Friends, ball players hold memorial for Manitoba woman who died in North Dakota

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Friends and former teammates of Ashley Neufeld drew a heart in the infield dirt of a ball diamond in her hometown Wednesday - a tribute to the young woman known for her determined play and infectious, positive attitude.
Word of the impromptu memorial for the avid softballer spread quickly through Brandon, Man., via phone calls and text messages. Dozens of people showed up and some left flowers on second base.
"I don't want to dwell on any negatives 'cause I don't know anything negative about Ashley," said Jim Nay, who coached Neufeld for six years.
"Just the positive things - the image she created, the (way) the young people would go to the ballpark to see Ashley, the way the young people's faces would light up when Ashley was in the ballpark."
Neufeld, 21, was one of three members of the women's softball team at Dickinson State University who died earlier this week when their sport utility vehicle ended up submerged in a pond not far from the North Dakota school. The other two women - Kyrstin Gemar, 22, and Afton Williamson, 20 - were from California. The body of Neufeld's dog was also found in the vehicle.
The university listed Gemar as a senior business major. Neufeld and Williamson were working on psychology degrees.
Police believe Neufeld and her friends inadvertently drove into a farmer's pond during a stargazing trip. About 30 family members and teammates of the three women gathered Wednesday at the pond where they threw roses and softballs into the water.
Lenny Gemar said he knows where his daughter is now.
"We threw out last pitches to each of the girls," he said of the gathering at the pond. "That heavenly softball team someplace where we hope that they all are. We know they hit them out of the park."
Senior softball player Jody Lantz of St. Walburg, Sask., said she and fellow students came to the pond Wednesday "to understand it a little more, wrap our heads around it."
"It's going to be weird going onto the field and knowing that they're never going to be there," Lantz said.
Stark County Sheriff Clarence Tuhy said the SUV was found resting on its wheels Tuesday in about three metres of water hidden by tall grass. The doors and windows were closed.
"When you're not familiar with an area like that, it would have been very easy to drive into," he said.
The death of the gifted athlete, who also played hockey, rocked Brandon, a city of 43,000 where Neufeld's family was well-known. Her mother, Bev Neufeld, was also a talented ball player who was recently inducted into the Manitoba Softball Hall of Fame.
The loss was particularly being felt at Vincent Massey High School, which Neufeld attended.
"Ashley touched the lives of staff and students," principal Matthew Gustafson said in a written statement. "She was a very effective and positive part of our school community."
Within hours of her death, more than 2,000 people had joined a tribute page on the social networking site Facebook.
"Your warm and caring nature was appreciated by all and touched more people than you ever imagined," read one tribute from a former hockey teammate.
"I remember how positive she was, how naturally talented she was, and that big, pretty smile that she was never seen without, on and off the diamond," recalled a ball player.
Lt. Rod Banyai said authorities do not expect autopsy results for a week or two. The autopsies will help determine the exact cause of death and whether the women were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Authorities have said there is no indication they were.
The North Dakota Highway Patrol also will examine the 1997 Jeep Cherokee to determine if the vehicle malfunctioned, Banyai said.
The students were believed to be in the Jeep when two of their friends received phone calls late Sunday before the lines quickly went dead. Police described the first as a "very scratchy" call for help in which one of the students said they were near water.
Tuhy said the calls, which authorities were able to track to cellphone towers, were critical in leading searchers to the vehicle. He said it wasn't clear if emergency crews might have been able to reach the women had they called 911 instead of their friends.
"There could have probably been some location formed out of that (Sunday night) but if it would have been timely enough, I don't know," he said.
University president Richard McCallum said classes were cancelled and a memorial service was being planned on campus Thursday.
Neufeld's mother said her family was trying to be strong.
"That's what she would want, and we have so much support here (on campus)," she said following a prayer service Tuesday evening. "We know how much Ashley loved this school. I would just like everybody to remember Ashley's smile and personality."
A formal memorial is expected in Brandon as well, although Nay said it will be a challenge to find a location big enough to accommodate all those touched by Neufeld.
"There's not a church in Brandon large enough," Nay said. "I know there are going to be people coming in from right across Manitoba and from the United States."

Organizations: Dickinson State University, North Dakota school, Vincent Massey High School The North Dakota Highway Patrol

Geographic location: California, Manitoba, Brandon North Dakota Walburg Sask. United States

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