SALT LAKE CITY — Even as she sent a message to her players, Utah volleyball coach Beth Launiere worried that her initial reaction to reports of a shooting on the U. campus Monday night may have been a bit overprotective.
“Immediately, the first thing I did last night was send a message out to (my players) and ask them to confirm that they were all safe and sound,” said Launiere, tears welling in her eyes as she talked about learning that University of Utah track athlete Lauren McCluskey had been shot and killed near her on-campus apartment Monday night. “I felt like, ‘Am I being an overbearing mother right now?’ And then when I heard it was a student-athlete, I mean, I would have done it regardless, but it just hit home. … I just felt good knowing they were all safe.”
University officials canceled classes, but for McCluskey’s fellow student-athletes, deciding whether to take a break from the demands of training and preparing for competitions was a complicated maze of grief, fear and shock.
“We had practice scheduled for this afternoon,” said Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts. “We met at 11 and decided we’d go from there. … There is no game plan for dealing with something like this. We just kind of had a conversation about what happened (and what resources were available to them). They talked about what they thought, how they felt. We had some kids who lived in the dorms and the apartments where this happened, and they shared how scary it was. They were a somber, stoic, kind of shocked group of young people.”
She asked her players if they wanted to practice, and they said yes.
“I didn’t even get back to my office, when the strength and conditioning coach called and said we had about eight kids break down,” Roberts said. “It just hit them. One of us was killed last night. So we canceled everything.”
Instead of breaking down plays, the girls met with counselors.
“The discussion did go toward relationship violence, looking out for one another and what to do if something doesn’t feel right,” Roberts said. “But Lauren did that. That’s what’s so hard. Here you have this athlete who is bright, talented, pretty. … And this university is very close-knit. We’re separate teams, but we’re all one team. This could have been one of my athletes. They’re thinking this is one of my teammates. … Because this is a really tight-knit place, these types of things really reverberate hard.”
The pain was palpable across the campus, but most acutely in the vicinity of the athletics department and team offices. McCluskey’s coach canceled a press conference, choosing to issue a statement instead, as the anguish was overwhelming.
“Everyone associated with our program is devastated by the loss of Lauren,” Utah track and cross-country coach Kyle Kepler said in his statement. “There are no words to express the emotions and grief we are experiencing right now.”
His description of McCluskey echoed the sentiments shared by her mother, Jill McCluskey, in an email sent to KSL Radio Tuesday morning.
“Lauren was a wonderful person, an excellent student and a dedicated member of our track and field team,” said Kepler, who has coached the women’s programs for 14 years. “She showed a relentless drive to improve every day over the last three and a half years and was always kind and supportive of her teammates. Those are just some of the reasons why her loss has hit us so hard.”
Launiere, whose team is preparing for a home match against No. 19 Washington State on Wednesday night, said her players had spent a lot of time talking about their feelings and their fears, as well.
“One of our players lives in the same apartment building, so she was really affected,” Launiere said. “We were in touch with all of our players who live in campus this morning, and then throughout the day, I’ve had several players who’ve come in to take advantage of the counseling. They had counseling for all the student-athletes available in the Varsity Room.”
Launiere said they had counselors come talk to all of the players, even those who didn’t seek help.
“We wanted them to know how to handle and how to deal with something like this,” she said. “And to let them know that whatever your feelings are, they’re real and it’s OK.” There are no boundaries for the discussions and no timelines for those struggling.
“We’re just going to take it day by day,” Roberts said. “There is nothing you can do to put this in a box, and like ‘OK, we dealt with that.’ These are young people who don’t have a whole lot of life experience yet. It can be really, really traumatic.”
In an effort to help all university students and staff, U. President Ruth Watkins issued a statement that counseling services for students would be available through the Counseling Center, while Human Resources arranged for the Employee Assistance Program to provide counseling for staff and faculty.
There are a number of free resources available to any student or faculty.
On Wednesday, a vigil will be held at 5 p.m. on the steps of the Park Building. All are welcome to attend.
Handwritten notes for McCluskey's family will be accepted at the vigil and also at the office of the dean of students, 270 Union Building.
Lauren McCluskey Memorial Fund: https://giving.utah.edu/lauren-mccluskey/
In memoriam condolences: https://continuum.utah.edu/lauren-mccluskey/
A GoFundMe page was started by Utah alum Nick Holland to help with funeral expenses.
“It hit home because I’m a Utah alumni,” Holland said. “I just felt this heartache and sympathy for her parents and what her family is going through. It hit kind of hard. …Our goal was to try to fund her entire funeral, somewhere right around $10,000.”
In just a few hours, Utah, and even some BYU fans, had contributed more than $8,000. Holland said he’s working with the dean of students to either give the family a check or turn control of the page over to them.
The Utah women’s volleyball match, which begins at 7 p.m. and is the featured Pac-12 match of the week, was supposed to be a Pink Game honoring breast cancer survivors. Instead, those festivities will occur Friday when the Utes host No. 21 Washington; Wednesday they will honor McCluskey instead.
“It’s tough that we’re playing tomorrow,” Launiere said, noting the players and staff are always discussing student-athlete safety and support.
All of the coaches expect these will be conversations that will continue indefinitely.
“There is no time limit on grief,” she said. “It’s just tragic.”
Roberts said she hopes the focus will remain on what a wonderful, accomplished young woman was lost on Monday night.
“I hope through this whole story, the attention it’s getting, that the focus will be on Lauren,” she said. “And not this sick, evil predator that doesn’t deserve any of our time or any of your ink. … It’s just so unnecessary. I just feel sick for everybody.”