LINWOOD - Mainland Regional High School's football team will take to the field this morning for the first time since a car crash claimed the lives of four players. School officials will run group-counseling sessions for parents and teachers tonight. Parents, meanwhile, make funeral arrangements for their children, who in some cases hadn't yet chosen a college or attended a prom.

That's just one day.

An inestimable number remain for the friends, coaches, teammates, teachers and relatives of Casey Brenner, Edgar Bozzi, Dean Khoury and Nick Conner, who were killed when Brenner's SUV crashed on the Garden State Parkway just before noon Saturday. Surviving passengers and teammates Jake Smith, Alex DeNafo, Kyle Beattie and Kenneth Randall -- and the others left behind -- must balance honoring the memories of the teens who died with continuing on and healing.

They're off to a good start, according to Rowan University Professor Richard Fopeano. Once a teacher at Mainland and mental health unit manager at Atlantic Mental Health -- now AtlantiCare Behavioral Health -- Fopeano teaches health education at Rowan University.

School officials held a vigil Sunday night that police estimate drew 3,000 people to the Mainland football field. A memorial was organized Monday on the Longport beach where some affected teenagers spent summers together.

Superintendent Tom Baruffi also said he and other school officials intend to establish a system for monitoring how students deal with the tragedy as the school year progresses.

Baruffi and his colleagues spent most of Monday consulting with in-house guidance counselors and representatives from AtlantiCare and Northfield-based Alcove Center for Grieving Families and Children, who will help moderate group counseling sessions scheduled during the next two weeks.

Only a handful of students took advantage of counseling offered Sunday, Baruffi said.

"They're just not ready yet. At this point, they just need to be together," he said.

The vigil provided the community a place to congregate Sunday night. Before and since then, those closest to the tragedy gathered at head football coach Bob Coffey's house in Linwood.

"He has a very open-door policy, and I think that's benefited this whole process," Baruffi said.

Students are used to Coffey's nearly constant accessibility, but this situation is unique. Coffey heads into his 30th year at Mainland, but he said he never had to lead a team grieving the sudden death of one - let alone four - of their members.

"I don't wish this on anyone. It's just so very devastating, especially for the families, to see how each life has so many people are associated with it," he said.

Coffey canceled a scrimmage Monday, but practice resumes today.

"I'm sure they'll all show up," he said of his players. "They don't have to, but I really think they all need to do something."

Athletic Director Michael Gatley - whose first day on the job was Monday - agreed.

"Athletics have always provided an outlet. For some kids, that two or three hours on the field is as therapeutic as anything else," Gatley said.

Gatley, who lives two houses away from Randall, was Hammonton High School's athletic director when football player Mark Bresani, a senior at the city's private Catholic St. Joseph High School, died in a car accident on his way home from a team gathering on the eve of a game in 2003.

"When it comes to crisis, our job is to continue. But how do you do that with respect for people who have passed on long before their time?" Fopeano said.

Although that balancing act can prove difficult, the team atmosphere and events like the vigil Sunday and upcoming funerals create a strong foundation for the healing process, Fopeano said.

That's particularly important in a situation such as this, where death seems "illogical" and proves particularly resistant to reason, he said.

"The boys were killed doing something students -- and many local people -- do every day," he said.

In this case, many of those affected are young enough that it's likely this is their first major loss or trauma. That means they will look for examples of how to grieve. Fortunately, they are surrounded by coaches, teachers, teammates and others who can model constructive ways of coping and otherwise provide support, he said.

"The team cushions them a little, and at same time provides examples of how to deal with loss, major disappointment. And with a team, they have tighter social connections than most people," Fopeano said.

Steve Rubino, CEO of Oceanside Wellness & Sport, agreed. At least two of the Mainland football players killed last weekend were among the local athletes who train at the facility in the Cardiff section of Egg Harbor Township, said Rubino, who declined to name them.

"We spend a lot of time with athletes dealing with trauma, injuries and loss of focus," said Rubino of Margate. "It's pretty much the same formula: honesty is the best policy, and to acknowledge their feelings and allow the process to take a natural course."

Coffey said he's witnessed that resilience repeatedly during his three-decade career.

"They're going to continue to surprise a lot of people - not me. But they're just incredible, these kids," he said.

Contact Emily Previti:

609-272-7221