It was a somber time in Liberty Ranch High School’s gymnasium after school on Monday.

Basketball players and coaches met for practice while still reeling from the shock of losing former player Ryan Stover, who died Saturday at age 18, a week after suffering a heart attack on Nov. 22.

The 6-foot, 2-inch senior collapsed suddenly at his home during an early birthday celebration. He spent the next week in the hospital before being taken off life support the day after his real birthday.

It’s a tragedy that none of his friends or family saw coming or know exactly how to deal with — but they are working together to support each other.

Stover was loved by all, according to Hawks coach Josh Williams, and he had friends in each of the different crowds at school. He was the team’s “funny man,” and he left such an impact on those he knew that the basketball team has dedicated this season to him.

Tears streamed down Williams’ face as he talked about his former pupil, still unable to believe that Stover is gone.

“A lot of us have made the comment that it’s a bad dream and we’re trying to wake up. We’re still wrapping our minds around it, especially him being so young,” Williams said. “It’s been a long week.”

It’s been especially long for Williams, who said Stover wasn’t the average student. He remembers teaching Stover in his freshman health class and being blown away.

“Ryan’s freshman year was my first year teaching here,” Williams said. “I remember emailing his mother Bridget, a woman I’d never met before, and telling her what a great student and person Ryan is and how I wish I had more Ryan Stovers in my class. He really caught my attention from the first moment with how respectful he was, how on task he was and how polite he was.”

A talented student

There was something special about Stover that was difficult to describe, Williams added. He had the ability to “see the big picture,” whereas most teens his age were caught up in “the now,” he said.

Stover began playing basketball for Liberty Ranch during that first year, and continued through last year. He played varsity and came off the bench occasionally as a junior, averaging just under two points per game.

A hard-working defender and streaky shooter, according to Williams, Stover opted to forgo playing this year. Instead, he was going to help Williams from the bench with the hope of coaching his own team someday, after he finished college.

Williams welcomed him as part of the staff, and Stover had a real knack for the game, he said.

“A lot of times last year, he’d get my attention and suggest a certain strategy or play,” Williams said. “A lot of times I found myself listening to him and, sure enough, he was right.”

The last time Williams had the pleasure of sitting alongside Stover on the bench was the day Stover went to the hospital. Liberty Ranch was playing in a scrimmage at Rocklin High School and everything was normal.

Stover departed, saying something like, “See you Monday,” the last words they would ever exchange.

Later that evening, Stover was having an early birthday celebration with his friends at his home. Suddenly, he became ill and collapsed. Paramedics took him to the hospital, where he remained until his passing on Saturday.

Williams’ wife Susie also teaches at Liberty Ranch and was close to Stover as well. She last spoke with Stover during the week leading up to the scrimmage, at a team dinner that she helped prepare. Her last memory of Stover was him thanking her for the meal.

Ryan Stover’s mother, Bridget Stover, said doctors weren’t sure what caused her only child to collapse, since he’d never been seriously sick before. The family believes an underlying heart condition must have been present but undetected.

An outpouring of support

The Hawks played their first home game on Monday in a crowded gym, beating Lodi High School 92-85 in the annual Foundation Game. The players wore warm-up shirts that read “Play for Ryan” on the front and had Ryan’s name and No. 25 on the back. A special seat on the bench was reserved for Stover with his jersey hung over it, an honor Williams has planned to continue the rest of the year.

Aside from dedicating the season to Stover, Williams said he’s going to name an award for him and award it each year to the Hawk that best represents the values that Stover stood for.

“It’s been amazing,” Bridget Stover said. “The Stover family has been so overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the school and community.”

Sydni Sims, a cheerleader and one of Stover’s closest friends, spearheaded the drive to have the special shirts made. She’s considering selling them and donating any profits to the Stover family.

Sims thinks Stover would have loved the atmosphere in the gym on Monday and been touched by the support. And he would have been just as much into the game as well, she added.

“Ryan was a jokester,” Sims said. “But I think he would take it on a serious note, too. He would be screaming with everyone else and telling the guys, ‘You need to pick it up.’ He’d have his head in the game.”

The Hawks’ recent practices have been less about preparing for Saturday’s game and more about coping with the team’s loss, Williams said.

Friend and fellow senior Will Hood was at practice last week when the call came through to Williams that Stover’s prognosis wasn’t good, Hood said. The atmosphere around campus has been “surreal,” Hood said, but he added that he has fond memories of Stover.

“In basketball, he was the funny guy who’d be knocking down half-court shots and taking funny three-pointers,” Hood said.

One of Stover’s other close friends, guard Zach Justice, said he and Stover were planning on going to community college together next year.

“It’s been rough this last week,” Justice said. “I haven’t been going out as much as I usually do. It’s been hard to practice, but we have all been trying our hardest for him.”

Teammate Jordan Windley, who often hung out with Stover after school, said he will remember going to Wing Stop and playing “Madden” on the Xbox.

“I’ve never been through anything like this,” Windley said, choking back tears. “He was one of the nicest dudes and has changed me. He’s made me appreciate life.”

Contact reporter Mark Godi at markg@lodinews.com.

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