KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Over the past few years Austin-East boys' soccer has developed into a consistent force with the help of head coach and an A-E grad Jonathan Netherland.
"I'm happy to be here and I hope to be here for 40 more years," he said after practice on Tuesday.
And players like senior captain Esloni Hakizimana.
"You know I just see them as brothers. I've got a brother of my own and he just like is rowdy sometimes we respect each other sometimes we make fun of each other, but at the same time you know, we show love to each other," Hakizimana said.
That love is needed after the death of five current or recent Austin-East students since January of this year.
"It's been a roller coaster. It at times felt a little overwhelming, I'm not ashamed to say, I have to go and sometimes talk to people, family members or friends just to get a calming perspective," Netherland said.
The pitch provides an escape.
"It helps a lot because not only am I affecting what I'm doing personally, but I'm affecting other people, you know, bring good vibes to them," Hakizimana said.
"This soccer, it just brings people together."
But even the beautiful game can't escape from a cruel world. Matches have been canceled. Teams have said they don't feel safe playing at A-E. The most recent game up in the air - senior night against Cumberland Gap.
"I would be liar if I said it wasn't halfway expected, more of the conversation and the message that they were trying to convey was that they only had concerns. As responsible adults, as parents with kids, I felt that was understandable," Netherland said.
"I was you know kind of disappointed because like okay, you know what's going on at A-E you know, we're trying our best, it's not our fault this is happening," Hakizimana said.
Netherland reached out to find another venue for senior night. After collaborating with Knox Pro Soccer, the Road Runners landed their spot - Regal Soccer Stadium, home of the UT women's soccer team.
"Knowing what these kids are going through and this community is going through it feels like the least we can do," Knox Pro Soccer director of growth Sam Weisbrod said.
"It might bring a little pressure to people and some might get a little cocky, but I don't blame them. I'm gonna be a little cocky too! Other than that... it's going to be mind blowing!" Hakizimana said.
This senior night is not the end of the story. Austin-East's story will march past Thursday, past this year's tragedies, but just for a moment, all that matters will be those players on the pitch.
"There was two options we can tuck our tail and end our season or we could stem the frontlines with our community and with the activists in our community to try to help and create some change. I'll tell you the truth this is not an Austin-East problem, this is a people problem, a community relations problem and we have to fight it."
Thursday's senior night at Regal Soccer stadium starts at 6 p.m.
As of Wednesday at 8 p.m., all tickets were sold, according to Knox Pro Soccer.