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The Clearwater soccer team honors a teammate who died this year.
By BRYAN BURNS
Published December 19, 2007
CLEARWATER - Her jersey has its own spot on the Clearwater bench, prominently on display during games, always in full view of the field.
Around the arm of each player rests a black band with her No. 23 written in white. Some have penned her name and number on their cleats.
Early in the season, a moment of silence was observed in her honor before each game. Clearwater even took the field with just 10 players for the first few moments of its season opener.
There are reminders everywhere of the bubbly, fun-loving girl teammates say was as good at cracking a smile as she was at cracking a wicked shot on goal.
Erica Hambsch might be gone, but she most certainly is not forgotten.
Hambsch, who would have been a junior starting midfielder for Clearwater this season, died Sept. 7 from massive brain trauma sustained during a single-car accident, just days before the Tornadoes opened soccer practice. She was 16. The tragedy left many players struggling for answers, especially on the soccer field, where Hambsch had a particularly effervescent personality.
"She'd make everyone laugh with silly jokes she made up," said close friend and junior defender Rebecca Carden. "She was the life of the party, pretty much."
Understandably, soccer was one of the last thoughts on most players' minds.
"At the beginning of the season it was really hard," Carden said. "The first two practices I couldn't come out. I know a couple of the other girls didn't come to practice because they were upset about it. It was a good two, three weeks before I could fully practice. I would come out to start but have to leave halfway through.
"But she would have wanted us to play. She would have wanted us to keep going. That's my motivation right there."
Wins and losses aren't as important at Clearwater (5-6-2) these days, replaced instead by a desire to build relationships, to maintain a sense of family.
And most importantly, to have fun.
"This season is for her, but it's not like we feel we have to win for her," said Holly Pedersen, who considered Hambsch her best friend. "She didn't care that much about whether we won or not anyway. Instead, we have to have fun for her."
"(The accident) kind of reminded me that we're out here and you never know what's going to happen any minute," coach Robert Lucio said. "It reminded me of how many people you can touch in such a short time."
Hambsch touched quite a few during her time. Pedersen wants to make sure that legacy continues, by including Hambsch in the Clearwater High sports hall of fame and with an annual scholarship presented to a college-bound Clearwater soccer player in Hambsch's name.
"I haven't had the strength to really get into it," Pedersen said. "But it's going to be done by the time I leave."