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In recent days, the South Eugene, Ore., community lost two beloved teenagers who were swept out to sea and drowned, all while on a retreat with schoolmates who were fellow finalists for the South Eugene (Ore.) High "Mr. Axeman" pageant. Two families lost sons. South Eugene High lost two standout students, and the Axemen basketball team lost its sixth man.
After days of grieving in public, the Axemen returned to the court on Wednesday with heavy hearts and a long ceremony dedicated to the memories of Connor Ausland, a member of the school's basketball team, and Jack Harnsongkram, both of whom were washed into the sea and drowned. The entire crowd donned shirts with Ausland's No. 35 on the front, with both boys' names on the back.
Then, in perhaps the most touching tribute of all, the South Eugene team took the court to take on Churchill (Ore.) High, below Ausland's jersey -- which was hung high on the wall behind one of the baskets -- and tipped off the game with only four starters to honor Ausland's memory.
"For us, tonight was not about winning," South Eugene coach Dave Hancock told the Portland Oregonian. "It was about taking a step forward. We wanted to celebrate Connor and Jack's lives, play courageously and give our student body something good for a few minutes. It's been a hard week."
The Axemen went on to top Churchill 42-33 in the game, though that was an afterthought for both the team and the 2,500 fans who packed the South Eugene gym. Many of the fans were players for rival teams who left their respective practices early to pay their respects to the boys (the South Eugene-Churchill game was the only one scheduled for Wednesday night).
Throughout the game, instead of the traditional "Let's go Axemen," fans chanted "Jack and Connor" all night, leading to cheers, tears and, eventually, a heartfelt thank you speech from the two boys' fathers at halftime.
"Connor's in the house," Greg Ausland said, his voice catching. "He wouldn't miss this for anything."
As his ubiquitous No. 35 could attest to, he'll always be in that house, thanks to some heartfelt tributes and the thoughts of the community he left behind.