NEWFIELD — Our Lady of Mercy Academy soccer team captain Elena Grady wiped a few tears from her cheeks as she sat in the lobby of her school on Monday morning.
Like others at OLMA, Grady was grieving over Vineland resident Philip Caporale, the school’s soccer coach who died in an automobile accident on Sunday in Gloucester County.
Grady recalled the time Caporale held his annual Crazy Day during soccer camp. Team members dressed in different bright colors, she said, and Caporale had his own take on the event.
“He was dressed like Elvis Presley,” Grady said, with a slight smile finally breaking across her face. “We asked him what he was doing. He said it was Crazy Day. He was always looking for a way to cheer you up.”
The 31-year-old Caporale died in a two-vehicle crash around 5 a.m. on Harding Highway near St. George Street in Franklin Township.
Franklin Township police said Sunday that Caporale was heading east on Harding Highway when his SUV crossed into the westbound lane, striking the trailer portion of a tractor-tractor. Caporale was pronounced dead at the scene, they said.
Lt. Ken Smolsky of the Franklin Township Police Department said Monday that the accident remains under investigation.
Township police are waiting for the results of toxicology tests performed by the Gloucester County Medical Examiner, he said. The test results will take some time to complete, he said, adding “there were no indicators at the scene” that drugs or alcohol played a part in the accident.
“It is what it is,” Smolsky said. “It is pretty much just a horrific accident.”
OLMA students — the all-girl facility has an enrollment of about 150 in grades 9 through 12 — arrived at school Monday morning to find the flag flying at half-staff in Caporale’s honor. Students held a prayer service for Caporale in the school’s chapel at about 8:30 a.m.
OLMA Athletic Director Michelle McGrath said the school’s principal, Sister Grace Marie, told students that it is “OK to have the feelings that they’re feeling” about Caporale’s death.
“That’s just how we are,” McGrath said. “Everyone expresses it differently.”
Members of the soccer team held their own memorial on the soccer field around 10 a.m. Caporale’s family members, students and some alumni were present for the memorial, which included a short half-field game and final run around the field in Caporale’s honor.
Grady, 18, of Washington Township, Gloucester County, said team members recalled some of the things — such as not running all-out at practice — that would drive Caporale crazy.
Caporale won 101 games during his 8 years of coaching the Villagers. His OLMA teams twice won Cape-Atlantic League National Conference II championships. The team finished 13-9 in his final year.
Caporale was a standout soccer player at Vineland High School, from which he graduated in 1999. He was named an all-star midfielder on The Press of Atlantic City’s boys’ second team in 1998.
“Phil was one of our team leaders out there,” said Richard Klimek, who was head coach for Vineland High School’s boys’ soccer teams from 1974 to 2002. “He was a really good competitor all through the years he played varsity.”
Klimek said Caporale continued playing soccer, occasionally showing up for pick-up games with some “old guys who got together on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“It’s a shocking loss,” he said.
Back at Olma, McGrath said the school has a grief counselor ready to assist students. She said Cape-Atlantic League officials promised more help if needed.
Caporale’s death occurred the day before graduation practice was to begin. OLMA seniors went ahead with their practice on Monday, and Sister Grace Marie stayed with them throughout the day, McGrath said.
“I think it will be put in perspective,” she said of how the accident will affect graduation. “This is a tragedy. We don’t want this to take the light off our senior girls.”
Meanwhile, OLMA office staff took condolence calls all morning from members of the clergy, the community and other schools, including longtime rival Sacred Heart High School in Vineland.
Now, McGrath said its time for faculty, parents and staff to pull together. She said that will likely happen in a school where the student body is more like a family.
Part of that began this morning when members of the school’s lacrosse team gathered for a meeting with McGrath.
McGrath said she was preparing something to say to the team, and would likely tell them, “This is a tragedy and play the game in his honor.
But Grady said it may take some time before the student body accepts what happened.
“I think everyone is stunned to imagine that our coach is gone,” Grady said. “We never saw this coming.”
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