High School Sports

‘It’s so much more than soccer’: Liberty girls turn coach’s tragedy into a state title

Tyler Nash didn’t devote much of the night of May 14 to sleeping — maybe 45 minutes, he estimates — but he didn’t spend the remaining time trying. His Liberty High girls soccer team faced a district championship game against rival Liberty North the next day, but he wasn’t awake concocting a game plan.

The Blue Jays had lost to their rival in the same game the year before. To be sure, Liberty wanted this game.

Nash wanted it, too, but not as badly as he wanted his younger brother back.

He couldn’t sleep because only a few hours ago, he received word that Ryan Nash, four days away from graduating from UMKC, had taken his own life.

That’s why Tyler Nash sat awake in his Liberty apartment that night, stewing, dwelling, reflecting on the life he and his family had just lost.

While he lay in bed, another thought surfaced.

“We talk about these pillars that I want the girls to learn,” Nash said, “and one of the major pillars that I talk about is being able to handle adversity. I said, ‘Ladies, a lot of things in life are going to knock you down. You have to be able to pick yourself up.’”

With that in mind, Nash made a decision. He would coach the team that night.

His message all season had revolved around maneuvering around trials and tribulations.

Now, it was time for Nash to take his own advice.

‘Ryan, I’m going to need some help here’

Tyler Nash’s plan to tell his players about his brother’s death was to use a photo of a workbench that they built, the final way they spent time together. In the locker room after the Liberty North game, Nash would place the picture on an inspiration board the team looked at as it marched its way to the Missouri Class 4 championship.

If only it was that simple.

At the match, Liberty battled Liberty North while Nash battled emotion. In “one of the hardest things” he had ever done, Nash led his club through a match that entered halftime scoreless. He averted his eyes from his family and honed in on the pitch, in part because of the game’s importance and in part because he was fighting the urge to cry. Catching eyes with either of his parents would surely lead to defeat.

Nash coped by talking to his brother under his breath. “All right, Ryan, I’m going to need some help here,” he whispered, hoping for just a few more minutes of dry eyes.

Just a few more minutes.

Just a little longer.

Before long, the Jays won, the final goal coming a ball that the Liberty North keeper lost in the sun in the final two minutes. But soon after Nash made an “I love you” sign language gesture to his parents and ducked into the locker room, the challenge would mount.

First, the team celebrated.

Then, the hard part. Nash rifled through his backpack for a moment, fishing for the photo of the workbench — “I was scared I lost it for a second,” he said with a laugh — before he retrieved it and tacked it on the board.

“I wanted to put this on the inspirational board,” Nash told the team, “and this was a table that my brother and I made, and he committed suicide the night before.”

That’s when the floodgates burst. Nash and the team cried.

“I was speechless,” senior Emma Cronin said. “My head was spinning with a lot of thoughts and prayers for that family.”

That, the girls will tell you, is when their motivation changed from just wanting to win the Jays’ first state title since 2011.

“We realized it’s so much more than soccer,” Cronin said. “I think that’s what made it so unique, and I think that’s how we ended up getting to come out on top this year, because we weren’t just going out and practicing and playing games and ‘ha ha,’ having fun — we were having fun, but as a family.”

The next four games, the team agreed, were a blur. There was Liberty’s 2-1 sectional win over Staley on May 21, when the Jays reeled off four straight penalty kicks against Staley goalkeeper Hannah Peterson, an all-conference keeper signed to play at Missouri State who had shut out Liberty in an earlier match. There was a 4-1 win over Lee’s Summit in the quarterfinals, then a 2-1 victory over Francis Howard in the state semifinals.

Next up: the state title game against Nerinx Hall. Leading up to the game, the players did the usual: warmed up in the shirts they had made after Ryan’s death, yellow for suicide awareness with #UnitedInPurpose on the back.

After several hours, after a long weather delay during which the Jays sang loudly in their locker room, Liberty won state.

Sophomore Maya Gaona logged two goals, and junior Madilyn Hamline scored the third and final one.

The party was on.

Sort of.

“Not only did it make it so special for our coach,” Cronin said, “but I think it made it special for that whole family. We were playing for them. We were playing for more than just a silly soccer game. We were playing for his brother, that we barely even knew.

“I think when we won that game, yeah, we were excited, and we were state champions. That’s super cool. But more than that, I think that family needed that more than we did.”

Suddenly, by playing for its coach and his late brother, Liberty had transcended a Missouri Class 4 state championship.

“We were able to unify through my brother,” Nash said, “saying ‘If we can get over this, we can get over a game.’”

Senior Shae Turner, whose grandmother died the same day as Ryan, felt similarly.

“A hundred times more special,” she said. “I can’t even put into words. My sister won state back in 2011 for Liberty, and my parents were there for both state championships, and they were proud of my sister, but they said this was even more exciting, to see us win it for Coach Nash.”

‘You just have to go on’

Gloom still lingers over the wood panels and the carpet squares that buttress the Nash home. Just last week, Ryan’s phone rang. It was one of his closest friends, a Missouri state patrolman. Katie Nash, Ryan’s mom, figured he would have known about her son’s passing. Instead, she had to tell him herself.

“It is ... the most painful thing I think a parent can go through,” she said. “But we will find a new normal. Ryan would want us to. You just have to go on. The body, the mind, they’re resilient. We want to survive, and I guess we will. I know we will. I know we will. We owe it to Ryan. We owe it to Ryan to talk about him and laugh.”

That’s the challenge she and her husband, Bill, and her sons Tyler and Noah face along with their extended family.

The laughter, she said, is a vital piece to this impossible puzzle — not just for herself, but for Tyler and the team. The players laugh often, in person and via their several group chats, like the Snapchat group chat, named “Ring Szn,” the Instagram group chat, named “Kickin’ It Meme Style.com,” and the text group chat, christened a more modest “Varsity Soccer.”

Relationships are clearly key here, and while the one between the Nash family and Ryan can no longer continue in person, Tyler and his team are convinced of this: Ryan had a hand in helping the team finish on top.

“I think he’s staring down,” he said, “Watching, thinking, ‘Man, I touched a lot more people’s lives than I ever thought possible.’”