Jenna Foster doesn’t remember the car wreck that nearly killed her last summer.
She can’t describe the basketball practice she attended just beforehand, or what she did the previous day. And she has no memory of the first days of her recovery.
But she can tell you about “Coach."
A week after the crash, with nearly every bone in her face broken, a feeding tube down her throat, and her eyes swollen shut, the teenager felt someone squeeze her hand.
“I knew it was Coach,” says Jenna, 17.
For two hours, Leah Shumoski, coach of the Vikings — the girls’ basketball team at Upper Merion Area High School — sat at Jenna’s bedside, holding the girl’s hand.
It is Jenna’s first memory after the accident.
For Shumoski, 36, it was one of countless hospital visits she made last summer after four members of the Vikings were involved in a deadly crash with another vehicle not far from the school on July 3.
Her constancy at the hospital and throughout the school year that’s now drawing to a close has imparted lessons that many Vikings parents believe will serve their girls long after they’re off the court:
Be there for each other, no matter what.
Even when you’re convinced you’re going to lose a game, play anyway. Showing up is its own teacher.
Never underestimate the impact that one person can have on a friend, a team, a life.
It was about 6:30 that July evening when a driver named William Granger was heading southbound on Route 202 in a blue Ford F-150 truck. The Vikings’ players, who had just finished an open-gym practice, were heading north in a red Volkswagen Jetta when Granger struck their vehicle while turning onto Saulin Boulevard. According to Upper Merion police, the Jetta had the right of way.
Granger, 64, a diesel mechanic from Bridgeport, died at the hospital of blunt-force trauma, police said. While two of the Vikings — including Jenna Foster’s twin, Hannah — were treated and released from Paoli Hospital, the injuries suffered by Jenna and Ty’meriah “Ty” Stanton, 16, were horrific.
Jenna had a lacerated liver, a fractured vertebrae, multiple broken ribs, a skull injury that required placement of a plate in her forehead, and a shattered arm. She faced a grueling recovery.
Ty was in a medically induced coma with head injuries so severe that surgeons had to remove part of her skull. Her survival was not assured.
Meanwhile, over 4,000 miles away, Shumoski was on a well-deserved vacation in Italy with friends.
Although she’d just taken the Vikings all the way to the first round of the state tournament — the team’s first state game in 38 years — she wasn’t sure she would return to Upper Merion in the fall. Shumoski works full time as a hospital pharmacist and craved a break from the coaching she’d been doing for 18 years, previously at schools like Episcopal Academy and Valley Forge Military Academy.
“I love coaching and I love my job,” says Shumoski. “But the pace can be intense when you do both at the same time.”
The morning after the accident, Shumoski woke to the sight of her phone glowing with notifications of more than 230 texts and 70 missed calls about the crash. When she learned the severity of the injuries, she cut her vacation short and flew home the next day.
On the plane, she tried to sleep but it was impossible.
“I’d never missed an open-gym practice before,” she says, after which she’d always drive Ty home. “I felt guilty for being away.”
From the airport, Shumoski went straight to Paoli Hospital, where Vikings players were camped out in the lobby, many of them crying. They were scared for the injured players but also worried about the team’s future. They had unified as a team during Shumoski’s three years as coach; what would losing key players mean to their cohesion in the 2018-19 season?
“They were a mess,” says Shumoski, who wasn’t thinking about basketball at all. She was just praying the girls would survive.
Jenna, who eventually woke, was especially worried about the game, recalls Shumoski.
“Her first conversations were all, ‘Coach, when I can get back on the court? Coach, am I going to play again? Coach, are you going to let me sit on your bench?'" says Shumoski. “I’d walk out of the room and cry — and walk back in” after wiping away the tears.
As the team leaned on Shumoski for emotional support through the summer and into the school year, Shumoski leaned on someone who had been through a similar ordeal decades earlier: her own father, Wayne “Pops” Shumoski, former coach of the boys’ basketball team at Sun Valley High School in Aston.
In 1997, one of his players was killed and several others were injured in an accident near the school.
“You’ve got these kids — one day you’re in high school, the next day you’re in the hospital,” Wayne Shumoski says. “You’re an automatic candidate to minister to them.”
Ty was transferred to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Once she awoke from her coma, the usually active teen was frustrated to be bedridden with painful headaches. Nonetheless, she managed to keep her sense of humor, says Shumoski.
On one visit, Ty mumbled and flailed her arms when Shumoski walked into the room, making her coach fear the girl’s condition had suddenly worsened. After a few minutes, Ty started cracking up.
Shumoski laughs, recalling the moment. “I think my response was ‘You’re lucky you just woke up from a coma or I’d have something more to say to you.’ ”
Eventually, both girls were stable enough to begin rehab, the school year resumed and the Vikings reassembled. But the trauma of the accident had affected everyone.
Ty and Jenna worried about getting into a car again. Jenna’s twin, Hannah, was tortured by memories of the wreck. Unlike the two others, Hannah had been wearing a seat belt when the collision occurred and was released from the hospital that night after being treated for a broken foot. She remembers the entire crash — a horrific few minutes that often replay in her mind.
On the court, the team was a shadow of its former self. Some members didn’t want to play, but Shumoski urged them to show up anyway.
“It’s hard to head into a game you know you’re going to lose,” she says. “But kids aren’t in high school to ‘win.’ They’re here to grow and learn. I’m proud of how hard they worked.”
When Ty and Jenna worried they wouldn’t return to the court, Shumoski reassured them otherwise. Her encouragement kept the girls going and the team together, says Jen Foster, mother of Jenna and Hannah.
“She was amazing,” Foster says, choking up. “She just was a calming influence.”
Adds Upper Merion High’s athletic director, Robert Devers, “I can’t say enough good things about Coach Shumoski and her level of commitment to this group of girls.”
As for Shumoski, she’s no longer wondering whether to take a break from coaching.
“To see the impact I was able to have [after] the accident and I didn’t do anything great,” she says modestly, “has reassured me I should coach.”
Ten months later, Ty and Jenna have recovered better than Shumoski could have imagined when she walked into Paoli Hospital last July.
“They’re miracles," she says. “I believe they had guardian angels looking out for them. The fact that they’re sitting here, talking, it’s hard to believe, still.”
Jenna, who is still healing, hopes to be back in the game next fall, when she’s a senior. In the meantime, she was happy to serve as “honorary coach” during this past season, cheering the Vikings from the bench. She says she’s grateful to have her sight and both her arms, blessings she never thought to appreciate before the crash.
Ty was home-schooled through the new year. When she returned, doctors still prohibited her from playing basketball. Determined to return to the game she loved, she went from appointment to appointment, hoping to be cleared to play.
“I never would’ve thought basketball would disappear,” she says. “I didn’t want the car accident to take that. So I kept fighting and fighting until it happened.”
After a few weeks, the day finally came.
On a Tuesday night in January, inside a packed gym, Ty sat on the bench in anticipation.
An announcer’s voice bellowed: “Ladies and gentlemen, returning to the court for the first time in the 2018-2019 season: No. 1, junior Ty Stanton!"
The crowd rose, cheering. Ty sprinted through a blue-and-white tunnel of teammates, pivoted, and made a beeline for Coach. They did their signature handshake, ending with the motion of a fadeaway jumper. Tears in her eyes, Shumoski enveloped Ty in a hug that lifted the girl off the ground.