Big promise, painful loss

The Baltimore Sun

Maddie Bingaman and Sarah Hill had it all lined up. They would be running buddies, teammates and, of course, roommates at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

They shared the same passion for volleyball. They held the same disdain for all things prim and proper. They were different outwardly, but inwardly very much alike. They were already, despite a brief relationship, best friends.

But Bingaman's 2006 Honda Civic careered off Interstate 40 east of Memphis, over rumble strips, off the highway and into a clump of trees Aug. 8. Bingaman, 18, died in a Memphis hospital six hours later. Her mother was driving. Peggy Bingaman, 51, survived two more days.

They were traveling from the family home in Round Rock, Texas, near Austin, to bring Maddie to the Catonsville campus for her freshman year. The one-car accident occurred at 3:51 p.m., and Maddie and her mother were wearing seat belts, according to the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Hill, 18, is still trying to pick up the pieces from the accident that devastated an entire community in Texas and left another in Baltimore in shock.

"I didn't do too well," said Hill, a freshman recruit from Richmond, Va. "I tried to act like it didn't even happen. Sometimes I'd tell myself, 'Well, she just went to a different school,' ... just things to try to cope with it."

Others at UMBC are also trying to come to grips with the tragedy, and on Sunday after its home match the school will hold a ceremony to honor Bingaman.

Volleyball coach Ian Blanchard invited Maddie's father, Mark, sister Katie and Maddie's boyfriend, Michael Sparks, who will visit the campus this weekend.

Family members, still distraught according to a family friend, declined to comment for this article.

The school plans to plant a tree - a Japanese snowbell - at the entrance to RAC Arena. A commemorative bench that bears Maddie Bingaman's name will come later.

"While I'm really going to be glad to see Mark, it's going to be one of the most emotionally wrenching weekends that we'll all go through this whole year," Blanchard said. "And if Mark can't make it through the match, or the ceremony we want to do, I'll understand it."

Hill and Blanchard were perhaps the two people most affected at UMBC by the unexplained accident.

Blanchard had recruited Bingaman from one of the nation's top club programs in Austin. At 5 feet 11, she was smaller than the requisite 6-foot-2 blue-chip athlete that elite Division I programs typically recruit.

But Bingaman had a love for the game - even if it was sometimes hidden under a veneer of casual indifference - that Blanchard craves.

"This is a kid we believed was going to work extremely hard and, not so much by her words but by her actions, she was going to be a leader on this team as a freshman," Blanchard said.

"She wasn't going to say much, but you knew that somewhere behind those blue eyes there was some deep-bedded intensity, and she was determined to absolutely be the best."

Hill said Bingaman was "undefinable" in her approach to life, from the way she shrugged off problems, to the fashion statements she sometimes made, to her sporting interests beyond volleyball.

"It was just her whole mentality," Hill said. "The little things that most girls worry about, she didn't care about. She was always like, 'Get over it.' She didn't make any excuses. ... She loved Star Wars, she loved cage-fighting and she loved Arena football. That's what I loved about her. She was not a typical girl."

One of Bingaman's favorite expressions was a point Yoda made to young Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movie: "Do or do not. There is no try." The saying was her screen-saver. In the aftermath, Hill put it on a T-shirt, along with a picture of Bingaman and some pink and green stars that were reflective of some shoes Maddie had owned.

Perhaps the most telling perspective on Bingaman is that even though she never officially arrived at UMBC and had spent only limited time on campus - four visits - she made a lasting impression.

"It shows what type of kid she was, the type of impact she had when she made her visits," said Jennifer Harrison, who helped recruit Bingaman as an assistant with Blanchard and now is head coach at Clarion (Pa.) University. "She formed quick friendships. I think the girls were excited to play with somebody like that."

Harrison remembers one muggy summer visit when Bingaman arrived on campus in black jeans and a black hoodie pulled over her head, "while everybody else was in shorts and tank tops."

Her teammates already were warming to Bingaman's competitive demeanor.

"She would definitely have fit in," said Angela Anderson, a redshirt junior from Hermosa Beach, Calif. "She was quiet, but when you got to know her, she would make comments about certain things and make everyone laugh."

Bridget Scheetz, a freshman recruit from St. Louis, got to know Bingaman during the summer camps. She teared up when recalling their last goodbye.

"I said, 'All right, I'll see you guys in a few weeks,' " Scheetz said. "She came up to me and gave me a hug, so I'll always remember that."

In Austin, where she had an established volleyball presence, the Austin Sports Center renamed its scholarship fund for her and, excluding the contributions by her father, has already collected $20,000.

"That's from all over the U.S., not just Texas," said Glen Lietzke, the executive director of the center and Bingaman's coach last season.

More than 200 people attended a memorial service in Austin, including Blanchard. Stony Point High School retired her jersey and presented it to her father in another ceremony.

Sunday's event might provide closure for some, but not all.

"Every time we play and I look over at the right side of the court, there's never going to be closure," Blanchard said. "I mean that from a volleyball perspective and a personal perspective. She'll always be a part of this team and she'll always be a missing part of this team at the same time."

Meanwhile, Hill finds inspiration every time she looks at the school's UMBC logo on the floor where the team plays. To Hill, the "MB" stands for Maddie Bingaman.

"She's the heart of our team," Hill said. "I'm doing better. I've turned it into my motivation. Every play, every day, I give it to her."

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