BLUFFTON, Ohio -- There was no mistaking the camaraderie as Bluffton University baseball players lined up to have their heads shaved in front of an enthusiastic lunch crowd at the campus student center.
In one month, the 45 players raised more than $7,000 from family and friends for a children's cancer research fund known as St. Baldrick's Foundation.
"We're really close," said Nick Broyles, the team's shortstop and a senior math major from Toledo. "The morale is a lot more calm now."
"Now" is five years to the day that a chartered bus carrying the university's baseball team to Florida for spring games took a deadly wrong turn on I-75 in Atlanta and careened over an overpass, killing five of the players, the bus driver and his wife, and injuring 29 others on the bus.
Mr. Broyles, a Whitmer High School graduate who came to Bluffton a year and a half after the crash to play baseball, said he found a team divided between those who had been on the bus and those who had not, between those who'd lost good friends and were now hesitant to board a bus for away games and those who just wanted to play ball.
It strained team dynamics in a way head Coach James Grandey -- himself seriously injured in the crash -- was not sure how to handle.
"It was bad and hard to manage and hard to try to figure out how to do what's best for those who were on the bus and those who were coming to college to play baseball and how to treat them equally," Mr. Grandey said. "It was a situation I hope another coach never has to go through."
Though the 34-year-old coach says he is still personally working through the grief process, time has marched on at the 1,200-student college 55 miles south of Toledo.
Today, none of the players involved in the 2007 baseball season remains at Bluffton. Even the undergraduates who weathered the tragedy have moved on, leaving a student body whose knowledge of the deadly accident comes from a solemn but respectful memorial built near the campus' baseball field. The field was rebuilt and renamed Memorial Field in honor of those who died -- Zachary Arend, 18, of Oakwood, Ohio; David Betts, 20, of Bryan; Scott Harmon, 19, of Elida, Ohio; Cody Holp, 19, of Verona, Ohio, and Tyler Williams, 19, of Lima, Ohio.
The Circle of Remembrance, as the memorial is called, includes a plaque with each player's photo and background, a stone bench and tree for each, and a central sculpture depicting home base, imprints of the five players' cleats, and the handprints of the surviving team members and coaches.
A small white cross and a baseball was placed by each of the boys' plaques ahead of the annual remembrance service planned for noon Friday at the memorial.
Estee Arend, a Bluffton junior whose elder brother was killed in the crash, will be at the service though she said her parents will be in Arizona catching the opening game of Cleveland Indians' spring training. The family loves baseball -- no one perhaps more than her brother, who never got to play a college baseball game.
A freshman at Bluffton in 2007, the young pitcher was so excited about being selected to travel with the team to Florida for spring games, his family was planning to travel to Florida to cheer on the Beavers. Instead, the Arends found themselves at an Atlanta hospital where Zachary lay critically injured. He died March 9, a week after the crash.
"I chose Bluffton to honor him," said Miss Arend, who was a sophomore at Paulding High School when her brother died. "He loved the school, and I knew if he loved it, I would love it."
She spent the last two summers in Bluffton, working on the grounds crew -- mowing lawns on campus and, when she had extra time, pulling weeds and picking up trash around the baseball memorial.
"A lot of students don't know [about the bus crash]. The new class coming in would've been in eighth grade when it happened, so a lot of them don't know about it, but they're very respectful," Miss Arend said. "It's part of who we are now."
Bluffton University President James Harder agreed.
"We've always been a very close community, and because of that, the accident had a very real impact on the school," he said. "Five years later, one sense is we are moving beyond the accident, as we should be, but there's no doubt the memories and the impact are forever woven into our collective memory and identity."
Of the 25 surviving team members, 24 have graduated from Bluffton. One left college early to play minor league ball. Twelve are now coaches or working in sports.
Tim Berta, the most severely injured survivor, is now a student and assistant baseball coach at Lourdes University. The Ida, Mich., man is among the former players expected to attend the remembrance service.
Corey Conn, who played second and third base, is now a seventh-grade world history teacher at General Sherman Junior High School in Lancaster, Ohio. He coaches the eighth-grade basketball team and the freshman baseball team at Lancaster High School.
Mr. Conn was bruised and battered in the 2007 bus crash but didn't break any bones. He knows he was one of the lucky ones and said he tries to "really embrace every day."
"When people ask me, 'How are you doing?' I always say, 'Can't complain,' " Mr. Conn, now 25, said. "It just really makes you thankful for every day."
He said he tries to pass that on to his players and students who are at an age where any problem seems like the end of the world. Sharing his experience -- of loss, of healing, of getting back on the playing field just 28 days after the tragic accident -- helps the kids realize they too can persevere, he said.
The baseball team at Bluffton has finally gotten beyond just persevering. Last year, the team set a school record, winning 19 games.
"We were 19-20, which isn't great by any means, but it's a still a record -- Bluffton's best baseball team ever," Mr. Grandey said.
"I was hired when I was 25," he said. "The bus accident obviously threw a pretty big wrench in the development of the program, so we've got some catching up to do, but we finally feel like we're on the right track now."
Players still wear black arm bands to honor their fallen teammates, and wood cutouts of their jerseys remain affixed to the left field fence.
The boys' numbers -- 3, 4, 17, 18, and 19 -- have not been formally retired, but as far as Coach Grandey is concerned they are.
"As long as I coach here, nobody's going to use those numbers," he said, looking out to the field. "And I hope whoever coaches after me will honor that."
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: email@example.com or 419-724-612940.89533 -83.88883
Camaraderie evident among players 5 years after tragic bus accident.