Tocarra Williams, the Cypress Bay High School girls’ basketball coach, took a deep breath, put her phone away and walked into the gym around 3 p.m. Wednesday. To her players, there was still a playoff game the next day; a loss would end their season.
And as the girls racked the basketballs some hour and a half later, Williams finally spoke up. There will be no game, she told them, at least not for a while.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Eagles defeated Cypress Bay in the teams’ second game of the season. The Florida 9A regional semifinal, this time at Cypress Bay, was supposed to be the Lightning’s chance for revenge.
For now, that’s not going to happen, Williams told her team.
On her way to practice around 2:30 p.m., a friend watching the news sent her a text that there had been a shooting at Douglas. Details were sparse, but Williams knew any sort of violence on school grounds would likely postpone the game.
Before she walked into practice, the friend had texted her again.
There were more casualties than anyone originally imagined.
By the time practice ended, Douglas Athletic Director Chris Hixon was among the 17 students and teachers killed in a rampage carried out by a former student, authorities say.
Maddy Wilford, a junior guard, was among the wounded. Her mother wrote on Facebook between her daughter’s three surgeries that doctors couldn’t tell how many times she had been shot.
And after all that — the crying, the thoughts and prayers, the media circus that descended on South Florida, the presidential condolences, the funerals — there would be Cypress Bay and a playoff basketball game.
“Reach out to the people you know at Douglas or people who know someone who know someone,” Williams told her team. “Make sure they’re okay.”
There’s no practice after school Thursday, she added. Let’s just talk instead.
“How are you feeling?” Williams asked the next day sitting with her team in an empty classroom. “Whatever it is, it’s not wrong.”
“It could have been us” was the common sentiment, Williams told The Washington Post. Douglas and Cypress Bay, residents joke, are carbon copies of one another in terms of population, demographics, academic achievements and, yes, sports. The schools are a half-hour apart, a straight shot 20 miles up Florida Route 869.
Douglas’s record this season is 15-7. Cypress Bay’s is 14-8. The margin that separates them, from that game in the beginning of the season, is three points.
In the days after the attack at Douglas, students in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Texas; Alabama; Arizona; Maryland and Idaho brought firearms or facsimiles to school. Yes, Williams said, it could have been us.
“Why would they even make us play this game?” a player asked.
“This is bigger than you, and you have to look outside of yourself,” Williams responded.
What if Douglas students need this game to help them heal or take their minds of the shooting? What if they just want to get back to normal?
“You have an obligation and a responsibility to play for Douglas High School,” Williams said. And if Cypress Bay wins, “We’re going to play with their light inside of us,” the coach added.
“What is really important is that you see opportunities when they present themselves and you capitalize on the moment,” she said. “Because in a moment, life can change, so embrace the people around you. That’s something we talked about before even mentioning basketball.”
State athletics officials rescheduled the playoff game for Feb 22. Williams gave her team the weekend off.
“Get back readjusted,” she told players. “It’s definitely not going to be like any other game. It absolutely isn’t.”