The coach received the phone call in the early morning hours.
“Kelsey’s gone,” Dr. Jennifer Mcconnell told Winthrop field hockey coach Jessica Morrill. “She didn’t make it.”
Merrill had known that Kelsey Stoneton — one of her team’s strongest players and a captain — had been rushed to the hospital several hours earlier. She had collapsed after having difficulty breathing and suffering chest pain at her father’s Winthrop home.
Kelsey died from a fatal blood clot in her lungs at 4:30 a.m. Aug. 2 at Maine Medical Center in Portland.
The news devastated this closely-knit town of 6,000, where, over $54,000 was raised within 10 days of Kelsey’s death to help her family with funeral expenses and a scholarship in the young girl’s name.
The 17-year-old Winthrop girl was known for her ever-present smile and her unflappable upbeat attitude. She excelled in the classroom and the field hockey field where she often set up goals, passing to other teammates so they could score. She was the first to hug and congratulate a player when they drove the ball past the goalie. Her passion for the game inspired her teammates. She always played hard; she played with a smile, and she never gave up.
As the Ramblers ready for their first official game Wednesday at home, they continue to receive cards, donations to the scholarship fund and flowers from other teams.
They also were heartened by Kelsey’s sister Haley’s decision to come to practice on Friday. Haley had been uncertain if she would be able to play this season.
“It will be hard knowing she is not there to play with me,” said Haley, a freshman. “We were so excited to play on the high school team together. Kelsey knew I was nervous and she told me, ‘You’ll be amazing.’”
Kelsey’s No. 8 jersey will be retired in a ceremony at the start of the opening game Wednesday. Her parents, Kim and Joel Stoneton, will be presented with her home and away jerseys and her two captain’s bands.
“I don’t know how you prepare yourself for listening to a moment of silence for your daughter,” Joel Stoneton said. “But at the same time, you’re proud that she touched so many lives.”
Stoneton, the town’s former longtime high school football coach, was recently hired as the district’s athletic director and dean of students. He gave up coaching football after 20 years so he could watch his two daughters play field hockey together. He made the decision one night as he looked at the green field hockey ball on Kelsey’s bedroom window sill. It was a souvenir from the first time she scored as a freshman high school player in September 2012.
“I only had two more years of high school with Kelsey and I didn’t want to miss any more of her games,” Stoneton said. “Now, as an administrator, it’s hard to even walk on the field.”
Kelsey’s mother, Kim Stoneton, echoed her ex-husband’s sentiment. The owner of Bloom hair salon in downtown Winthrop, she expects it will be an emotional season. But she also hopes that the Ramblers focus on enjoying the game and making new memories.
“What they need to do is have fun,” Kim Stoneton said. “These are their high school years and the best times of their life, moments that they will remember forever, and Kelsey wouldn’t want them to be sad.”
Merrill, Assistant Coach Sharon Coulton, and the girls quickly decided they wanted to retire Kelsey’s No. 8 field hockey jersey.
The head coach had relied on Kelsey to help her with summer tournaments and strategies for the team this fall. Kelsey understood that the Ramblers would face challenges. The team lost six seniors who graduated last year. Their numbers had dropped from 21 in the previous year to 15.
“Kelsey was key in helping me figure out how to make the team strong,” Merrill said. “She was a leader.”
On Aug. 17, the night before the Ramblers first day of pre-season practice, Merrill could not sleep. She was scared and unsure of how the girls would react on the field without Kelsey.
“The more I thought about it, I knew Kelsey wouldn’t want me to be upset,” Merrill said. “She’d want us to enjoy the season and win the state championship.”
On Monday morning, Merrill and Coulton gathered the girls in a circle on the field. They talked about ways to honor Kelsey. “Play like her,” Merrill told the team. “Play with passion and never get down or give up.”
The girls nodded as the coach spoke. Some wiped tears from their eyes.
“Kelsey played so hard and put her all into everything she did,” said Julie Mcconnell, a team captain and daughter of Jennifer Mcconnell, Kelsey’s doctor. “We all want to play like her.”
The next few days, the girls fell into their routines, running, shooting and laughing as they talked about how Kelsey often tore into the parking lot late for practice with several stories about her recent adventures. They also decided to have captain leg bands made with Kelsey’s No. 8 and her initials.
“We feel that she is with us all the time,” said Captain Olivia Audet. “But the bands will be a special reminder of Kelsey that will empower us.”
After Wednesday’s ceremony to retire Kelsey’s jersey, Merrill hopes that her team will focus on the game and move on.
“The girls are getting emotionally drained by the constant reminder of their beloved player that is not here anymore,” Merrill said. “Not that we want to forget Kelsey, but let’s honor her on the field instead of all the hoopla surrounding it.”
Four weeks will have passed since Kelsey’s death when the Ramblers take the field against Dirigo on Sept. 3. Regardless of whether they win or lose the game, Merrill knows the team is closer than any other she has coached over the past eight years.
“We’ve bonded,” Merrill said. “We have done it all together. The wake, the funeral. I’ve never seen a team this connected.”