Richmond women's basketball coach Michael Shafer remembers times he couldn't imagine getting his team back on the court.

That's where the voids would be most evident, the pain the sharpest.

On what was supposed to be a fun outing on May 9, 2014, Spiders longtime assistant coach Ginny Doyle and director of basketball operations Natalie Lewis died in a horrific, fiery hot air balloon crash.

Shafer, who was in another balloon that landed safely, knows he'll never be the same.

With help from players and coaches, he realizes going forward is the only choice.

"We're never getting away from this. Ever," Shafer said Thursday, forcing a smile in his office at the Robins Center. "This is with me for the rest of my life. It's with our players for the rest of their lives. It doesn't mean that it's going to cripple us for the rest of our lives. We had to make a decision to take a step forward and ... those steps were incredibly slow early on.

"I didn't want to hire anybody. I didn't want to bring anybody else in. I just wanted to make sure everybody else was OK. And then, the inevitable. We have to do those things."

The last six months carried the Spiders into uncharted emotional terrain.

Taking turns being strong for each other, the players and coaches pulled together, lifting each other through emotional memorial services, summer workouts and the recruiting season.

Now they're getting ready to open the season on Friday against Providence in the first game of a women's and men's doubleheader. The team wants to win this season and honor the memories of Doyle and Lewis, but sometimes the players can't focus because the sadness is palpable.

"Sitting on the sidelines at practice," sophomore guard Olivia Healy said, "it's still hard to get over what we're missing."

The 44-year-old Doyle was a former Spiders player who spent 20 years there. She went through three head coaches during her 16 years as an assistant, and convinced Shafer to keep her on board in a 2-hour meeting after he was hired. During practice, she often pulled players aside for teaching moments and share pointers gleaned from tireless scouting.

The 24-year-old Lewis was a smiling former swimmer who handled the day-to-day basketball business and shared her enthusiasm for life. Healy had injured her knee last season and watched practice on the sideline. But while sitting next to Lewis, who was engaged, they also looked at wedding dresses.

Shafer resolved that during hard times, sharing and tears were good.

"It just takes a lot of understanding that this is not a quick fix, and we've tried to share that with everybody," Shafer said. "We realize that there's going to be times, and we don't know what's going to trigger your emotion, but we just all need to agree that we're going to be understanding and supportive."

About six weeks after the crash, Shafer was in need of a boost. New NCAA rules allowed for a few hours a week of practice in the summer, but the coach was having a difficult time.

That's when several players showed up in his office, he said.

"They came in and said, 'It's time. We need to get back on the floor.' So we did," he said.

Shafer and his team know there will be reminders of Doyle and Lewis every step of the way this season, even as they try to focus on their own success.

On Friday, all athletes at the school will wear a patch with a red and blue ribbon to honor Doyle and Lewis. There will be a moment of silence Friday before the game, a slide show of Doyle and Lewis and presentations to their families.

Then it's on to playing basketball and paying tribute to Doyle and Lewis throughout the season.

"We're going to be a good basketball team that has had a tragedy happen to us, and we are going to overcome it," Shafer said. "How many wins and losses we will have, I don't know. I will tell you that we are going to play really, really hard.

"We are going to be competitive, but at the end of the day, these young ladies are going to be successes because of the adversity that they will overcome."


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