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  • Jerry Sullivan

After a senseless death, an OP family strives to live its best life.

Updated: Feb 29

The Senfield family at Cuba Lake. Parents Bridget and Daren in back, Garrett, Carson and Halle seated left to right.

Bridget Senfield says they were numb for a long while at the start. How else could it have been? People say losing a child is any parent’s greatest nightmare. You never truly get over it. What you do is get up and get on with your lives.

The Senfields lost their son Carson, their eldest child, in September of 2022, when he was shot to death after getting into the wrong car outside his apartment in Tampa, Florida, early in his sophomore year at Tampa University.

It was his 19th birthday.

His parents still don’t fully understand why Carson died that day. The one thing Bridget and Daren understood in that early haze of confusion and grief is that they would not let it defeat them, or be ruled by anger and emotion. They had two other children to care for, teen-agers in the prime of their high school life.

Bridget says it was “unthinkable” for her daughter, Halle, and son, Garrett to have to deal with the death of a beloved older brother. But their parents would make certain that they carried on,  living their best lives in Carson’s memory.

“My first thought is, ‘I’ve got to wake up and put two feet on the ground so I can get our other two children up and at it’,” Bridget said early this week at the Senfield home in Orchard Park. “They’re going to take their cues from us. We can show them they have a solid foundation under their feet, and they can get up and do great things because they’re great kids and they’ve had great lives.

“Carson wouldn’t want them to do anything other than be the best that they can. These two kids have been so unbelievably resilient in the last year and a half. He was such a light — such a beautiful, beautiful light.”

Left to right: Halle, Garrett and Carson Senfield

After a year and a half, the Senfields  still don’t know all the details of that tragic night in Tampa. Their attorney in Florida says Carson mistakenly thought he was getting into an Uber. The police tell them little, deferring to state law. No one was charged. The lawyer mentioned the “OK Corral” culture in Florida. It’s likely seen as a Stand Your Ground killing, like Trayvon Martin in 2012.

So, they defer to the lawyers in Florida and wait for answers, as life continues on. Carson would be very proud of the way his younger siblings have lived their best lives, how they have thrived as students, athletes and friends.

Garrett, a senior at Orchard Park, found his stride academically and has a 95 average. He was a fine hockey player, but gave it up for golf and has a scholarship to play golf for Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa.

Halle, also an honor student, is a junior star on the OP girls’ basketball team. She recently broke the school’s single-season scoring record. The Quakers play at Clarence at 5:30 on Thursday in the Section VI Class AA semifinals, trying to repeat the OP field hockey’s team unlikely run to the state finals last fall.

Senfield scored four goals in the state semifinals in a 5-1 stunner over two-time defending state champion Northport. She scored the tying goal with 1:03 left in the sectional final against two-time champ Clarence. Sadie Bellinger scored with just six seconds to play to give OP a 3-2 victory.

Halle came through late once again last Saturday in OP’s 63-58 quarterfinal win over No. 2 seed Kenmore West. With about a minute to play, she hit a short jumper to put the Quakers up by a point. She scored on a left-handed driving layup on OP’s next possession to put her team safely ahead by three.

What is it that allows a young girl to rise up in the most pressure-filled moments, to play with such clear-headed nerve and will in the clutch? Well, maybe it’s the memory of her late brother, who always pushed her and whose happy, carefree spirit — his ‘beautiful light’ — shone on everyone around him.

“Her perseverance, and her drive to succeed both in the classroom and on the court, it’s ridiculous,” said OP head coach Gary Janas. “I think (Carson’s death) made her stronger as a competitor.” “Yes,” Halle said, “I would say it drove me to do better, drove me to work harder. She feels her brother’s presence. “Yeah, definitely. On the court, too. If I’m doing bad, I just have to keep my head up and do it for him.”

Bridget, who was a basketball star at Dunkirk High and in college at St. John Fisher (as Bridget Henderson) says there’s no doubt in her mind that her kids have been thriving in school and in sports because of their brother’s influence.

People tell her they can’t believe how strong she has been. Carson, he was the strongest one, and the most gregarious. He once told a teacher at the start of the school year to call him “Hurricane.” The name stuck.

Daren, who played four years of college baseball at Geneseo, coached his kids when they were younger and said Carson hit 37 home runs when he was 11. He went on to play hockey and lacrosse at Orchard Park.

“He always said, ‘I might not be the tallest kid, but I’m going to be the strongest one out there’” Daren said. “And he did that. Sports carried on to life with him. Colleges wanted him to play hockey but he said he wanted to go to Florida.

“That sports mindset carried him on,” he continued. “That’s why he was so driven and sociable and likable. I think it’s helped all these kids. That mindset of accomplishing a goal and finishing something and climbing the mountain to get to the top — that always is there. I can see that in these two, for sure."

Then, of course, there are the Orchard Park people, and the boundless charitable spirit of the wider the Buffalo community. They’re renowned for stepping up in tough times in the name of their pro sports teams and in this case, being there to support a respected family in the town that the Bills call home.

One of the early texts came from Sean McDermott. The Bills’ head coach became friends with the Senfields over his time in OP. There’s a photo of him with Garrett and Carson, taken at the Senfield’s lakeside retreat, in the family dining room. McDermott told Daren he was there for him, whatever he needed.

Bills head coach Sean McDermott at Cuba Lake with Carson (left) and Garrett Senfield.

“We didn’t expect this or want this, but a Go Fund Me was set up to get us to Tampa,” Daren said. “Buffalo being Buffalo, and how they rally together, it raised over $130,000 in the first three months.”

Like typical Buffalonians, the Senfields took their own misfortune as an opportunity to help others, to honor ‘our Cargey’. “We had this money,” Daren said, “and said, ‘How do we focus this in right direction?’”

So, they established the Carson Senfield Impact Foundation. The mission statement says it was developed to “make an impact on the lives of young people who embody the character and compassion that Carson had for others.” The foundation helps high school students and youth organizations through grants and scholarships. They awarded four to OP students the first year. They made a donation to the high school, buying stock tickers for the Academy of Finance, which inspired Carson to be a finance major at Tampa. The tickers also act as message boards to honor student achievement.

Daren said they’re looking to partner with other organizations and to one day build an impact center in the Southtowns, offering counseling, tutoring, arts, music, education and sports for the children in the district.

“If we’re able to do this and make a difference down the road that way, we’d love to do that,” said Daren, who works in the medical devices field.

Last June, they held the foundation’s inaugural golf tournament at the Orchard Park Country Club. There was a huge turnout. The tournament program would make the U.S. Open proud. It includes loving messages from friends and numerous samples of Carson’s motto: ‘Viva la Vida’.

Long live Life.

People were there for the Senfield family, how could they not give back to their community? Bridget remembers people coming through the line at Carson’s wake, asking her what they could do to help.

“If it was Halle’s friends, I’d say, ‘Watch over Halle. Make sure your daughter watches her.’ Same with Garrett,” she said. “They both have really great friend groups who have really great families, and that helps too.

“It’s not just me that’s affected, it’s all of us. It’s his siblings, his cousins, his grandparents, aunts and uncles. There’s been some issues with a handful of his friends, because they miss him.”

One of the most apt cliches in sports is how a team is like a family. You play sports, you have a larger extended family. Halle and the boys grew up playing sports. She played four sports last year, though she’s given up softball to concentrate on the hottest girls sport going — flag football.

“I play wide receiver and quarterback,” Halle said. “I grew up playing football in the yard with all the boys. So, it’s like I’m living the old days out there. I was dreaming for something like this, ever since I was a little girl. Having football for girls.”

There weren’t many girls who lived in their neighborhood around Burbank Drive when the kids were little.

“There weren’t a lot of kids, but they were almost all boys,” said Bridget, an assistant to Janas on the girls team. “So, it was Halle and all the boys. She was playing football, when they were playing two-hand touch. “We weren’t playing touch, mom,” Garrett said. “Come on. It was always tackle.”

Halle might have been knocked around a bit, but she more than held her own. The girl isn’t lacking for confidence, especially on the basketball court. The same goes for Garrett, who says he’s good at selling himself and plans to go into real estate and be his own boss some day.

“Once in awhile we would play basketball outside, me, (Carson) and Garrett,” Halle said. “They would always think they could beat me, but they couldn’t. ”You beat them? “Yeah, of course.”

She has a scorer’s mentality, the belief that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. Even on a bad day, she wants the ball. She had one of her worst shooting days in the sectional at Ken West. Senfield missed three three-pointers in a row on one possession and was 5 of 24 when she hit the game-winner.

“I decided that we weren’t going to lose and I just decided to go and put my game on,” she said. “Once in awhile, I get a little down I myself, I could say. But after a little bit, I just need to play, focus on the game, not in my head and just go out there and do … me.”

That means contributing in ways other than scoring. Early in the game, Halle, a 5-8 guard, made a gorgeous bounce pass from half court to a teammate for a layup. She leads the Quakers in scoring (20.8), but is second in rebounds (8.0), second in assists (4.0), first in steals and second in blocks.

“She’s a team player,” said sophomore Lainey Babich, a 5-9 forward who leads an undersized OP team in rebounding. “She’s not selfish. She still scores all her points, but she gets all the assists and rebounds as well.”

Halle will pull up and shoot the three without hesitation, but she also relishes making the deft pass to a teammate for an open shot. That bounce pass was reminiscent of some of Caitlin Clark’s best work. “I have a great team around me, and I trust all of them,” she said. “They all can shoot, drive, pass, do everything. So, once I find open gaps to dish the ball around, I know they can go up with it. Lainey and Maggie (Gocella) down low, they’re always getting open. I love passing it to them. I just like being around the play, I don’t need to be scoring.”

The OP girls are close, and most of them are back next year. Senfield, Babich and sophomore Maggie Gocella traveled to South Carolina with their moms to see the UConn women play South Carolina on Feb. 11— a rematch of the teams that played in the 2022 NCAA championship game. SC won by 18 points.

“It was electric,” said Bridget, who teaches math at ECC. “We’ve seen a lot of games in our time. We love sports. That was incredible.”

Halle and her teammates got to sit in the student section. “It was cool,” she said of being part of a women’s hoop crowd of more than 18.000 people.

Bridget played college ball when the women’s game was in its ascent. The NCAA Tournament would be on TV, but it was nothing like today, with regular-season games on the tube, the WNBA an established entity, and Caitlin Clark a national phenomenon who draws sellout crowds wherever she does.

She knows how good female basketball players have it nowadays. “Yeah, I do,” she said. “I’m so grateful. ”Senfield hasn’t decided what she’ll do for college. After all, she has another year to enjoy high school. Undaunted, she said she wants to break her own scoring record. Colleges want her in hoops and field hockey. The magical run in field hockey has her torn between the two sports.

But she has a game on Thursday, and lots of time to contemplate the future. Every day, she and the rest of the Senfields wake up, put two feet on the ground, and live their best lives, grateful above all for the simple joy of being alive. If they close their eyes, they can hear his voice.

Viva la Vida.

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