One of the biggest weekends in Dickinson State’s recent athletic history was followed by perhaps the darkest day in the school’s history.
After a Saturday where the Blue Hawk football team defeated rival Minot State 28-13 to wrap up a share of the Dakota Athletic Conference title and the 10th-ranked women’s basketball team upset No. 1-ranked defending national champion Morningside, the students at DSU awoke Monday to discover that three of their own had vanished without a trace.
Soon, rumors swirled. Text messages were sent. Facebook statuses were updated. Fear began to take hold.
Around noon, nearly everyone on DSU’s campus had learned that softball players Kyrstin Gemar, Ashley Neufeld and Afton Williamson had made a panicked phone call to a friend late Sunday night and hadn’t been heard from or seen them since. Before long, softball and baseball players were pulled from classes to help search for the women.
At a 3 p.m. press conference, law enforcement officials spoke about their search, their plans for more searches and pleaded with area residents to come forward with any information that might be helpful.
Students, friends, teachers and coaches sat on pins and needles the rest of the day. No new information came in.
When law enforcement and DSU officials quelled unorganized student search-party efforts, an alternative was raised — an impromptu prayer service at the DSU Student Center.
Little did I know that attending that prayer service would be the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do for my job.
I’ll be honest, I broke a cardinal rule of journalism. My unbiased journalistic opinion was pretty much gone. All I knew was that I, along with the hundreds of other people in that room, wanted these three girls, two of whom I have come to know well in my time as Sports Editor of The Dickinson Press, to come home safe.
I’ve known Ashley for about three years and Kyrstin since last spring. She was a freshman at DSU the first year I arrived at The Dickinson Press. I’ve interviewed her countless times. She’s worked at games for DSU’s athletic department and was quick to offer a helping hand if I needed anything. Ashley is most simply stated, a sweet person who never stops smiling.
I didn’t know Krystin until last softball season but got to know her father, Lenny, very well after he offered his photographic services to The Dickinson Press as he followed the softball team to the Tucson (Ariz.) Invitational and to the NAIA national tournament in Alabama. Kyrstin, known as "Beyonce" by her teammates, embodies the old Teddy Roosevelt adage of "speak softly, but carry a big stick." Gemar, while never the most colorful post-game interview, is one of the best pure hitters DSU’s softball team has ever had. She burst onto the scene last season after redshirting her first transfer year and hit 10 homers.
The prayer service was a surreal experience. I thought to myself more than once, "I hate this" or "I never thought my job would put me in this position."
Still, the prayer service brought out the best in everyone. Nearly every DSU student-athlete was there (quite a high percentage of the student body if you do the math), showing their respect, saying prayers or just offering a shoulder to cry on or a body to hold. Many of them with welled-up eyes, bloodshot red from prolonged crying. These moments showed how tight of a campus DSU is. I’m sure it’s exactly what you’ll be hearing if this story goes national (it’s already the lead on FoxNews.com).
I couldn’t help but offer a few hugs or supportive pats on the back to some people in the room, including one of whom is a lifelong friend. (Again a breach of the journalist’s code, but at that point, I really didn’t care.)
I left the service begrudgingly. I would have rather stayed and talked with people, not for a story, but to see how they were doing. With a lump in my throat and watery eyes, I went back to work with some of the most touching photographs I’ve ever taken.
As of midnight Tuesday, nothing new has been learned of this story. The search for the women was called off Monday evening.
Still, rumors circulated. Facebook was alive with updates, texts still bounced back and forth, and people still folded their hands and prayed that three friends and teammates would show up in the morning with the same smiles they saw on their faces the day before.