SOUTH HIRAM — In one of Sacopee Valley High’s first field hockey games of this season, Terry Barnes looked out onto the field and found one of her players staring into the sky.

During a break in the action, Barnes called the player over and asked what she was doing.

“Don’t worry, coach,” said senior fullback Gabriella Winslow. “Just talking to Lexi.”

“I was like, ‘Oh dear,’ ” said Barnes, her voice choking up as she recalled the conversation. “I had to take a little walk there. It was … beautiful.”

Sacopee Valley, traditionally one of the stronger field hockey programs in Western Class C, is trying to rebound from a 2013 season that not only saw just one win, but the loss of one of the team’s brightest and best players. Alexia “Lexi” Valente died in a car crash on the night of Oct. 16, 2013, several days after the Hawks’ season had ended, on the way home from a soccer game. She was 16.

A year later, Valente’s spirit is tangibly felt by the players and coaches.

“I feel her presence all the time,” said Winslow. “I look up at the sun shining and I know it’s her. When we’re on the field, I feel her here with us.”

She’s not the only one who senses Valente’s spirit. Sherry Valente, Lexi’s mother, attended her first game of the season last week. Recently released from the hospital after undergoing treatment for cancer, she watched the game from a car and received a visit from the team’s seniors beforehand.

“I can feel her presence on the field with the girls,” said Sherry Valente.

The Hawks have won four of their nine games, with four of the losses by one goal. The players say they’re doing better this year because they have something to play for.

“I honestly think it’s her blessing our field,” said Ashley Parker, a senior forward who was closest to Valente. “Last year we didn’t win at all, so I think we’re doing really good. She’s my motivator.”

On the day after the accident, Barnes met with the team and walked out to the field. “We talked, we cried, we hugged each other,” she said. “And I told the girls to keep her memory alive, to live life to its fullest like she did.”

The memories can be found everywhere around the team.

There is the ribbon that Barnes wears to every game, a memory ribbon with a private message the team made the morning after the crash. There is the field hockey angel, a pin that Barnes gave each player, reminding them that Valente was still with them. There is the “hoo-ha” chant before each game. Instead of ending it with the traditional “Go Hawks,” the players now gather and shout, “Play for Lexi.”

Then there is the equipment shed. “That’s our special spot,” said Winslow.

Located at the end of the field hockey field, the shed is painted blue with a white Hawk stenciled on one side. It is also covered with weepy white handprints. The 2013 team decided that would be a memory wall for Valente, so one afternoon last fall they dipped their hands in white paint and pressed them to the wall. It was drizzly, so the paint ran. Some players wanted to repaint the side, but the handprints – looking as if they are crying – struck an emotional chord. So they stayed as is.

Valente would have been a senior this year. She played center midfield, perhaps the key position on the field. Last year, after her death, she was voted a Western Maine Conference all-star by league coaches.

Wearing neon coral spikes, Valente was fearless, the flyer on penalty corners, the player who exhorted her teammates to do their best. “She was constantly running,” said Winslow. “She had her heart and soul poured into this sport.”

Valente died when she lost control of her Nissan Sentra on a curve on River Road and crashed into a tree on the driver’s side. Two passengers in the car suffered injuries.

After Valente’s death, Parker said she didn’t attend school for almost two months. She couldn’t. “It was like a part of me was missing,” she said.

She wasn’t the only one suffering. Lexi Valente was popular with both the students and faculty. In the days immediately after, social workers from throughout the school district gathered at the high school, along with counselors, to offer support. Her funeral was held in the high school gym.

“The day after, it was fairly rough here,” said Tom Johnson, a social worker at the high school. “For a whole week or two, that’s all anyone was talking about.

“We offered to be there if they needed to talk. Not that all would seek assistance, but we were there just to listen, really. The worst thing is to carry this alone.”

Johnson said the school kept in touch with students, like Parker, who did not attend school while they grieved over Valente’s death. When Parker returned she worked hard to keep up her grades, giving up softball so she could stay on course for graduation. Coming back to play field hockey was not easy.

“Even though she’s gone, she still pushes me to do everything I do,” said Parker. “It was hard for me to stick with it. I have times when I didn’t want to (play field hockey). But I have to because (otherwise) I’d feel I was letting her down.”

“We don’t play just for us,” said Winslow. “We play for (Lexi) because she can’t be here with us.”

The team is attempting to honor Valente in another way. Since both the field hockey and softball fields are next to each other, they are raising money for a solar-powered scoreboard that will swivel to face each field. It will have a plaque in her memory.

Being in the hospital for her treatment, Sherry Valente was unaware of how the field hockey team had pulled together in her daughter’s memory. She received a huge lift when she saw how strong they had become.

“They remember her every day and in a positive way,” she said. “I think that has really helped them move forward.”