HOUMA — One by one, the players and coaches on the Vandebilt Catholic football team slowly made their way from the Terriers' athletic fieldhouse onto the adjacent practice field on Monday afternoon.
It was a short walk they've made hundreds of times before for practice in the past, but on Monday, each step was significant, as an entire team, school and community tries to move past the tragic car accident that took the lives of four Vandebilt students (T.J. Cantrelle, Ian Haydel, Megan Hitt and Gabrielle Hebert) last week.
Monday's practice was the first for the football team since the Sept. 26 tragedy. Cantrelle, a quarterback, and Haydel, a safety, were starting players on Vandebilt's football team, while Hitt and Hebert were popular and active students on the Vandebilt campus.
Vandebilt's administration suspended all scheduled athletic events last week to give students and employees a chance to mourn the tragedy and attend the funerals and other memorial events for the four victims.
Vandebilt athletic director and football coach Laury Dupont said Monday gave the players — as well as the entire school — a chance to return their normal routine for the first time since the tragedy.
“That's the best thing for the kids is coming back to what they love most and that's playing football,” Dupont said. “I know that's what T.J. and Ian would want, and it was great coming back to a regular day at school and a regular day of practice.”
The rest of Vandebilt's fall sports teams (volleyball, cross country and swimming) also returned to their team practices on Monday.
Although the tragedy has affected everyone at Vandebilt, Dupont said all of the teams will have to shift their focus back on their respective sports seasons.
“It's not that we'll forget,” Dupont said. “We'll never forget. It's time to pick up the pieces and move on. We're going to move on and keep them in the back of our minds constantly. Our motto is ‘We'll never forget,' but at the same time, life goes on.”
The football team, which has a 3-1 overall record and ranked 10th in this week's Louisiana Sports Writers Association Class 4A football poll, will begin District 8-4A play with a road game at Belle Chasse at 7 p.m. Friday.
Vandebilt canceled its nondistrict game against Hahnville last week, which was a decision Dupont supported.
“Everybody wanted to play last week, but we just couldn't,” Dupont said. “It wasn't meant to be — mentally or physically.”
Vandebilt senior defensive lineman Nick LeBlanc said he was happy to get back on the football field after a week-long absence.
“It was a really tough week with everything we had to go through,” LeBlanc said. “It will never be the same and things won't return to normal, but we're just trying to finish strong and keep it going. We worked very hard to come back positive and strong (on Monday). It was a good practice, and we're looking forward to playing Belle Chasse.”
Vandebilt senior cornerback Daren Kitchen said the football team had a meeting on Sunday and decided to dedicate its season to the four deceased students. The team will wear decals with the numbers of Cantrelle (9) and Haydel (16), along with the initials of Hitt and Hebert, on their helmets.
“We're always going to play with them in our hearts and minds,” Kitchen said. “I think they would want us to win, so we want to make sure we do it for them.”
Other teams at Vandebilt have also dedicated their seasons to the four victims. The volleyball team will play its first match back against District 5-II rival Ellender at 4 p.m. Thursday in Vandebilt's gym. The cross country teams will participate in today's meet at South Terrebonne, while the swimming teams will participate in a meet against Northshore and Mandeville on Thursday.
Vandebilt volleyball coach Kristin Chabert-Son said the four victims were great leaders at the school, and she hopes their lives will help inspire the volleyball team to play hard during the rest of their matches this season.
“That is what T.J., Ian, Megan and Gabrielle would want from them,” Chabert-Son said. “They wouldn't want the tragedy to break them down. They would want it to motivate them, to push them forward and to help them become better people in the end.”
Prior to Saturday's college football game between LSU and Tennessee, there was a moment of silence observed at Tiger Stadium during pregame activities to honor the four students, who were killed while traveling back from LSU's game against West Virginia on Sept. 25.
Dupont said it was a great honor for the entire Vandebilt community.
“They honored them for about 15 seconds, and you could have heard a pin drop,” Dupont said. “You don't get that too much from a stadium with 95,000 people. I thank (LSU football) Coach Les Miles and the administration for doing that for us. It meant a lot.”