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Jamie Baker, left, Whitney Swenson, center, and Macy McKay of the Yellow Medicine East girls basketball team display black arm bands in honor of Stina Leiseth, with her nickname and uniform number on them. Tribune photos by T.J. Bartelt

YME basketball players dedicate season to former teammate

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Stina Leiseth's life ended suddenly in a one-vehicle rollover on Nov. 26, but her Yellow Medicine East teammates are making sure that she is very much a part of the girls basketball team this season.

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Leiseth, the daughter of Richard and Becky Leiseth, was a starting wing as a sophomore on last year's team. She was headed to pre-season practice the day before Thanksgiving as the team was having pictures taken before a scrimmage with Canby. When she didn't show up on time, the team became a little worried and began calling her cell phone and her home phone, but got no answer. The team then called her mother, a first-grade teacher at YME, who was at school because it was an in-service day.

"Her mom said Stina knew we were supposed to have pictures taken and then we all got really worried," said Aimee Johnson, a junior and one of Stina's close friends. "(The news) later came over the intercom at school that there had been an accident. We didn't know how bad it was, but I had this feeling for some reason that it was really bad. A few of us just sat down and cried."

The team was then informed that Leiseth had rolled her vehicle near her home six miles north of Granite Falls. The vehicle came to a stop upside down in a drainage ditch with icy water. Coaches and teammates rushed to the Granite Falls Hospital where they were soon told the tragic news.

"Becky came out to the waiting area and told us they couldn't save her," said Johnson softly. "It was such a shock to everyone. I still can't believe she's gone."

The YME team has dedicated the season to their former teammate. Players are now seen wearing crosses made of pink tape on the back of their black tennis shoes on game days.

"Pink was Stina's favorite color," explained Johnson. "And we have her name and initials and her number 34 written on the tape. We re-do them before every game so they don't come off."

Players also are wearing black arm bands that have "Bean 34" stitched into them in white. Bean was Leiseth's nickname among friends.

At the first home game this season on Dec. 9 against Paynesville, there was a moment of silence for Leiseth. When the team breaks huddle now, they shout "STINA" instead of Sting or whatever word head coach Ryan Bremmer would tell them to shout.

"Stina was one of the best players any coach could have the opportunity to work with," said Bremmer. "She was very coachable, held herself to a high standard of play, and was always trying to do her best and improve her game."

Bremmer said the news of Leiseth's death hit him hard.

"What a loss to everyone," he said. "My heart sank to the pit of my stomach thinking of the Leiseth family and the tremendous loss they would have to endure. You want to not believe what had just happened, but you wake up the next day knowing that it was real." 

The team will soon don warm-up t-shirts in honor of Leiseth. The shirts will be black with a pink basketball, a picture of Stina on them, and the words "Never, Never Quit" that she had taped to the mirror in her bedroom.

Leiseth, an All-Area volleyball player, was always one to use inspirational messages and the team is using passages from her journal to inspire them at practice and before games to keep her memory alive.

"Our practice plan has a 'Quote of the Day' on it," said Bremmer. "I have used quotes from Stina for each practice. She had a deep faith in God and she kept a journal of favorite bible verses and prayers that she said for friends and teammates."

The team also gathers before each practice where players and coaches talk as a way of bonding.

"We call it our 'circle of strength' and we usually end with reflections on Stina," said Bremmer, who arranged for counselors and a pastor to talk to the team and help them in the healing process.

Johnson said it has been difficult practicing and playing games without Leiseth.

"It was such a strange feeling at first," said Johnson, the team's top scorer. "It's not like someone who is hurt and you know they will be coming back. It's going to take a long time to get over the fact that she won't be coming back. It's still so hard to believe."

Leiseth moved into the starting lineup for the Sting over the second half of last season. She averaged 8 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals per game.

"She had a couple of double-double games," Bremmer said. I just remember how explosive she could be and the game-changing potential she had. She had a knack for collecting offensive rebounds and she had a beautiful jump shot from 15 feet and in. She worked very hard on defense and could shut down the opponents' best player."

YME is 3-3 so far this season with two of the losses by five points or less.

"The girls are trying to play with the strength and determination that Stina played with," he said. "And they are trying to get better every day because they know that Stina would be doing that if she was here."

Just like the words taped to her mirror would indicate.

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