The Mills College soccer and volleyball coaches didn't plan for their team trip to New York to fall on the third anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks in American history. Nor would they have wanted to fly back on 9/11 if they could have helped it. But as volleyball coach Marla Mundis and soccer coach Colette Bowler met separately with their teams before the trip, they reassured any anxious players that it was probably safer than any other day to fly, that it was something they were comfortable with, and it was nothing for them to worry about.
Little did they know at the time, that not only would their teams walk away with zero losses, but they would form a unique, intense bond unlike any other group in their coaches' decade of experience at Mills. Or that after the trip, Mundis would declare that this is the happiest she's ever been as a coach.
When the players arrived at JFK airport last Wednesday, they were greeted by a light drizzle after weeks of heavy rain from a hurricane that left New York's subway stations and playing fields flooded. Many of them felt like they were herded around like cattle through the maze of travelers waiting to fly in the airport and onto the waiting charter bus, their coaches stopping to count heads several times before arriving at the Courtyard Marriot in Manhattan.
The flight for the soccer team's 25 players and the volleyball team's dozen players, along with Mundis, assistant soccer coach Leslie Johnson, Bowler, her partner Denise, and their five-month-old daughter Jordan Rose, was nothing out of the ordinary. Any fears of flying were never played out on the flight.
Once they were on the ground, their initial introduction to the commemoration of the attack on the World Trade Center which killed 2,749 people was through the street vendors who were peddling their New York Fire Department T-shirts, miniature American flags and other trinkets and memorabilia. Distant from the minds of many players was the anniversary of 9/11, permanently embedded in the national psyche- only three days away.
The first soccer game on Thursday was rained out and postponed until Saturday with huge thunderstorms expected later that night. The highlight of the day was that the undefeated Mills volleyball team got to play in their first match- which was still no match for them, resulting in yet another win under their belt. And the threatening thunderstorms turned out to be just a threat.
Although many of the athletes had different levels of consciousness about the approaching anniversary of 9/11 there was a sense of being swept up on the edge of a current event that is soon to become history.
By Friday, the teams were brimming with adrenaline after the volleyball team won their second match of the trip. Also on Friday, the soccer team had their chance to play a game that they were playing to win. With the support of the volleyball team cheering in the stands, the game went into sudden death overtime and ended in a tie as the game seemed to forge on endlessly into the night.
Exhausted but still hyper from the days excitement, the players chatted among themselves during the bus ride back to the hotel. Little did they know, the bus driver was about to take an impromptu detour past ground zero. As they were traveling over the Brooklyn Bridge, volleyball player Megan Miller heard someone point out bright lights shooting into the darkness of the New York City skyline. The free spirited chatter turned into abrupt silence. The bus driver slowed down and as it drew closer to ground zero. Looking out the bus window, assistant coach Johnson said she noticed how the Tribute in Light Memorial illuminated a passing cloud, its twin beams shooting straight into the sky and then wavering back and forth through the cloud.
The next morning, on September 11, 2004, the soccer team looked forward to their game the College of Staten Island before taking a red eye flight home to San Francisco. But many of the athletes spent their morning in the 12th floor social lounge of the hotel watching the community telev