Eastern girls continue to honor their fallen friend

Kara Lemanowicz died of a sudden cardiac arrest in her sleep at age 14, days before she was set to begin her freshman year at Eastern Regional High School. Her close friends, most seniors now, have kept her memory alive.

Eastern seniors Rylee Evans, Ashley Pietrafitta, Gabriella Payne, junior Kelli McGroarty, and seniors Marissa Feltoon, Tori Accardo, Rebecca Spence, Sam Sawka, and Grace Council have played in the memory of Kara Lemanowicz since their friend’s tragic death just over three years ago. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

The most obvious question doesn’t have to be asked because it’s apparent in everything they do, from the way they practice all summer and fall, to the tenacity they take the field with on game day, to the reverence in their voices as they stand behind two of the signs adorned on the outside of their field at Eastern Regional High School.

The sign on the right lists the state titles won by the Vikings girls soccer team. The last one came in 2006, a year almost too long ago for any current teenager to remember.

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The sign on the left signifies something and someone they’ll never forget. And it’s in Kara Lemanowicz’s name they’d like to add the numbers “2018” to the sign on the right more than anything in the world.

Just over three years ago, on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Sept. 5, 2015, days before they’d begin their high school careers at Eastern, this group of closely-knit, soccer-playing friends lost one of their own when Lemanowicz passed away.

The 14-year-old died from a sudden cardiac arrest.

“We went to sleep one night at a sleepover,” said Gabriella Payne. “And the next morning when we woke up, she wasn’t conscious.”

Kara Lemanowicz, top right, celebrates with her club soccer team, the girls she spent her last night with before dying of a sudden cardiac arrest at a sleepover on Sept. 5, 2015. (Photo provided by Rebecca Spence)

It’s incomprehensible and still remains so, to think about someone seemingly healthy dying so young. There’s no greater loss for a parent than that of their own child.

It’s also an incredibly tragic event that affected her group of friends, who were also too young to have to accept the fragility of life. For the majority of them, It was less than a week before their first class as freshmen.

But a group that includes current seniors Payne, Rylee Evans, Ashley Pietrafitta, Marissa Feltoon, Tori Accardo, Rebecca Spence, Sam Sawka, Grace Council, and junior Kelli McGroarty, who all played together with Kara since they were barely out of kindergarten, was forced to grow up fast. As teammates and as friends, they have managed to continue to include Kara.

Eastern Regional High School’s girls soccer team, one of the best teams in the state, honors Kara Lemanowicz, who would have been a senior on the team this year. (Photo provided by Rebecca Spence)

Like on Senior Night, Oct. 10 at Eastern, the Vikings seniors and coach Jamie McGroarty made sure to send out a proper invitation to Kelly and Dave Lemanowicz, Kara’s parents. Each senior player and the three senior managers, a total of 11 — Kara’s number — presented the parents with a purple rose. Purple was Kara’s favorite color.

“We really wanted them to be there senior night, because we were planning on honoring her,” Feltoon said. “When they were actually here, it was just a special moment for them and for us. We were all getting honored and she couldn’t be here.”

At the end of the game, one of the coaches told the team that they had played the game under a blueish purple sky. It’s instances like that that make these girls believe Kara is still around.

Ashley Pietrafitta, Kelli McGroarty, Tori Accardo, and Kara Lemanowicz during a youth soccer game. (Photo provided by Tori Accardo)

“I remember in middle school,” said McGroarty, who was a year younger than Kara, “We would line up, we held a space and put a uniform where she would have been. And there a light perfectly coming down where (the uniform) was. But no one could see it, it only showed up in the picture.”

“Even in other sports we carry it,” Accardo said of her friend’s legacy. “In lacrosse, during our sectional finals my sophomore year, we went into overtime against Lenape and the score was 11–11 going into it.”

Eastern won that game, of course. They won in the next round, too, scoring — you guessed it — 11 goals in victory.

Sam Sawka and Kara Lemanowicz during a soccer game when both were in kindergarten together. (Photo provided by Sam Sawka)

No matter what season it is or what field they’re on, they continue to honor Kara’s memory. McGroarty wears a Care Bear around her ankle. Others put “KL” and “11” on white tape for their wrists or legs.

They all wear purple bands or ties in their hair for every game to honor Kara.
At her former middle school, The Sunshine Award is presented to a graduating eighth grader each year who exhibits positivity and high character, traits that made Lemanowicz a friend to anyone she crossed paths with in her short but impactful life.

“It’s incredible to me,” Kelly Lemanowicz said. “The impact that she had, not only on the younger kids but the community as a whole, it blows my mind, honestly. It’s like they include her in almost everything that happens. To keep her memory alive it’s something else, it’s incredible. As hard as it is to be a part of these things (with the soccer team), it’d be even harder if they just forgot her.”

Kara Lemanowicz, just left of center with the multi-colored headband, having fun with her teammates during following a scrimmage freshman year. Lemanowicz didn’t have the opportunity to play high school soccer after suffering a sudden cardiac arrest, dying in her sleep, days before her high school career at Eastern was to begin. (Photo provided by Marissa Feltoon)

That clearly isn’t happening, and it’s why it’s incredibly easy to continue to root for Eastern as they continue their march toward a possible Group 4 state championship. The Vikings entered the season as a team with as much talent as anyone in the state and they’re finishing it strong, too, recently collecting their second straight South Jersey Soccer Coaches Association Tournament.

A date to play for a state championship feels like a date with destiny. Kelly Lemanowicz won’t miss a single game (she never does).

Even when the season comes to and end, Kara’s mom will continue to honor her late daughter in her own ways, whether it’s working with Simon’s Fund (a local group raising awareness about conditions that lead to sudden cardiac arrest and death) or with her own charitable organization she founded nine months after Kara passed away.

Smiles From Kara (smilesfromkara.org) “provides opportunity to underprivileged/special needs children in Camden County and the surrounding areas via financial assistance for, but not limited to sports fees, scholarship money and extra curricular activities.” They host a 5K Run every year on Kara’s birthday, July 11.

You can make a pretty good bet a large group of recently-graduated Eastern High School soccer players will be there.

Kara Lemanowicz, just left of center next to №12, with her teammates during following a scrimmage freshman year. (Photo provided by Marissa Feltoon)
Ryan is a veteran journalist of 20 years. He’s worked at the Courier-Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Delaware County Daily Times, primarily as a sportswriter, and is currently a sports editor at Newspaper Media Group and an adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan University.
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