KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – The Austin-East Magnet High School boys’ soccer team celebrated its seniors and the resiliency of a community that has been marred by gun violence Thursday in front of a sold-out Regal Stadium at the University of Tennessee.

Austin-East Magnet High School students have gone through a lot this year, losing five former and current classmates since the start of 2021 but they’ve stayed strong by sticking together.

Knoxville’s United Soccer League franchise planned to attend a Roadrunners home game earlier in the season but it was canceled over safety concerns from their opponent. When coach Jonathan Netherland told them their senior night was in danger of the same fate, they worked with University of Tennessee to offer a special venue for the game against Cumberland Gap.

“I used to work in college athletics and I haven’t seen a setup like this for a lot of college athletic teams,” Knox Pro Soccer’s Drew McKenna said. “They rolled up on their nice bus, escorted to their nice locker room, playing on this beautiful field. There’s a ton of excitement. A once in a lifetime opportunity for anybody.”

The Austin-East team made the most of the opportunity to play on the collegiate field, winning 9-0 in front of a sold-out crowd that came to support the Roadrunners community.

If Netherland had created a game plan for his life when graduating high school, coaching high school soccer would not have been listed. When the girls’ soccer team at Austin-East Magnet High School needed an assistant coach, he began to volunteer his time to his community.

“I quickly found out I wanted to make it into a career, so I just began studying and forcing it that the administrators here felt I was a good fit to lead the boys once that vacancy came open.”

No book, no amount of studying could prepare him for this season. Netherland had to learn how to lead the group through the toughest season of their lives.

“It’s been hard. No one should really go through that,” junior Mekhi Steward said.

“It’s just been a day-by-day approach, I ‘ve developed more as a nurturer this year than I have ever in my entire life,” Netherland said. “The conversations have been real. They have been raw. They have been open. We’ve talked about our feelings, what their parents are feeling.”

“The conversations have been real. They have been raw. They have been open. We’ve talked about our feelings, what their parents are feeling.”

Jonathan Netherland, Austin-East Magnet High School boys soccer coach

They followed their conversation with action. Spearheaded by one of their players, the roadrunners where different colored paint on their cheeks each game to raise awareness about the trauma that various forms of violence can inflict on the youth.

“Many teams have different meanings for it. So I was like, ‘why don’t we add our own meaning to it and just represent Austin-East,” senior Brian Carmona said.

“It could’ve been overwhelming for them,” Netherland said. “They could’ve thought, ‘let me just think about soccer’ but they wanted to be involved. They wanted to stay connected with the community.”

No one has a game plan for how to handle tragedy. Though they bring their struggles with them on the pitch, each time they’re there they just get to be kids playing the game they love.

“It’s like a therapy session to them. They get to relieve everything that’s inside them and just have fun for a minute,” Carmona said.

The day of a fatal shooting at the school, the team decided to play their scheduled game at Carter High School. Netherland said they knew they needed to come together and make a statement to show that they fight against adversity and that they are AE strong.

The Roadrunners won 8-0 that night.