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Eagles keep playing to honor teammate
ADAM HIMMELSBACH: Eagles play on in memory of former teammate

 UMW players and students honored Preston Hirten with armbands and banners before yesterday's season opener.
DAVE ELLIS/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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Date published: 9/2/2009

COACH Roy Gordon gathered his University of Mary Washington men's soccer players after their season-opening 2-0 loss to Virginia Wesleyan yesterday.

The Eagles rubbed sweat from their eyes that so recently had been filled with tears.

"This game wasn't our best," Gordon told them. "But that's part of the reality of what you've been through."

Over the past two weeks, the Eagles have been through the worst.

They have been through trauma, watching teammate Preston Hirten collapse during a water break at practice Aug. 18.

They have been through shock, arriving at the hospital and learning Hirten, 20, had died from what was later diagnosed as an enlarged heart.

They have been to a funeral in Hirten's hometown of Westport, Conn., where they shed tears with Hirten's friends and family.

And they continue to go through the grieving process that will be long and painful, but will also help them heal.

"We've talked about Preston every night since it happened," senior goalie Emmett Rutkowski said quietly. "Every single night."

They've talked about the pickup basketball and soccer games Hirten loved so much.

They've talked about Hirten's celebration following his game-winning goal against North Carolina Wesleyan last season.

They've talked about the memorable nights in the off-campus house Hirten shared with several teammates.

They've laughed and cried, and they've wondered what to do next.

"For these boys to see a healthy friend in this point of his life go down, I can't imagine what they're feeling," Gordon said. "But the time together has helped."

And yesterday, on a sunny and breezy afternoon that felt like the start of autumn, the Eagles took the field for their first game since Hirten died.

The players wore black armbands with Hirten's No. 19 on them. They also made a large white banner that hung from a fence at the far end of the stadium. It read: "Preston 8/18/09 No. 19," and it will hang there for the entire season.

Gordon said no Mary Washington player will wear No. 19 as long as he is the team's head coach.

In the aluminum bleachers, other Mary Washington students honored Hirten in other ways.

Kasey Nabal, a sophomore, hung a thin paper banner at the top of the bleachers that said: "RIP Preston 19."

Nabal and her boyfriend, Eagles midfielder Bram Sims, stayed awake until 3 a.m. Tuesday making that sign.

A group of girls wore navy blue T-shirts with Hirten's name and number written on their backs.

There was a moment of silence before the opening kick, and a more extensive memorial service will be held Friday after the women's soccer team plays McDaniel College.

And eventually, the Eagles will turn their focus toward soccer.

But not because they are ready to relinquish their memories of Hirten. They will focus on soccer because when they are on that field, they know they will never forget him.

"We all want to play just like Preston did," Rutkowski said. "We all want to play like him, because we really miss him out there."

Adam Himmelsbach: 540/374-5442
Email: ahimmelsbach@freelancestar.com