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After fatal West Texas crash, University of the Southwest community turns to faith

Photos at a roadside memorial. Top row: Karisa Raines, Laci Stone and Tiago Sousa. Bottom row: Coach Tyler James, Mauricio Sanchez, Travis Garcia and Jackson Zinn. Anthony Olivieri/ESPN

HOBBS, N.M. -- On the first Sunday after the crash, Christian Center Church welcomed its worshipers. In the atrium, a large screen with a countdown clock signaled the beginning of the service. Inside the sanctuary, a nine-member band broke out into song. Three screens behind the band showed the young faces of six University of the Southwest golfers and their coach.

When the music stopped, lead pastor Jotty Kinney began. Pacing the stage, he tucked his hands into his jeans pockets, looking down and back up again, repeatedly offering prayers. It was his job to help fill the void of loss, his job to ease pain that will never disappear.

"Now Father, today I pray that you just be with the University of the Southwest," Kinney said. "Father, I pray that you just be with them as the next days and weeks, the months come, Father, and they try to pick up the pieces."

Two women hugged in the fourth row, comforting each other as he spoke.

Five days earlier, a fiery van-truck collision on a West Texas highway claimed the lives of the coach and six members of the men's and women's golf teams at the private, Christian university about a mile from this church. A 13-year-old boy had been at the wheel of the pickup truck, which veered into oncoming traffic and hit USW's passenger van. Nine people died.

The university was on spring break when the crash happened. Kinney had gone to the school's chapel anyway on the day after for a regular Wednesday service. Some members of USW's community hadn't left that week. Kinney didn't know what to say. Those at the school, which has 300-plus on-campus students, had lost their friends, those with whom they went to class and ate lunch and small-talked in the dorms. The community had lost something, too.

Since the crash, Kinney said, people in the grocery store have stopped him, wanting to know what they can do, where they can drop off muffins or donuts and pay their respects. While the churches in and around Hobbs aren't all the same denomination, and all their patrons don't worship side by side, people here are part of a community grounded in faith. They lean on each other in times of need. Mayor Sam Cobb estimates at least 100 churches dot the surrounding area. "This is the Bible Belt," he said.

The city of Hobbs sits just four miles west of the Texas state line, framed by long, straight highways that roll through oil country. The town has a West Texas identity. Below ground lies the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest in the United States, part of which straddles the New Mexico-Texas border. If you drive around the city, you'll sidestep tumbleweeds, walk through swirling dust and on swathes of brown grass. The water table is 80 feet below, and it's the city's only water source. To find it, you have to dig deep.

Kinney told the churchgoers that they would have to dig deep, too, for their community and for themselves, if they wanted to make it through this time of sorrow. And Hobbs -- and Kinney's church -- was no stranger to that. Within the past few years, two members who had been in its youth group died by suicide.

After the service, Kinney sat at a long table off the church kitchen behind the stage and tried to make sense of it all. He remembered being dressed for bed on the evening of March 15, when he got a call from USW track and cross country coach Tony Skiles, who told him about the accident. Kinney immediately went to pick up David Blackwood, a pastor at the church and the university, and they headed directly to the school. The coaches had gathered, and there were tears.

"We talked and then we prayed a little bit together as a group," Kinney said. "And then we just sat there for a little bit. [There's nothing] you can do or say. Sometimes people just want to know that you're still there."

THE DRIVE FROM Midland, Texas, to Hobbs takes about an hour and a half. The two-lane highway, Farm to Market Road 1788 in Andrews County, passes near oil fields, with pumpjacks bobbing up and down. A dotted center line allows for passing much of the way. The speed limit is 75 mph. A sign that says "Steer Clear of Trucks" with a picture of a steer can be seen as you drive north. There's a horse farm. Rival RV parks and rusted-out farm equipment let you know that you've reached Seminole, Texas, and you'll need to go west to Hobbs.

On March 15, at 8:17 p.m. CDT, a three-quarter-ton Dodge pickup was traveling southbound on FM 1788. About a half-mile north of the intersection with State Highway 115, the pickup lost control, veered into the northbound lane and collided head-on with the 11-passenger van carrying the golfers, who were returning to campus from the first day of a two-day tournament at Midland College. The van hauled an eight-foot trailer carrying their gear.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators, including experts in the fields of highway, human performance, toxicology, survival factors, vehicle performance, vehicle recorders and licensing procedures. It also sent a member of the transportation disaster assistance unit to work with the families. The NTSB said a 13-year-old was driving the pickup. The underage driver and his passenger, 38-year-old Henrich Siemens, died. Two survivors from USW -- Hayden Underhill, 20, and Dayton Price, 19, both from Canada -- were airlifted to hospitals in Lubbock, Texas, in critical condition.

The victims included the USW teams' coach Tyler James, 26, who was driving the van. The student-athletes were Jackson Zinn, 22, of Westminster, Colorado; Mauricio Sanchez, 19, of Mexico; Travis Garcia, 19, of Pleasanton, Texas; Karisa Raines, 21, of Fort Stockton, Texas; Laci Stone, 18, of Nocona, Texas; and Tiago Sousa, 18, of Portugal. When asked about the circumstances of the collision -- including the 13-year-old driver -- no one from the school chose to comment.

The NTSB hasn't yet named the driver but did report that the truck crossed into oncoming traffic because the vehicle's front left tire failed. There were "witness" marks in the road. Though the tires burned in the fire, the steel that remained on the left front was different than the rest, indicating that it was a spare. The NTSB's preliminary report could arrive within weeks, and a final report could take as many as 18 months.

Loved ones have said little publicly. Raines' parents, Sandy and Gary, appeared on "Today." Gary told the New York Post that the circumstances of the crash were "the zenith of lunacy." Chelsi Stone, Laci's mother, shared on Facebook how the family was devastated at the loss of an "amazing, beautiful, smart, joyful girl." CNN, The New York Times and People covered the tragedy. Condolences arrived from all over the world. Memorials popped up in several places. Nine verified GoFundMe pages were set up separately for individual victims and the program, raising more than $470,000 combined.

Bryson DeChambeau, a top golfer on the PGA Tour, said he intended to donate to one of the survivors. The LPGA wore red ribbons with the Mustangs' colors at the JTBC Classic in California. The golf community in Portugal held a moment of silence.

While news of the crash spread internationally, its effect has been decidedly local, where the particulars are permanent -- in Hobbs, and among those who travel these roads regularly. Along FM 1788, off the shoulder at the crash site, past the tire marks etched in the dirt, above purple and red and white flowers, are the seven head shots of those from USW. They're pinned to a barbed wire fence as traffic rumbles past.

INSIDE THE ROPES at Rockwind Community Links is another memorial. Just outside the pro shop and next to a covered outdoor patio, there are golf balls with messages of prayer and bouquets of flowers with cards attached addressed to both the school and the course.

USW's golf teams were at Rockwind every day, working on their games. Golf pro Ben Kirkes knew every player who died. Two players on the roster who didn't make the trip to the tournament in Midland worked at the course. Kirkes had trouble putting it all into words. Everyone grieves differently.

During his time as a resident on the dorms staff, Joshua Garcia-Matta oversaw Jackson Zinn and Karisa Raines and Travis Garcia. He affectionately referred to Tiago Sousa as TT. He said Laci Stone was bright and funny and humble.

"Words don't describe the pain and the loss everyone is experiencing as a whole," said Garcia-Matta, who also is on the cheer team. "All those people on that bus, I knew personally."

Kristen Salomon, a soccer player, remembered wearing Zinn's cowboy hat while listening to country music. They two-stepped in his apartment. She said Stone, a freshman, was just starting to come out of her shell. She cherished the memory of her shyly saying hello. Those moments are what students and staff have focused on. Thanks to the size of the school, Salomon said, you have no choice but to learn how to enjoy those around you.

Dacia Johnson, the cheer coach and international admissions director, remembered sharing a building with James. She also remembered that Sousa was close with his mother.

"We lost family," Johnson said.

One of the places athletes bond, where they build a second family, is in transit to and from competitions -- especially at the NAIA level. According to Appel, his teams drove up to three hours for same-day trips and up to six if they were staying overnight. This all especially resonates at a school where 95% of the students on campus are athletes -- including those remotely, the school has more than 1,000 students -- and where coaches are part of everyday life for everyone.

"This could have been any one of us," volleyball coach Cass Smith said.

The crash's two survivors, Underhill and Price, remained hospitalized. There had been some improvements. One of the golfers had been eating chicken soup.

The school had been trying to figure out how to get Underhill and Price their golf equipment, which had been hauled by the van and recovered after the roadside investigation. USW provost Ryan Tipton said the doctors in Lubbock thought that asking questions and prompting the pair's memories was an important part of their recovery. So, their families asked them if they remembered the specifics of what they carried in their bag.

"They knew every single [club]," Tipton said. "Titleist irons, Ping driver. Whatever it was. They cared that much about their sport that they knew exactly."

A COPY OF "The Coach's Bible" sits on athletic director Steve Appel's desk. The book is a collection of devotionals to help coaches counsel athletes -- and other coaches. There is no passage on what to do next.

Several coaches who gathered in Appel's office talked about Tyler James' love for Chipotle and Bath & Body Works, about his trademark white belt. It's what they'll take with them as their seasons resume.

Josh Baker, who coaches both men's and women's tennis, was close to James. He remembered one of his last conversations with the golf coach, who was from Killeen, Texas, about an hour north of Austin. James' mother worked in Killeen's school system and wanted James to come back home.

"There's so much more money offered if we went into the public schools," Baker recalled James saying.

"You know we don't do this for the money," Baker responded.

"You're exactly right," James told him. "We don't do this for the money. We do this because we love it."

James loved it so much that he made USW's campus his own. He spruced up a putting green area behind a dorm and made another one inside the gym. Near the baseball field, he laid out a mat and set up cones at different distances and called it his driving range. His fellow coaches smiled at the memory of his ingenuity.

If you were hungry, James had peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for you. If you were thirsty, he had hot cocoa with marshmallows after chapel. Four days after the crash, Baker and soccer coach Edgar Negrete went to James' apartment to tend to the laundry James had started before he left. They found snacks for his players stacked to the ceiling.

"It was like a Sam's Club," Baker said. "That was one way he showed his love."

They also saw a PlayStation controller, which he used to play Call of Duty, and a blanket that had the Top 10 golfers of all time stitched on it.

Right below Tiger Woods and above Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer?

Tyler James.

Baker and Negrete laughed and took photos.

"That gave me a sense of relief," Baker said. "That was Tyler."

THE FIRST DAY students returned from spring break was a day of remembrance.

Kimberly Nevarez and Jonathan Olivas, USW soccer players, sat on one of the leather couches in Appel's office, trying to find answers. Nevarez tucked her hands in her hoodie. Olivas bounced his right leg. Both slumped in their seats.

Nevarez and Olivas were roommates with Zinn and weren't sure how they would cope once the condolences fade and the memorials disperse -- once they're alone with their thoughts. It's the struggle this community will undertake in the days to come. How do you fill a permanent void?

"I'm still trying to process it," Olivas said.

"But I do think ... the memories," Nevarez said. "They keep us going."

At 6 p.m., Lea County honored the victims of the crash in front of the courthouse in Lovington, a town just north of the school. State Rep. Randy Pettigrew stood under the shade of two trees, on a quiet street across from an ice cream shop, an American flag and headstones for a war memorial out front. Just behind that, an easel with the head shots of the nine people from USW set against a black background.

A small group of people gathered and shivered in the cold wind, wearing red ribbons with golf tees pinned to them. Seth Lackey, who was just days from his 18th birthday, is a golfer at Hobbs High School set to play in college. Lackey had just played with several of those involved in the accident two days before it happened. Seth and his parents, James and Tanya, cried.

"Nobody is equipped to handle this," James Lackey said.

"Golf teams are forgotten," Tanya Lackey said, referring to the financial pecking order of sports, even at schools where all athletics are on shoestring budgets. "Maybe hotels could get involved to make sure teams don't have to rush to come back."

Later that evening, behind a dorm on USW's campus, more than 100 people gathered in the dark on the putting green that James had spruced up. They had planned for a candlelight vigil, but the wind wouldn't allow it.

They remembered what makes USW special: the people. That's why Negrete, the soccer coach, spoke of skipping dinner with his wife to play video games with James. A cafeteria server remembered her interaction with Sanchez, the decorated amateur golfer from Mexico. They agreed that their fellow Mustangs were more than coworkers, classmates or teammates.

Before they shined their cellphone flashlights in the sky, before they huddled up and yelled "Family!" in unison, Nevarez talked about Zinn, who had become more than just someone with whom she shared an apartment.

She remembered his dimples and his laugh. His job at Texas Roadhouse. The way he liked whiskey and always cheered up her and Olivas after practices. How he was the happiest person in the room. And Nevarez remembered something else -- an orange pot. Zinn loved to cook pasta in it. He often took out a piece and threw it against the wall. He wanted to see if it was cooked. Nevarez always told him to clean his dishes, and he never did. The pot was in the sink after the crash.

"Honestly," Nevarez said, "I enjoyed washing his pot this past time. It was nice."