JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School baseball players received a warm welcome from the community when the team arrived Friday at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville for its first tournament of the season.
The two-day Ben Watkins Tournament of Champions takes place just under a month since the deadly shooting Feb. 14 that took the lives of 17 adults and children at the Parkland high school.
Though Stoneman Douglas lost its first game against the TNXL Academy Ducks 3-1, everyone in attendance was rooting for the Eagles.
Tournament host Trinity Christian Academy asked Jacksonville to "roll out the red carpet" for the Eagles, and the city followed through with that request.
When the Stoneman Douglas players walked off the bus to see a banner reading, "We are praying for you." The banner, which was signed by local students and even Mayor Lenny Curry, will be brought back to the school after the tournament.
"There really are no words that would have any value to express what they've been through as a community, as a school, as young people," Curry said.
One by one, Stoneman Douglas players were also greeted with handshakes from Trinity's players.
The Parkland team signed up for the tournament in November, and Stoneman Douglas head coach Todd Fitz-Gerald said there was never any question whether his team would play.
"Absolutely not. That's something we made a commitment to and it probably would've been a disservice to our kids if we didn't do this. I don't think the people we lost would have wanted us to not be here. They need it and, hopefully, we'll make them happy," Fitz-Gerald said. "(We're) just trying to get back into some kind of normal routine, a sense of normalcy and just doing something these kids love to do and that’s being on the field every day. So it’s a good release for them even if it’s for two hours, three hours. It’s going to take time, but at the end of the day, we’re here we’re going to play great baseball and, hopefully, represent well."
Inside the stadium, the support for Stoneman Douglas was even more visible. About 1,500 people in the stands, as well as players on other teams competing, were wearing the Stoneman Douglas school colors of maroon and silver.
"It felt good that there's a lot of people out there supporting our school," said Stoneman Douglas freshman Madison Brian who traveled north to watch the game. "It feels good to come out and watch and everything, and a lot of people have been there to support us for everything that happened."
Players wear the special uniforms with No. 17.
The tournament includes local teams University Christian and The Bolles School. Players of those teams wore special jerseys, all of which had No. 17 on the back for the number of lives lost in mass shooting. The names of the 17 killed were also inside the numbers.
Judith Podpalka also traveled to the tournament to watch her nephew pitch for the first time since the shooting at his high school.
"It warms my heart that the community has come out, that people do care. And I know my nephew feels so much better because of it," Podpalka said. "These are his brothers. And he's here with his brothers. I'm going to cry. And they're all together. They're all one. They're supporting each other."
Trinity head coach Gil Morales, who started the tournament, was honored to host the Stoneman Douglas team this year.
"We support you. That's why we're doing this," Morales said. "We want them to know, as a city, we were hurting just like they were. Not the same capacity, of course, but that impacted our entire country."
Just hours before the first pitch of the Eagles' game, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a school safety bill that places new restrictions on guns. Podpalka said she hopes the new law will keep students safer because, after the shooting, not all relatives of Stoneman Douglas students are able to watch their loved ones participate in sports.
"It's a little too late for this," she said. "It should have happened earlier."
Trinity, which has hosted the tournament for 10 years, ordered shirts and hats to sell before and during the tournament. All proceeds from those, as well as ticket sales, will go to victim relief efforts in Parkland.
"They were so thankful for us," said Trinity student Jenny Ard. "And that was enough for me."