Lake Country Publications Sports Director JR Radcliffe provides tidbits and details from the Lake Country prep sports scene to the Wisconsin sports world at large. His weekly column presents exclusive interviews, commentaries and observations.
The games we play sometimes bring about a surprising measure of healing in a time of grief. Social media also played that role for the Sussex Hamilton community in advance of Friday’s boys basketball game against West Allis Hale.
Though Hamilton was reeling from the sudden loss of senior athlete Aaron Zagorski, a member of the football and track team whose Jan. 1 death was ruled a suicide by the Waukesha County Medical Examiner, the students were still able to arrange a short-notice gesture with Friday’s hoops opponent. Hale was enduring its own tragedy. Junior Corey Stingley, a member of the football team, died following an alleged shoplifting incident that remains under investigation, during which he was detained and suffered brain damage in the process.
Funeral services for both were set for one day after the game between the two programs. So the Hale students came adorned in red, in support of Hamilton, and Hamilton returned the favor by dressing in green in support of their brethren from Hale.
“Everything started on Twitter,” said Jake Knueppel, a member of the Hamilton basketball team, referring to the #zstrong hashtag that began trending locally and around the state. “Somebody contacted one of my buddies, Corey Parris, who knew about the Hale kid. A bunch of other schools were saying they were going to wear red for Aaron, and the guy from Hale (who contacted Parris) said they’d wear red for Aaron and wondered if we’d be willing to wear green for Corey (Stingley).”
While other schools – Knueppel said it extended to places like Mukwonago and Waukesha South – donned red at their own games Friday, the Hamilton fan page on Facebook asked fans to wear green.
“It’s crazy how much attention it got,” Knueppel said. “Everybody has smartphones now. When somebody posts on the fan page, you get an update. I wasn’t expecting there to be a turnout at the game like there was. Their fan base was supporting us, and we had to support them at the same time.”
Hamilton coach Andy Cerroni said basketball provided an opportunity for relief from the sadness.
“Our players were able to leave their pain in the locker room for at least two hours; it was so much for all these kids, parents and staff to handle on both sides and having a outlet for a few hours was certainly helpful to most of them,” he said. “I was proud of our kids selflessness through this all. Helping each other through this, even having Austin (Kendziorski) give up his jersey to Tony Gumina because he knew how much it would mean to him wearing Aaron's football number … I can say I am truly blessed to have such a remarkable group of young men. I am honored to call myself their coach.”
Gumina, another senior who played on the football team, switched his number to No. 11 for the game and vowed to wear it the rest of the season.
Knueppel said it was unusual to have fans adorned in the opposing squad’s colors.
“It was different, but at the same time, I was happy,” Knueppel said. “Aaron would have liked it. I didn’t know Corey (Stingley) at all, but I’m pretty sure he would have enjoyed it, too. Usually when you’re warming up on the other side of the gym, the other fan base is in your face. But on Friday, everybody was saying really good stuff. Things like ‘Good luck,’ and ‘I hope you guys are doing OK.’”
Knueppel, who like Zagorski was a first-team All Conference football player this fall, called the preceding week one of the worst of his life.
“During football, we had a really close relationship,” Knueppel said. “After every game on Friday we would go to a chapel by my house that was open 24/7 and we always went there to pray. It was something special I had with him.”
Pictured: Top: Sussex Hamilton fans dress in green to support West Allis Hale during a basketball game against Hale on Jan. 4 (photo by Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). Below: Players for Hamilton wore Aaron Zagorski's No. 11 on their socs (photo by Roberta Pratt)