On March 14, Polk County High School sophomore softball player Kaitlyn Williams learned that her mother, Gina, had taken her own life.
Kaitlyn's brother, Dakota, is a junior at Polk County. Their father, Verlin, said his children knew at that time their mother recently had gotten into trouble at work, but they didn't know she had been arrested and charged with embezzlement.
Kaitlyn had gone to practice reluctantly that day.
"First period that day we talked about suicide in my child life span and development class," Kaitlyn said. "We talked about it all day. Then my mom was texting me that she loved me and my brother. I was wondering, 'Why is she saying this?' I knew something was up. I just didn't feel like going to practice that day."
Kaitlyn said her mother loved watching her play softball. She said her mother always told her she did well, even on days when Kaitlyn said she knew she hadn't.
Verlin found his wife's body that afternoon. He called Polk softball coach Bill Triplett and asked him to tell his daughter to drive from practice to her grandfather's house, which is close to the Williamses'. It didn't work.
"I could see the whole team following me when I left. I had to go over there," Kaitlyn said, referring to her house. "When I pulled in the driveway, I saw ambulances and cops and I knew what had happened. I started screaming as soon as I got out of the car."
Triplett recalled arriving a little later and seeing the girls gathered on the porch, crying together.
"It leaves an empty place in your heart," Triplett said. "We just have a lot of unanswered questions. So many emotions play into it, you can't imagine."
But the season moved on. The incident happened on a Thursday, and the team was scheduled to play in Meigs County's Tiger Classic in Dayton that weekend.
Kaitlyn took her position at second base that Friday. She played because she thought that's what her mother would've wanted her to do. Her father said she reached base all seven times that she batted in two games.
Saturday, the day before the funeral, she batted twice, then asked if she could leave.
"Saturday morning I kind of felt OK," Kaitlyn said. "But I just wanted to be with my family that day. I felt like I was bringing the team down."
One thing that's helped Kaitlyn in recent weeks is that two friends and classmates -- Shakori Pirkle, a basketball player, and Chasity Parker, a cheerleader -- have joined the softball team. Triplett referred to them as "a breath of fresh air."
"They've been heaven-sent," he said. "They cut up, they have fun and they're super-great kids. They don't care if they play. They just want to be a part of this with Kaitlyn."
In a show of solidarity, the players now exhibit orange ribbons at their games. They don't care that they clash with their red and blue school colors. They wear them in support of Kaitlyn because her mother was a Tennessee Volunteers fan.
"It's made us closer," Triplett said of the incident. "I think it's opened some eyes in ways only something like this could do."
Verlin has received his share of support, too. Shakori's mother, Marietha Silvers, has gone with him on lawyer visits. He said Deanna Sloan, president of the softball team's booster club, has helped greatly, as have many others.
"A group of ladies got together the other day and came over and cleaned my house for me," Verlin said. "It was cleaner when they left than when I bought it."
Some of Polk County's opponents have shown their consideration. For instance, Bradley Central's girls showed up to play Polk wearing orange ribbons, too.
Kaitlyn's insight seems to transcend the fact that she's 16. As if her suspicions surrounding her mother that fateful day didn't prove it, she's already anticipating prom next year and ultimately graduation, when a mother's experience and help would be welcomed.
She'll make her way. But she always pays tribute.
"I lead off, and when I go up there the first time I scratch 'M-O-M' in the dirt beside the batter's box," Kaitlyn said. "I feel like if I do that, she's standing right behind me. I do it behind my position, too. That way my mom can watch me, and she has the best seat in the house when she does."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or email@example.com.