Updated Wed, Aug 21, 2013 1:54 pm
Kendall Sweany ended one of her last tennis practices with a characteristic sense of self-denigrating humor, playing foil to her primary role as team leader, as student athlete, as friend.
"I'm quitting," she jokingly told Coach Nj Kight after a few bad shots at the end of practice.
"You still coming back?"
He smiles when he remembers her reply. Kendall, the de facto leader of the Vinton County High School girl's tennis team, practiced as the only senior with four years of experience.
Weeks later, on a late summer's day which hints of autumn, Kendall's teammates gather on the court for photo day. For many of the younger players, this is one of the first times they wear their team's uniform, a maroon top and white skirt, the schools' colors.
There is little visible grief among the players as they finish their team picture. An air of nervous excitement surrounds them, with summer vacation wrapping up and a new school year just two days away.
But things are not yet back to normal. There is a noticeable sense of awkwardness, camaraderie meeting anguish, the players on edge. Something is lacking.
They are without their leader. At just 17-years-old, Kendall — daughter of Linda Dawn Sweany and Darren Montgomery — died as a result of a car accident last week.
The tennis team is just one piece of the Vinton County community trying to balance retrospection with a return to normalcy, when descriptions drift into past tense and hope longs for a peaceful future.
"She was just a special kid," said Coach Kight. "She tried hard at everything she did."
Days before the team portrait, family, friends and teachers gathered at the school's gymnasium for a memorial service to remember Kendall Dawn Sweany. A life taken too soon, too abruptly. A community coping with the loss of a student so heavily involved and highly regarded.
Athletic Director Matt Combs called the loss "heartbreaking," noting that Kendall's excellence in sports and academics defined her role as a student athlete.
"(Kendall) was such a popular, active member of our school," Combs said.
Alongside playing tennis, Kendall was active in the school's track team, Spanish Club and FCCLA. In 2012, she was inducted into the National Honor Society.
Combs said the closeness of the VCHS community will allow friends and teammates to "bounce back" from the tragedy. Resilient, the tennis team awaits the arrival of memorial patches they hope to keep with them throughout the season.
That will be their way of moving on, of returning to a sense of control over their surroundings. Win or lose, this year, they will always have something to hold onto.
Outside the gymnasium, Kendall's teammates practice on the maroon-painted courts, ready for the season, for school to pick up again, ready to regain their usual sense of team playfulness.
For now, their spirits are lifted knowing that for this season, their leader will always be with them.
And that's what keeps Coach Kight smiling, pain and all, his most experienced player and model student there to bring the team together as she's always done.
"You still coming back?" he asks Kendall as she walks off the court.
"I'm just quitting for today," the leader tells him. "I'll be back tomorrow."