Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And for Julia Sarcona, few sights were more beautiful than rounding the corner of a lonely country road to discover a herd of llamas wandering through an open field.
There was the time Sarcona and two of her classmates on the Colorado women's lacrosse team, Carly Cox and Sarah Brown, decided to blow off some steam with an impromptu scenic drive to Red Rocks. Sarcona made her teammates abruptly stop the car so she could explore an alpaca farm they accidentally ran into, leaving her teammates in the car while she giddily defied the "No Trespassing" signs clearly posted along the fence.
Another time the Buffaloes were on a bus winding through northern California on the way to a road game when they passed a similar field of llamas. This time Sarcona was helpless to get the driver to pull over, so she made the best of it. With her face pressed against the window Sarcona savored the view of her favorite animals, eventually using Snapchat to share with her teammates the exact moment the view, combined with her inability to jump out and pet the animals, forced tears down her cheeks.
"Everyone has some sort of funny llama experience with that girl," CU senior Kelsie Garrison said.
Tears flowing during bus trips have become painfully more common for coach Ann Elliott's club this spring as the Buffs have dedicated their season to Sarcona, who was killed in a one-car accident on Boulder Canyon Road Jan. 13.
On Friday, when the Buffs host Oregon in their regular-season finale at 3 p.m., it will be Senior Day at Kittredge Field. As has been the case all season, reminders and tributes to Sarcona will fill the stadium as well as the Buffs' sideline. Yet Friday's match likely will take those painful, festering emotions to a new level. CU's seniors will be honored following the game, with Sarcona's family making the trip from Philadelphia to take part in the festivities.
The seniors asked Elliott if the annual Senior Day tribute could be held following the match instead of before. The thought of having to compete after going through Senior Day without Sarcona just felt far too emotionally intimidating.
"Losing that good of a teammate and a person, it just brought us all a lot closer," said Cox, who grew up playing lacrosse alongside Sarcona. "You can see it at times on the field at tight moments in games. It was really tough in the beginning. Everywhere I look there's a part of Julia, and that's kind of tough. Quieter moments definitely happen at home. When we get to lacrosse it's like focusing in. We want to honor Julia this season and do a lot of things for her."
If the Buffs win on Friday, they will accomplish something in Sarcona's honor that will forever be a highlight in the program's history. A win would give the Buffs' their first regular-season conference crown in the five-year history of the program, and CU will go down as the first champions of the Pac-12 Conference's new women's lacrosse league.
On Jan. 13, a Saturday, not many lacrosse players were on campus. The semester break was just winding down, and so Sarcona decided to revel in the last remaining moments of free time before the glut of classes and the onset of preseason practices consumed her life.
Her family and teammates remain unsure exactly why Sarcona traveled up toward Nederland that day, but it is believed she had taken advantage of a pleasant day to go on a hike or a run at one of her favorite spots near Eldora. She was driving back down Boulder Canyon Road when she apparently lost control of her car and careened off the road, colliding with a tree.
According to a Boulder County autopsy report, there was no alcohol in the 21-year old's system. Blunt force trauma was cited as the cause of her death.
Most of the team members were informed of Sarcona's accident just as they were traveling back to Colorado from their respective breaks. Instead of starting classes that Monday, the Buffs cried together while making plans to travel to Philadelphia later that week for their teammate's funeral.
The outpouring of condolences not only from the CU community, but from the lacrosse community across the nation, was humbling.
"For lacrosse, it's kind of a world of its own, and there's so many teams that sent us care packages," Garrison said. "One team, they had every girl send something that makes them happy when they're sad. We got snacks and movies and games. And some of them were schools we've never played before.
"Something I know was super important to the Sarcona family, and we got to hear it too, is one of Julia's freshman year writing class, her professor pulled up one of her papers. Probably one of the first she wrote in college. Julia's mom read it to us and it was about spirit. It showed so much of her character and her values on life. To have that piece in writing, and to have a teacher find that from four years past, it really meant a lot to Mrs. Sarcona. There was so much Julia in it."
A new normal
Sarcona grew up on Long Island as the youngest of three children, and the family moved to her mother's hometown of Philadelphia after she graduated from high school. Her mother played basketball at East Carolina and her father was a star lacrosse player in high school. Sarcona's older sister, Nina, played lacrosse at UMass.
Sarcona's story is a familiar one at CU, as the kid from the east coast fell in love with the picturesque Boulder campus almost immediately. While her older sister was a prominent scorer at UMass, Julia Sarcona fell into a supporting role at CU. In fact her father, Joe Sarcona, said after two seasons they contemplated pulling Julia from CU to transfer to a program where she might be able to play a more prominent role. But she loved CU, loved being part of the team, and Elliott reassured Julia's parents their daughter was as integral to the success the up-and-coming Buffs were on the cusp of enjoying as any of the team's top scorers.
They never imagined letting her follow her own muse would lead to the devastating phone call they received Jan. 13.
"We're trying to experience a new normal," Joe Sarcona said. "My wife is a teacher at a local university and every one of her students are 21-year olds. She's having a harder time than I am but she's a tough, tough matriarch. My daughter and my son, we're kind of getting things together. We've been to two family weddings since and you have moments there you just try to make it through. The father-daughter dance is always a killer. But she left so much enjoyment in our lives. We're trying to focus on paying it forward."
In that spirit, the family is in the early stages of starting Julia's Rainbow Foundation, in hopes of awarding scholarships to lacrosse players that best embody Julia Sarcona's spirit.
"Her talent was bringing happiness to people," Joe Sarcona said. "We're raising money for scholarships. But not for the best lacrosse player. For that player that keeps the team together and keeps everybody laughing."
A constant presence
The Buffs have honored Sarcona over the past three months in ways both visible and intensely personal.
Her locker remains intact. At Kittredge on Friday her No. 15 will be everywhere, from the patches on CU's game jerseys to a No. 15 flag flying over the field to the identical No. 15 jerseys the Buffs use during warm-ups. Healing crystals, another passion of Sarcona's, are carried along by the Buffs on every road trip. As, of course, is a stuffed llama. Brown keeps a little picture of Sarcona on her mirror, so the face of her friend is one of the first things to greet her every morning.
Sarcona didn't see much playing time during her three seasons with the Buffs — she appeared in a total of 11 games, recording two goals and two assists — yet her impact on the program runs far deeper than any statistic can measure. Many of the semi-scripted dance routines that erupt along the Buffs' bench in celebration of goals originated from Sarcona's gregarious personality, and there is little debate among her teammates over who owned the club's best sense of humor.
"She was my best friend. We had so many great memories together," senior Darby Kiernan said. "She was one of the funniest people I've ever met. Just so genuine. This entire season has been dedicated to her and her family, so she still is really important.
"It gives us something to fight for. I just think it's really important that we always keep her memory alive and her legacy. Being able to play and work hard for her and her family is really important."
If the Buffs claim a victory Friday afternoon and earn that Pac-12 championship, no doubt Julia Sarcona will unleash a little victory dance in some alpaca farm in the sky.