tournament champion UT Martin.
"She wouldn't want them to quit, and we told them that from the very beginning," Cindi said. "Meg's not a quitter. No matter how hurt she was, she wanted to play. She wouldn't have wanted anybody to stop."
"She would've been right behind them just telling them 'Go. Play, play, play. Win, win, win,'" Ian Herndon, Meg's dad, said.
The game was played just one day after Meg's funeral, which the entire team attended. The game ended in a 1-1 tie after two 10-minute overtimes.
"Personally, I know how I feel, so I couldn't be prouder of them," Nelson said after the game. "The last two weeks have been devastating. There's no other way to talk about what we've gone through, and I was confident that they'd already come together as a team. But we still needed to perform as a team on the field, and tonight I felt like we did that for the first time."
Nelson said that the players and coaches are working toward a new normal and that being on the field will help them get there.
"It definitely helps. For at least 90 minutes, or 110 minutes today, we didn't think about it," senior defender and captain Hayley Abbott said after the game. "I don't think there is any player on the team that doesn't think about it all day, every day. Soccer is really helping us just try to get back to normality."
The Southeast starters held hands during a moment of silence in honor of Meg before the game. The entire team wore warm-up T-shirts with Meg's No. 2 on them and her favorite phrase "Impossible is Nothing." The team will continue to wear these all season in remembrance of Meg.
"That's something that she believed in her heart and whenever she went into every tackle, that's what she believed and she thought that she could win every ball," Taylor Byrd, a sophomore defender and Meg's roommate, said about the phrase. "She was just strong with everything that she did. She worked hard at practice and school, and she was a great girl."
Nelson was thrilled with her team's performance against UT Martin. Her husband and associate coach, Paul Nelson, has helped focus the team on game tactics and how they need to play, which Heather Nelson said is the team's "safe place".
Before the game Heather Nelson talked about three things with the team to prepare them for the game. The first was playing with strength, determination and courage. Second was to play smart and stay organized. The final thing was to play for the team.
"Our girls were told they needed to do anything and everything they had to to make sure they didn't let their teammates down tonight," Nelson said. "I'd picked those three things earlier today for them and then the more I thought about it, I thought it was a real brilliant reflection of Meg because she was one of our very most courageous players, honors student, 3.83 [grade point average] and she loved her team, so it was fitting."
"It was very emotional, but I don't think it's going to be any different from every other game for this season," Abbott said. "It's such an unfortunate event that happened. There's nothing we can do about it, but we've got to play for her now. We've got to play as hard as she usually played."