By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
HARRISONBURG -- In 10 seconds, a smile and a laugh melted into a wail and a tear.
Strasburg senior Jaclyn Ayers, beaming only seconds before tipoff, gathered her umpteenth steal of the season on George Mason's first possession of the Region B, Division 2 semifinals. Ayers shuttled toward the Strasburg basket; she launched for what should have been the kind of transition layup she's built a career out of.
But a George Mason shoe crashed into Ayers' knee, and her shot clanged off the rim.
With 7:20 remaining in the first quarter, the only player Strasburg couldn't afford to lose lay clutching her knee on the cold hardwood floor of the Eastern Mennonite University gym.
The fall sucked the air out of the cathedral-like gym, creating a still, deathly vacuum; trainers tended to the felled senior in silence.
Ayers was helped to her feet. She hobbled to the secondary court behind a tower of bleachers.
With 3:50 remaining in the first quarter, Ayers paced up and down the obscured court under a pale light. With 2:14 remaining, she jogged, and winced. With 1:41 remaining she sat across the row of chairs that made up the Strasburg bench, a bag of ice, as cold as the cruel fate which cast her to the sideline, resting on the crown of her knee.
Ayers, one of Strasburg's most decorated athletes, then watched her Rams fall to the Mustangs, 52-27.
"Everybody's dealt adversity in their lifetime, and I think our kids competed, and we certainly tried," Strasburg coach Joel Morgan said. "I don't think it was a lack of trying or effort or anything like that.
"You lose a player like that and that obviously affects how you can play a little bit, but I think our kids certainly kept competing and I'm proud of them."
Still, Ayers is a proven poison to the Mustang (18-2) cause. In Strasburg's (18-4) previous two meetings with George Mason, Ayers scored a combined 41 points.
But because Ayers' knee couldn't support the weight of her body, Strasburg senior Jenna Smoot had to support the weight of the world.
Smoot, Strasburg's only other first team all-district player, scored the Rams' first two baskets. But with Ayers out, Smoot was afforded the full attention of the George Mason defense. She scored 10 points in the loss.
"I think we all just kinda got down a little bit -- [we] tried not to, but I think it just happened anyway," sophomore Katlyn Ayers said of her older sister's injury. "Coach just told us not to, and we knew we shouldn't, but, I don't know -- I think it was just still there in the back of our minds.
"[Jaclyn] just has a way of moving the game, and she just has a certain energy."
Thus did an era come to an end.
Jaclyn Ayers and Smoot, the main actors in a play that lasted four years and spanned two sports, will never again don Strasburg purple as teammates. Together they reached the Group A volleyball championship in 2008, and the semifinal in 2009.
As sophomores under Morgan, the duo reached the Region B quarterfinals, and as juniors they reached the Region B semifinals.
Morgan leaned against a cinderblock wall just outside of Strasburg's designated locker room -- a room in which Jaclyn Ayers, Smoot, Gabe Giersch, Stephanie Conde, Jennifer Jackson and Ally Kauffman mourned the passing of their careers. Letting go of such a strong senior class is hard to cope with, so Morgan said his long goodbyes.
"We've got a wonderful senior group of kids that have been a part of a tremendous run in our program," he said. "But in terms of their careers, Jenna and Jaclyn, they've been a part of two 20-win teams -- and, shoot, 18-4 this year -- and you add it up: Four years we got probably about 80 wins out of those two, and I don't know that there's many people in the state that can say that.
"They don't have a lot of district titles, or regional titles, or any of those kinds of things to add to it, but I'll tell you what, they were pretty successful, these kids, and I'm really proud of them."