Next season, for the first time in Palm Beach Central High School's history, Briana Cox, the Broncos' scrappy infielder with the unforgettable smile, will not take the field.
Briana, 17, who would have been a senior next season, was killed Sunday when a tire separated from the SUV in which she was riding, causing it to overturn and eject her onto Interstate 75 about 6 miles north of Lake City.
Briana and her mother, Barbara Gaidosh, 36; her stepfather, William Gaidosh, 42, and her sister, Rebecca Gaidosh, 8, were on their way back from Rebecca's softball tournament in Alabama, friends said, when the 2001 Ford SUV had a "catastrophic tire separation" about 2 p.m.
As a result, William Gaidosh lost control, the Florida Highway Patrol said.
Barbara Gaidosh's injuries were serious, investigators said. William and Rebecca Gaidosh suffered minor injuries. All three were taken to Lake City Medical Center and are expected to recover.
Briana, who lived with her family in Royal Palm Beach, was pronounced dead at the hospital. Investigators did not know whether she was wearing a seat belt.
"Briana was so sweet, so polite, top-notch in every aspect of her life," said former Palm Beach Central softball coach Paul Marick, who watched Briana grow into a team leader the past two seasons. "She had so much going for her. She wanted to work hard, to go to college and be successful, and to see it end so quickly is devastating."
With the crack of the bat, Briana would explode to her left, her small but sturdy frame gliding easily across the infield as she reached for the softball, teammates said. A moment later, she would be on her feet, gunning out the runner, saving the game.
Briana's grit, talent and maturity, her teammates said, made them believe she was born to play second base.
A devout Christian, Briana had hopes of playing softball at Palm Beach Atlantic University, teammates said. She dreamed of becoming a pharmacist. She loved to fish, to get her hands dirty, to relax while listening to Christian music and rhythm and blues.
She had recently started dating a player on the Palm Beach Central baseball team and was in the midst of the best summer of her life, friends said.
When Briana's teammates learned of her death Sunday, they organized a meeting. As they did before each game, they made a circle and said a prayer. Only this time, they prayed for their second baseman.
Among the girls was Caitlin Bouschet, Briana's best friend and teammate since they were 7. Neither Bouschet nor Briana dared leave the dugout alone. They remained linked in the infield, Bouschet at shortstop, Briana at second. In the Broncos' lineup, Briana batted third and Bouschet fourth. One never took the field without the other at her side, forming one of the area's strongest infield tandems.
"I played with her my whole life," said Bouschet, 17. "It won't be the same now. We did everything together. We knew what the other was thinking. I loved everything about her."
The two recently joined a travel team out of Atlanta and planned to meet Tuesday to prepare for their first game. Softball was the last thing they spoke about before Briana left town.
"The team just happened to need a second baseman and a shortstop," Bousquet said. "It was perfect."
Palm Beach Central has been around for only three years, and Briana played second base in all of them. Her teammates plan to retire her number 13 next season. They said they would struggle to cope with not seeing her at her old spot in the infield.
Briana, who hit .328 and had 22 hits last season, served as an on-field hitting instructor, teammates said. She would gauge a pitcher's repertoire and return to the dugout with tips. An inspiring leader with pop in her bat and a steady glove, she kept the girls motivated even in the most dire situations.
"She was like a den mother," Marick said. "She was a true leader. She would have been successful on any path she chose in life."
Kimmy Caron, 17, who plays third base for Palm Beach Central, said Briana helped her become a better player and person.
"She helped you when you were struggling, on and off the field," Caron said. "When someone else takes that position, it just won't be the same."
Published by The Palm Beach Post on Jul. 17, 2006.