Photos by Nicholas Mattson/Paso Robles Press
Templeton High School senior Annie Elterman shoots a free throw in front of a packed gym on Tuesday at THS against Santa Maria High School. The community showed up in blue to honor the loss of team captain Shelby Sudbrink, who died on Friday, Jan. 6 in a tragic auto collision. Below, then-junior Sudbrink runs to greet a coach during the 2015-16 season. Bottom left, Sudbrink’s team warms up wearing blue T-shirts with the No. 12 for Shelby. Bottom right, THS teammates wear armbands with the No. 12 embroidered in memory of Shelby.
Community responds to loss of team captain, player, daughter, and friend
When the Templeton High School varsity girls basketball team took the court against the visiting Santa Maria Saints on Tuesday, it was not going to be an easy game. The coaches, school officials, fans, referees, and media showed up to pack the THS basketball gym to honor and celebrate the life that Shelby Sudbrink had given to the community before she passed away on Friday morning.
Sudbrink was a senior, and captain of the girls basketball team, and it would be hard to imagine a more meaningful tribute than what THS athletic director Lindsay Campana and the THS staff put together on Tuesday.
Sudbrink’s teammates began a campaign to support their former leader, using social media to gather support.
“We started sending Snapchats and Instagrams to a bunch of people,” longtime friend and teammate Annie Elterman said, “and the word spread about wearing blue for Shelby.”
Prior to the game, Campana joined the movement and called on the community to show up in blue — Sudbrink’s favorite color.
The Eagles were ready to come out of the locker room, and peeking through blue and white streamers that hung from the locker room doorway, they could see the community pour into the gymnasium.
“The atmosphere was overwhelming almost,” THS junior Haley Hurdle said. “That was a lot of people. We have never played in front of that many people, and to play without one of our best players — one of our sisters — was hard. But it was comforting to know they were there, and that we were not going through this alone. No one is going through this alone. As much as it hurts, we have someone to lean on. Any single person in that gym, they would be there for us. It was comforting as much as it was scary for us.”
The warmup music started, and the team ran out to some of Sudbrink’s favorite rap songs. They were all wearing blue T-shirts with the No. 12 drawn on the back, with the phrase “Hell yeah” inscribed with it.
“That was something she would always say,” THS junior Julia Aurignac said. “After we won our Morro Bay game before her accident, we were like ‘we won!’ and she said ‘hell yeah!’ and it was exciting. She was so pumped up. She used the phrase a lot, but that was the last time. It just kind of stuck out.”
Like the waves of emotion that have been rolling over the friends and families of Sudbrink, a wall of blue rose up the stadium seats on both sides of the THS gymnasium, and roared when “Shelby Sudbrink” was announced in the starting lineup and her younger sister Kiley, 7, ran out in her place.
“Watching Kiley running up there, it was hard to know that she will grow up without Shelby,” Hurdle said. “Shelby was an influential person, and to see her little sister come out, it was inspiring to know that she will keep going. [Kiley] plays basketball, and Shelby’s memory will not be lost. She’s got Kiley and Colby, and she has her family coming up, playing and keeping her memory and spirit alive.”
As a sign of respect for the Eagles’ loss, the Santa Maria Saints gave roses to the Templeton players during introductions.
“They [Santa Maria] were there to sup port us,” Aurignac said. “They came into this game knowing it would be very emotional for us, and they cared about our team. They cared about other players in their league.”
The support was deliberate and emotional.
“It was heart-breaking, and heart-warming at the same time,” Hurdle said. “It was hard coming out without Shelby, and coming into that gym … that gym was for her. Her sister sat on my lap and said ‘all these people are here for Shelby,’ and I almost started crying. It is hard without her, but seeing that support and knowing that we have that support as a team and that she has that support as a player and her family has that support … it is really nice to know. It hurts, but it is comforting to know they are there.”
Support for the team came from every angle. Signs painted to remember and honor Sudbrink covered all four walls of the gym, with large blue-lettered posters spelling out “S-H-E-L-B-Y” on the wall above the home crowd and the words “Sudbrink Strong” scribed below the American flag where it stood proudly as all heads turned during the national anthem.
“The support of the community really made it feel good to be out there playing,” Aurignac said. “I’ve never played in front of that many people before. It was a little nerve-wracking, but it was nice to see everyone supporting us and everything we are going through right now.”
The massive moment gave way to the opening tip, and against all adversity, the teams began to play a Los Padres League basketball game. But getting to that point was a challenge.
“It was really emotional,” Elterman said. “I wasn’t fully prepared for the game because of all the intensity in the room. I just had [Shelby] on my mind the entire time. At some points it was hard to play because of that, but I wanted to do it for her.”
Showing up to lead the team, THS head coach Shawn Koehler had to find a way to coach his team through a moment that no coach prepares for ahead of time.
“It was emotional,” Koehler said. “You have a giant crowd like that and you have nine girls looking at you.”
Digging into the reality of the situation, he brought his A-game.
“It was not ‘win one for Shelby,’” Koehler said. “It can’t be that. I just told them to play like she did. She is a blue-collar basketball player, so get on the floor, go for every loose ball, and play until the last buzzer goes. That is what she did. She didn’t care about stats, or any of that stuff. She just loved to play, loved the girls, the camaraderie, and loved the game.”
Getting the team ready to get out and play, he did his best to guide his team through the adversity — as sports often provide, the moment was a way to learn how to deal with life in all its thrills and agony.
“We talked about that nothing is going to bring her back,” Koehler said. “It was a tragic, tragic accident. Life has these ups and these downs. It is how you learn how to deal with them. I said last night, there is no playbook, there is no manual for this. It is hour to hour, day to day, week to week, month to month. I said ‘The pain will subside, but the memories will never go away. Use those to propel yourselves to honor her.’”
The team embraced the resolve.
“We were talking about how we were going to play,” Aurignac said, “and how we should play a ‘blue-collar’ basketball game — we should play like Shelby would. Not necessarily ‘win for her’ but to play as if she is there with us.”
By Koehler’s side, his assistant coach Michael Sudbrink, Shelby’s broken-hearted father, found the strength to stand strong for the team, uplifted by the support of a packed gymnasium.
“We were sitting there before the tip off, and [Michael] said ‘Coach, this is humbling,” Koehler said. “The support of the community is unbelievable. He was involved with youth sports all the way to this game, and she touched a lot of people’s lives. You really saw that last night. There was not an open seat on this side of the court.”
In return, Sudbrink’s father’s presence on the sidelines was a support for the players on the team.
“We felt like we were his own kids,” Aurignac said. “He is out here to support us like he would be to support Shelby. That means a lot, and it shows his strength as a coach and it makes us appreciate him more as a coach and us stronger as a team.”
The game began with just four starters on the court for Templeton — leaving the space of the fifth starter filled with the spirit and memory of the deceased Sudbrink.
“I brought up the idea, because she would always start with us,” Elterman said. “and I wanted to carry that on. It was for a special moment for her. We had to check if it was legal first.”
The team embraced the idea, and it set the tone for the first game without her.
“I thought it was a really good idea to do that,” THS senior Vanessa Urciuoli said. “It just shows everyone that she was a part of our team and was in the starting lineup.”
Sudbrink’s spirit was with the team throughout the game.
“Shelby was there with us,” THS junior Haley Hurdle said. “I felt her out there. I felt her the whole game. Her encouragement and her spirit, even when she was on the bench, she had that energy you felt on the court. I felt it last night on the court, and I don’t think we will ever lose that, because she is still with us.”
As the game progressed, the bond of the team and the community helped provide some healing as the Eagles poured their energy into the game, but it was not without some ceremony.
THS senior Annie Elterman scored the first basket of the game, hitting a 12-foot jumper and lifting her eyes and a finger to the sky with a bright smile as she honored her friend in the game they both loved.
“I knew she would do the same thing,” Elterman said. “I knew she would take the first shot. She usually always does, and she would make it. I just knew she was with us. I felt her. I was like ‘This is for you, and I pointed up because you were watching, and you would laugh and you would dance if you saw me do that.’”
Templeton took an early lead, 5-4, and expanded it with a 14-0 run. By halftime, the Eagles held a 31-11 lead.
Templeton survived a small surge in the second half by the Saints, and did not let it get close. The final tally on the game was 55-40.
“They played better than I expected,” Koehler said of his team. “Mentally they were not quite there, but they put a good effort in.”
Dealing with the ongoing emotions for the rest of the season, Koehler said he will keep things in perspective.
“It is going to be a challenge,” Koehler said. “I don’t know if for the rest of the year we will get 100 percent from all five of them at one time. I want to win, but there is a bigger picture,”
After the game, there was a great sense of camaraderie lingering in the building after the game as families and friends met on the court to share in the joy and pain of the evening.
At practice on Wednesday, Koehler gave a short pep talk, then turned his attention quickly to Thursday’s opponent — Nipomo.
The emotions, memories, and pain will linger and weave themselves into the season, and the rest of the school year as the students and community work through the loss and find a way to face and give 100 percent to each new challenge.
The lasting memories will remain with the entire community, and Shelby Sudbrink will truly be missed by all who were blessed to know her.
Templeton will host Cabrillo on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
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