The sun was setting as the Walter Johnson High School boys' lacrosse team walked off the field yesterday. The Wildcats' season ended with a standing ovation from a standing-room only crowd at Annapolis High, applauding after the team completed its first state semifinal game -- and an integral part in its healing process.
Walter Johnson lost the Maryland 4A/3A semifinal game, 17-7, to Westminster. But few Walter Johnson players or fans were focused on the result.
Their thoughts were with the one Walter Johnson player who was not there. The one who brightened hallways at the Bethesda school with that goofy smile, the one whom players and fans honored last night by wearing green-and-white striped socks pulled as high as they could, because that's how he wore them.
He was Roderick Bower, the Walter Johnson junior goalkeeper who was killed in a single-car accident early Saturday morning. He died when his car crossed over the center line and hit a tree at approximately 3:40 a.m. -- fewer than 10 hours before the game with Westminster originally was scheduled to be played.
After a somber return to school yesterday, approximately 450 Walter Johnson students had boarded three charter buses and ridden to Annapolis to see Bower's team resume its season.
As at the state semifinals played Saturday at Annapolis, last night's game started with a moment of silence. After that, it was constant noise from the bleachers packed full of Walter Johnson fans.
"This just wasn't a lacrosse game," said Walter Johnson senior midfielder Alex Chaudry, who scored a team-high three goals. "It was a game to remember our former goalie Rod . . . and he would have wanted us to play. We definitely felt his presence out there."
Walter Johnson -- representing Montgomery County, whose public school teams never have won a state playoff game in lacrosse -- fell behind 4-0 early in the game. Though Westminster's lead swelled to 14-5 late in the third quarter, it did not stop Walter Johnson junior Alejandro Guzman from taking a parking cone and coordinating cheers.
Some fans screamed because they were told, and others simply found it symbolic -- because Bower, a fun-loving junior friends called "Hot Rod," would have done anything to help his team, they said.
"You can feel his presence here, and he's hearing all of our cheers," said Guzman, another friend of Bower's. "We're not here to see if we're going to win, we're here to support our team, support Rod. It really doesn't matter if we win, because it's not that important."Walter Johnson, where the bustling hallways are always filled with chatter between classes, was in somber silence yesterday as school administrators and counselors consoled grieving students. They also made preparations for Wednesday's wake at DeVol Funeral Home in Gaithersburg and Thursday's funeral at Holy Cross Church in Garrett Park.
"As soon as we got [to school], we started putting up posters and signs saying how much we missed him and how much we loved him," said Walter Johnson sophomore Lucy Schlosser, who wrapped white tape around her green socks in an homage to her close friend.
"We must have looked through tons of pictures of him and we never saw him not smiling in any of them," said sophomore Rachel Shuck, who, like Schlosser, had taped a photo of Bower to her green T-shirt. "He always tried to make everyone around him feel good, and if there was anything bad happening, he had this smile and a way to make you laugh."
Bower, who was wearing a seat belt at the time of the collision in the 10400 block of Democracy Boulevard in Potomac, apparently left his house without his parents' knowledge late Friday or early Saturday. His destination was unknown. There is no indication that alcohol was a factor in the collision, but a final determination will be made following toxicology tests by the state's medical examiner in Baltimore, according to a statement issued by Montgomery County police.
"I think teenagers are going to remember this tragedy as long as they live," Walter Johnson Athletic Director Sue Amos said. "It's not going to go away. This is a life lesson, it's a part of life just like playing on a sports team, attending classes and working hard to get a diploma, it's part of the maturing process."
Playing the game was also part of the process for Bower's teammates.
"They showed a lot of courage to come out here and play as hard as they did after going through such a terrible tragedy," said Westminster Coach Jim Peters, whose team -- now undefeated at 16-0 -- signed a card and presented it to Walter Johnson's players before the game. "I can't imagine what they had to go through."
Walter Johnson's players wore helmets adorned with decals of the number 2, Bower's jersey number. They played hard throughout, with sophomore attack Joe Brody scoring with 38 seconds remaining.
But no Walter Johnson player was in a tougher position than senior Tim Peterson, who found himself making his first career start in goal. He had learned to play lacrosse last summer, when senior midfielder Matt Little needed a goalie to shoot on for practice.
"He was under a lot of pressure and he played well, and I couldn't be prouder of him or our team," said Walter Johnson Coach Jim Collin, whose team ended the season 13-4. "After the game, I told them that I've never been prouder as a coach here than I am right now."
The most successful boys' lacrosse season in Walter Johnson history ended last night, but all 32 players are expected to attend school today or their high school graduation ceremony on June 3. When sophomore Armen Petrosiam, who sat in the second row as the crowd chanted "We love Rod" at game's end, enters his seventh-period economics class today, there will be an empty desk in the middle of the room that will remain vacant.
"That's where Rod would sit, and today we all signed our names on his desk with a black [pen]," Petrosiam said. "Nobody said a word. We just sat there in silence. It was like one day he was there, and now he's not going to be there any more."