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Lancaster athlete finds comfort with teammates

Teammates don't just go through a season together, they go through life.

One athlete on Lancaster's indoor track team learned last week just how unfair life can be as her father was a passenger on Continental Flight 3407. Junior Nikki Tolsma, a sprinter on the girl's team, has been coping with the loss of her father since his flight crashed on Thursday night in Clarence Center killing all 49 passengers and crew.

Darren Tolsma, who delighted in sharing his daughter's athletic career, was 45 years old.

Nikki came to indoor track practice on Friday, the same day she heard the devastating news. She didn't come to work out, but to surround herself with the people who give her a sense of purpose, and comfort -- her teammates. Words were difficult to come by as the vast field house was unusually quiet.

"A lot of them said they're sorry, and some, it was just being around that was comforting, and they didn't have to say anything," said Nikki, who is 16. "We always support each other and bring them up when they're sad or upset. I just needed to be around my friends."

Nikki's mother, Robin, said she encouraged the visit to school because every person who walked in the house that day it was fresh tears for her, and seeing the grieving was difficult. "She asked for permission. She needed to be with them because Dad loved them too, do what you need to do," said Robin.

Lancaster coach Kevin Carriero has had to cope with his athletes being stung by tragedy before, but that doesn't mean it gets easier.

He said Darren and Robin, could have been "poster parents" for the support they've shown the school in achieving its athletic and academic goals. Robin is an English teacher in the District's middle school. A son, Darren Jr., 19, is a 2007 Lancaster graduate.

On Saturday, Lancaster's track team competed in the Section VI Team Championships at Fredonia. The Redskins wore a piece of black tape with the initials DT on the front of their singlets. Sprinter Mike Palma had someone draw DT on his arm.

Running like they were on a mission, the Redskins won the boy's meet and quickly dedicated the championship to Mr. Tolsma.

"I told them afterward I kind of thought I knew how they would respond," said Carriero. "They never disappoint me. It was a pretty emotional."

The title was Lancaster's second in as many years. They took first place in only two events (4x200 meters, 4x400 relays), but placed in the top three in eight. Three school records were broken. Melissa Kurzdorfer upped her state record in the shot put to 47 feet, 11 3/4 inches. Palma broke the school record in the long jump at 21-7 and Gino Buono established the new standard in the shot put at 52-11 1/2 .

Darren worked at Northrop-Grumman Amherst Systems for the last 25 years. He's a 1981 graduate of Depew High School, where he played baseball.

There will be a memorial service at Lancaster High School, 1 Forton Drive, on Friday at 10 a.m.

The indoor track season continues on Saturday when Lancaster hosts a Varsity Select starting at noon.

"I talked to the kids about how we need to continue to be a family, which we've always been, but we need to be a little closer," said Carriero.

e-mail: mmonnin@buffnews.com

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