‘Honoring Simon’s legacy’: At Madison West, first match after captain’s death is far more than a soccer game

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Left: WISC-TV/Channel 3000 photo of Regents taking the field Tuesday night. Right: Simon Bilessi, Courtesy of One City Schools/Marcus Berghahn

MADISON, Wis. — It was on a trip six years ago to South Dakota where Madison West High School senior Joe Kugler recalls his first impressions of later-teammate Simon Bilessi. Joe, Simon and two others were deciding where each would sleep in their hotel room.

“‘I’ll just take the office chair,'” Kugler recalled Bilessi saying. And for three days straight, Bilessi slept in a chair instead of a bed.

“That was when I knew, ‘Okay, this kid is legit,'” Kugler said with a chuckle.

Tuesday evening, it was those kinds of memories—of a teenager and team captain who brightened every room—that fueled his tribute at his team’s first soccer game after his death on Saturday night. Madison West’s Regents faced off against Beloit Memorial in an emotional game at the Irwin A. & Robert D. Goodman Sports Complex that was far more than a soccer match.

“For the team, it’s just been a shock,” Kugler said. “No one really felt like it was real at all when we first found out.”

Bilessi and two Middleton High seniors, Evan Kratochwill and Jack Miller, were killed in a fiery crash when a driver rear-ended their car as they were stopped to turn left on West Mineral Point Road in the town of Middleton. The 30-year-old driver, whom police have not yet identified, is facing pending charges while hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.

Bilessi was number 13 on the team. As teammates stood on the pitch with bowed heads, the clock ran for 13 seconds after the game kicked off in his honor. At minute 13, the game stopped for a full minute; the crowd stood and applauded.

“Noise is probably more fitting of this young man than a minute of silence,” Coach Pat Bauch said. “Simon was a ball of showmanship, and I mean that in the absolute best way. Charisma and kindness and positivity and energy. He made a enormous impact on his team.”

Scores of students and their families turned out for the game Tuesday night in Bilessi’s memory, with Madison Metropolitan School District’s superintendent Carlton Jenkins and other school officials in attendance. The Regents held Beloit Memorial to a shutout, scoring six goals as students brought signs for his tribute. Some shed tears as the public address announcer read a statement in his honor. For the team, it’d been a tough few days, Coach Bauch said.

“It’s been a couple days of healing, and every kid is going to deal with that in their own way,” he explained. “Yesterday we brought the team together for a practice, and it was a little bit quiet at first, but we just needed to get their bodies moving. By the minute 45 or 55 of practice, you could see in their demeanor and body language that it was a big stress reliever and they were allowing themselves to laugh and to smile and sweat and enjoy being on the field together. So yesterday being out here training was a huge step in the healing process.”

‘Radiated that energy’: A beloved teammate and volunteer

It was only Bilessi’s second year in the program, but the team had already voted him to be one of their three captains. Kugler had been to every practice alongside him during that time; Monday was the first without him. It was the first time he really felt gone.

“It’s just really tough to handle,” Kugler said. “I love you, bro. You’re my brother from another mother.”

“I’ve been coaching for a good amount of years, and it’s individuals that are determined to show up and put themselves out there and build positive energy even when the team might be at a low point, that really makes the season and the team tick,” Bauch said. “He was certainly one of those players that makes the coaches’ life more fun, and makes the coaches’ life easier because he was the one that radiated that energy to all of his teammates.”

And it was tonight that felt full of sad irony, he and Kugler said: If it had been someone else that died, it would have been Bilessi bringing the team together and speaking on his behalf. Neither was his short life’s impact felt on his own school’s team. Bilessi regularly volunteered with One City School’s soccer program, working with 4 to 8-year-old children. On the weekends, he volunteered with their Saturday Bike Crew, taking children on long bike rides.

“Our hearts and prayers go out to the families, friends and loved ones of the three young men killed in a car accident in Middleton this weekend,” a statement from the school read.

He also played on the Rush Wisconsin 2004 Midwest Regional League team—beloved by all who knew him.

“His big smile, the passion, energy, creativity and uncompromising joy for the game of soccer and life, blessed all who had the good fortune to be part of his ecosphere,” Wisconsin Rush Technical Director Ben John said in a statement. “His ability to be so present in the moment and to be so grateful for everything and everyone was inspiring. He will be dearly missed.”

Ongoing support: School districts continue student support

Both Middleton High and Madison West are offering support to students in the aftermath of the tragic accident that took the lives of three of their fellow students.

“Our MHS community is heartbroken at the loss of two members of our student body. These students were both wonderful scholars, athletes and human beings,” Middleton High School Principal Peg Shoemaker said in a statement. “Each of them were ‘bright lights’ within our student body: positive, kind, funny, inclusive. The loss of their presence will impact our students and staff profoundly.”

Middleton High School will be moving ahead with its homecoming plans; district officials say the Spirit Night activities, football game and homecoming dance will all go on as planned as an opportunity for the entire school to support each other as a community.

Of the other students killed in the crash, Miller was involved with the student council, was the goalkeeper on the Middleton High soccer team, and also played club hockey. Kratochwill was a member of the Middleton High cross country team, school officials said.

The Dane County Sheriff’s Office is continuing to investigate the crash; they have not yet released the driver’s name that crashed into the teenagers’ car from behind, sending it into a nearby field where it caught fire.

A GoFundMe set up to pay the funeral and burial costs for the three students has now reached over $100,000, far over its original $15,000 goal, as families, businesses, and organizations step forward to cover the costs of the tragedy.

It’s that kind of community that will help move towards healing—and keeping the students’ memories alive.

“I think for this team, this game is about remembrance, and honoring Simon’s legacy. But also trying to help these twenty-two other young student athletes take a positive step forward,” Coach Bauch said.

“Support the kids in your community wherever they are, in the good times and bad times, and whatever your way is: Whether it’s soccer coaching or teaching or volunteering—find a way to be involved.”