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Jan. 23 began like every other school day at Marshall County (Ky.) High School for freshman Jay Nimmo. Small talk about basketball, or his promising golf career, or perhaps a test.

But at 7:57 CST that Tuesday morning, that all changed in the most horrific of ways. A 15-year-old student began firing a pistol he'd brought from home. Widespread panic ensued. Two other 15-year-old students — Preston Ryan Cope and Bailey Nicole Holt — were killed. Eighteen others ages 14 to 18 were injured either by gunfire or attempting to escape.

"I just ran," Nimmo, also 15, said Thursday as he recalled the nightmare in the small town of Benton, Ky. "It was surreal. It was unforgettable, in a very bad way."

Nimmo already was set for a very different surreal place this Easter morning — atop the lush fairways of Augusta National Golf Club, competing in the finals of the Drive, Chip & Putt competition thanks to the regional Nimmo won at The Honors Course in Ooltewah last September.

"I was here two years ago," he said from Augusta. "It's an amazing place. You get six shots: two drives, two chips, two putts. I hit my second putt here two years ago from 15 feet on No. 18. I was thinking that a lot of pros would take that putt."

You think of the agony and ecstasy of life, and Nimmo's last 10 weeks certainly qualify. But isn't that also Easter? Does any holiday on the calendar — be it secular or religious — better define agony and ecstasy, suffering and salvation, pain and promise, more than the three-day stretch that begins with Good Friday and concludes today, its very birth framed by betrayal, murder, anger, remorse, hope, redemption and resurrection?

"It's been very emotional," Nimmo said of the time since the shooting. "I didn't really know the kids who were killed, but I knew who they were. You hear about something like that at other places and you always think, 'Not at my school.' But now we know it can happen anywhere."

Eleven-year-old Trinity Beth didn't know Holt or Cope. Nor did her father, Aaron Beth — a former Vanderbilt basketball player and 1990 Marshall County High grad.

"But almost everybody around here knows somebody who knew those kids and their families," Aaron Beth said of that westernmost corner of the Commonwealth. "It's been hard, really hard."

Like Nimmo, Trinity also will compete in this morning's Drive, Chip & Putt competition thanks to her regional victory at the Honors last fall. Unlike Nimmo, she's never previously visited Augusta National, nor is she a student in the Marshall County school system. The family lives in Calvert City, where Aaron coaches the girls' varsity basketball tam at nearby Graves County High.

"I think I'm more nervous than she is," said Aaron, who was a key reserve on Vanderbilt's 1993 SEC regular-season championship squad. "She's just focused on the golf. But this is Augusta. The Masters is one of the toughest tickets in all of sports. Every time something bad would happen this winter, I'd think, 'But we're going to Augusta in April.'"

Because of that, Jay and Trinity have practiced daily for months, hoping those scant six shots they'll strike this morning atop the most perfect patch of golf real estate on God's green earth will yield a championship. They've also considered how to best remember this experience, from what souvenirs to bring back to what to take in while they're on the Augusta National grounds.

"I've been reading something about 18 things you have to do at the Masters," Aaron Beth said. "You never know if you'll ever be back there again. The whole family, even the grandparents, will be there for this, so we want to soak it all in.'"

Said Nimmo, recalling how one of this year's Masters favorites — two-time green jacket winner Bubba Watson — watched him compete in the DC&P finals two years ago and how that knowledge might help him today: "Just to know the pressure you'll feel. At least I hope it helps."

Added Aaron Beth regarding Trinity: "She's as excited and confident as I've ever seen her. I just keep telling her, 'Just do your best, and whatever happens, you've won.'"

But they all know that their lives never will be quite the same again.

"My father coached the Marshall County girls for 30 years," Aaron Beth said. "And I recently had a chance to come back and coach there. So I could have been right there in the middle of it. It's all hit a little too close to home."

Perhaps because of that, he wore an orange shirt for Graves County's first two games after the shooting to recognize Marshall County's orange and blue colors. His team wore orange and blue shoestrings in their sneakers for the rest of the season.

And when the unthinkable happened barely three weeks later at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. — a former student at that school killing 17 students — the Marshall County girls' team sent C.A.R.E. packages that included handwritten notes from each of the Lady Marshal players.

Wrote junior Whitney Miller to the Stoneman Douglas team: "Even though we don't know each other, we have two things in common: the love of basketball and the tragedy at our schools."

In a perfect world, none of these senseless tragedies would ever take place. In a more just world, the two lives lost at Marshall County would have prevented such future violence.

Or as Marshall County freshman Lela Free told National Public Radio prior to last month's March For Our Lives rally: "We should have been the last."

Should have been. But wasn't. And the latest may not be the last, either. Yet no day may bring hope for a better day and a better world more than today.

Said young Nimmo of at least one lesson learned by everyone in his community: "Just to know that at any minute your life could be over. It teaches you to cherish every moment."

And hope and pray that we have finally seen the last of such tragic, senseless moments as those befalling Benton and Parkland.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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