6/28/05: 'Playing for Chantel'

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This story was written by Jeff Linder and was published in The Gazette on June 28, 2005:

WAUKON -- Chantel Snitker took a softball to her grave.

It was signed by her teammates and placed in her casket at the funeral home. It carried a message:

"Now we play for you."

Those words are repeated daily, in practice and at games. The Waukon Indians play for Chantel Snitker.

"She was so dedicated to softball," said Tara Meyer, Snitker's cousin and the Indians' pitcher. "We pitched for hours together, and I never, ever heard her


"She loved the game so much."

Snitker was killed in November after being struck by a car while walking along the shoulder  of Old Highway 9 west of town. She was 17.

Talk to her family, her teammates, her coaches, her friends. They'll tell you the same thing: Chantel Snitker was special.

"She was somebody that everybody liked," said Waukon Coach Chris Stimson.  "She's one of those kids that I can honestly say that I want my children to grow up and be like."

Snitker was intelligent, carrying a 4.091 grade point average and a No.-1 class ranking before her death. She was an academic all-stater in volleyball. She was popular. And friendly. And hard-working.

She's gone now. But far from forgotten.

In a ceremony before the first home game of the season, Snitker's parents, Jon and Nancy, unveiled a sign in center field with Chantel's name and number. Her younger sister, Daneisha, threw out the first pitch.

The players wear orange, black and white wristbands that say "CHANTEL." They wear patches on the sleeves of their uniforms ("CMS 27"). They take her new orange uniform, ordered last fall but never worn, to all their games and hang it in their dugout.

And if you see a vehicle with Allamakee County license plates, it's not unlikely that you'll see a sticker in the back window: "Angel 27 - We Play For You."

The Indians play for Chantel Snitker. And they believe that more than just her memory is driving them to one of the best seasons in school history. Waukon is 23-3, owns a share of the Northeast Iowa Conference lead and is ranked No. 10 in Class 3A.

Waukon was losing by a run to Charles City in the seventh inning June 7. The conditions were calm before the Indians came up for their last at-bat.

And then ...

"We had Chantel's jersey bobby-pinned to the dugout fence," said Carlyn Wacker, a senior shortstop. "All of a sudden, the jersey started flapping back and forth and a gust of wind came up."

A routine fly ball got caught in the breeze, floating over the pitcher's head. Two runs scored that inning and the Indians got the win.

She's gone now. Or is she?

"We believe we have an advantage," Stimson said. "We have nine people on the field, but we feel we have another one looking over our shoulder."

One game, the clouds formed the image of a halo over the center field fence. The Indians thought of Chantel. They see a rainbow, they think of Chantel.

And they miss her greatly.

"I miss her energy," said third baseman Kaila Egan. "No matter how bad things got, she'd be positive. She'd have a smile and something good to say."

"I miss her laugh," Wacker said. "I miss how she'd circle around the mound and yell how many outs there were."

Last year, Waukon had two pitchers that complemented each other well. Snitker (15-6, 0.95 ERA) would rear back and fire with a good riseball or changeup while Meyer would follow with deceptively good velocity.

Meyer has pitched every game this year. "She's held up pretty well," Stimson said. "When our bats are letting us down, we can rely on our pitching and our defense.

"When the other team gets base runners on, we just keep digging deeper and deeper."

The Indians have experience, good speed and a balanced offense. And a purpose.

"This is a senior-laden team, and most of these girls grew up with Chantel," said Dain Jeppson, Waukon athletics director. "They're carrying the torch for her."

They play for her.

Jon Snitker is a math teacher at Waukon and spent two seasons (2002-03) as the head softball coach before resigning to concentrate on his summer construction business. He remained close to the program and was a regular at practice. Even now, after Chantel's death.

He and Chantel, the oldest of four children, spent countless hours working out together. She pitched. He caught. They bonded.

"We'd go to the gym on a Saturday morning, and when we were done, each time she'd say, `Thanks for catching me, Dad,'-" Jon said.

Jon and Chantel shared a birthday -- May 18. And it was Jon who held his dying daughter's hand in the ditch along Old Highway 9 before the ambulance came.

"They had such a close relationship," Jeppson said. "He and Nancy are doing OK, and I don't know how they do it."

Support from the community and the softball team hasn't waned. The Indians' success has helped the family heal, though the pain is never far away.

"I'm really sad that I don't get to play catch with Chantel any more. And I wish I could see her in her uniform," Jon said. "But I'm sure she's at a place now where we'd all like to end up. And I'm sure if she had the choice to stay where she is or come back, she'd stay where she is."

"We know she's safe and happy now," Nancy said. "She did her test here, and she passed it with flying colors."

Wacker, Meyer and Egan spoke at length about Chantel Snitker on a warm, windy day after practice last week. They spoke fondly, without tears.

"I still don't know why it happened," Wacker said.

"But it did, and I guess we have to accept it."

Her death, they say, didn't make any sense. But her life did.

"She was here to teach people how they're supposed to act," Meyer said. "She was such a role model, such a good person."

Nine seniors are spending their final summer together on the Waukon softball team. Soon they'll go different directions - off to college, off to life.

But today, they play for Chantel.   

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