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Gunnar Schimoler hasn't kept track of all the goals he's scored for the South River lacrosse team in his four years on varsity, but one will stay with him forever.

It wasn't an overtime game winner or pivotal in claiming last year's state championship. This goal came in the final minute of a game the Seahawks already had in hand.

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Even so, it meant more.

When Schimoler scored against rival Severna Park in a 9-5 win on April 10, his teammates rushed the field and the crowd stood and cheered. And then kept standing and cheering. Gunnar's older sister, Heidi, was in the stands.

It was the first goal the 17-year-old senior scored after their mother, Jane Schimoler, lost a courageous five-year fight with lung cancer on Easter Sunday.

"It definitely makes the process easier knowing a lot of people have your back," he said. "You always remember the people that are there for you in tough times, so it holds a special place in my heart."

The warm ovation was just one more example of how lacrosse — a staple in the Schimoler family — is helping him get through yet another difficult period in his young life.

Family tradition

In August, 2012, Gunnar was getting ready to start his sophomore year when his father, John, died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age of 50. The following February, Gunnar's uncle and godfather, Paul Schimoler, died of cancer.

Both were standout college lacrosse players who shared their love for the sport with Gunnar.

Jane Schimoler also loved lacrosse, and Gunnar is still trying to get used to not hearing the cheers from his biggest fan.

When he was in eighth grade, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Doctors gave her three months to live, but she wasn't having it.

Instead, she went through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, and still lived by her rules. She kept working in real estate and continued going to the gym. She never lost her hair and never once complained. Before she died, her health drastically diminished at the start of the lacrosse season, she showed her children how to live.

"The only option for both of us is to be strong," said Heidi, who is set to graduate from Salisbury this spring. "Two weeks before she passed away, she was still trying to get to the gym and working. So I think we both have kind of taken that mentality and ran with it. That's what keeps us going."

So the day after his mother's death, Gunnar was at practice — he felt he needed to be there — and that's what both his parents would have encouraged.

An "A" student all through high school, Gunnar is set to play at UMBC next season on a partial scholarship. He'll be a third-generation college lacrosse player.

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His father played at Syracuse, a midfielder on its 1983 national championship team. His uncle Paul was an All-American goalie at Cornell. His grandfather, Dr. Louis Schimoler, also played at Cornell and is in the Long Island Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

Gunnar's father coached him and most of his current teammates at the youth level, but the regular backyard sessions — just father and son — bring back the best memories.

"He wasn't one of those dads that always said, 'Great job,'" Gunnar said. "He was always pointing something out to me and always tough on me. He'd say, 'OK, we can't go inside until you and I catch 100 righty and 100 lefty.' If we dropped one, we'd start over again. When I was younger, I used to get mad at him sometimes. But looking back now, it definitely helped me out and I'm grateful for everything he taught me."

Every time he steps on the field, he feels closer to his dad and wants to build on the family legacy.

Community support

Lacrosse is sport, but also family in the South River community.

Most of Gunnar's best friends have played with him since they first picked up sticks, which is a big reason why the program has been so successful.

Most of them were at his house two hours after his mother died. At her funeral, players and coaches from the program's varsity and junior varsity, along with the girls varsity, all showed up, all of the players wearing their jerseys.

His future coaches at UMBC also were there to show support.

An account on the website gofundme.com has been established to help the Schimoler children's education fund and donations have poured in, including a number from some of the Seahawks' rivals.

After Gunnar's father died, assistant coach and neighbor Greg Speed became a bigger part of Gunnar's life. Now, Speed is Gunnar's legal guardian. Monday through Thursday, Gunnar stays with Speed and his family and then he goes back to his family's home when his sister, Heidi, comes back from school on weekends.

"We see him as part of our family," said Speed, who's married with a 14-month-old son. "We just want to provide him with the support he needs ... to just be a kid and be successful. He's a good kid and on that path."

Heidi is set to graduate with a degree in business and has a consulting job lined up in Baltimore. When Gunnar heads to UMBC, they'll be 15 minutes away. Support will be close by.

"I think we're intuitive when one of us needs support," Heidi said. "He can kind of sense when I may need him a little bit more and I think I can sense when he needs me. It's been tough, but he's doing amazing. He's just naturally a leader with a great head on his shoulders."

Staying strong

Despite everything he's been dealing with, Gunnar, a two-year captain, remains the leader of a talented team that is gearing up to defend its Class 4A-3A state crown. He was among the team's leading scorers playing attack last season, and has moved to midfield this spring to make an impact in the middle of the field. The bid for a repeat starts on Friday when the Seahawks, ranked No. 8 with a 12-2 mark, host Severna Park at 7 p.m.

His mother told him, as hard as it may be, to be strong and move forward. He has done so impressively.

"We keep an eye on him as a friend, as part of the family. But we try not to treat him any different than any other kid and that's what he wants," coach Paul Noone said. "He's a leader and we lean on him. Maybe a lot of kids couldn't handle the pressure but he seems to thrive on it."

And with that, he's providing even stronger leadership.

"I couldn't see myself in that situation and still getting up for school every morning and going to practice every day. It would be rough. So every day, he's an inspiration to all of us," said senior teammate Craig Chick.

After his father died, Gunnar began saying a prayer in his honor before every game. Now, it's for both his parents.

"I definitely can feel them around at times and I know they're watching," he said. "If I were to score a goal, my sister always says mom and dad were watching."

If you would like to help the Schimoler children with their college expenses, please go to gofundme.com to make a donation.

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