A soccer tradition continued on Sunday at Mad River Park where the skies offered a reprieve from steady rain as dozens of youngsters converged to don new blue tie-dyed t-shirts that celebrate a young player whose soccer career was cut short five years ago this week.

About 200 players from preschool through high school took part in this year’s Mary Harris Girl’s Youth Soccer Day at Mad River Park in Waitsfield. Although the event has been a fall girl’s soccer tradition in the Harwood Union School District for more than a decade, since 2016 it’s taken on a new meaning.

Originally started long before many of the 2021 attendees were born, the annual training has been a way for the high school varsity and junior varsity squads to meet and connect with the younger players, forming connections that eventually see the attendees become the leaders.

That changed several years ago after a highway tragedy that took the lives of five local teens who lost their lives in a wrong-way car crash on Interstate 89 on Oct. 8, 2016.

Among them was Harwood Union soccer player junior Mary Harris known for her warm smile, friendly disposition and team spirit. Her coach and teammates at the time decided to dedicate the annual event to celebrate the younger girl soccer players in the district in Mary’s honor. They’ve since moved the event closer to the anniversary of the crash as all of the Harwood teams make a point to remember Harris and her other 11th-grade friends who were lost: Eli Bookens, Cyrus Zschau, Eli Brookens, Janie Cozzi and Liam Hale.

Coach Mike Vasseur designs T-shirts each year with the motto “Love Like Mary” that has become a mantra of the Harwood girls soccer program.

This year the shirts carried a message on the back taken from an essay Mary Harris wrote: “So I ask you to be kind. Be compassionate. Be respectful. Be selfless. Because without kindness, what’s the point?”

On Sunday, each of the attendees left with a sticker carrying that same message, made and donated by the Stowe printing company Websticker. Other larger stickers carried colorful images of heart paintings made by Mary’s mom, Liz Harris, who was on hand along with her husband Dan to hand out t-shirts and mingle with the players.

“Mary’s favorite color was blue,” Liz said as she handed out shirts to pint-size soccer players.

Later both Harris and Vasseur briefly spoke to all of the girls as they gathered for a group photo.

“Every year I think this will get easier, but it doesn’t,” Vasseur said, recalling Mary Harris as a player on his team. He said he hopes the annual event and that recalls her generous outlook will instill that spirit in those who follow in her footsteps.

“It’s about kindness,” Liz Harris said, telling the youngsters how all of the teenagers from the crash spent time on the fields where they were gathered and how they will be remembered in the community. The nearby pavilion and benches are inscribed with their names.

This year Harris painted a small batch of rocks to distribute to the youngest players attending the event for the first time. They each had a heart on one side and Mary’s number – 21– on the back. She spread them out on a picnic table and the children lined up to pick one out to take as a memento.

At the end of the two hours, Coach Vasseur distributed buckets of Halloween candy to his high school players who were poised and ready to run across the field. He turned to the younger kids and shouted, “They have your candy!” touching of a chorus of screams and squeals as the small players chased the high-schoolers to score their trea.

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