Weeks away from the start of track and field practice, a small town in Northwest Missouri is reeling from the death of a senior on the team.
Cassandra Donaldson, commonly called CJ around the Class 1 school, died on Monday, Feb. 1, hours after a single-vehicle accident Sunday night near DeKalb.
Donaldson, 18, was taken by ambulance to Mosaic Life Care Hospital in St. Joseph but she was pronounced dead at 2:20 a.m.
Donaldson was a versatile athlete for the Tigers, running in the 400-meter dash, on the 4x400 and 4x800-meter relays and dabbled in the jumping events. This offseason she had been working with Pony Express Track Club coach Danny Butterfield on throwing the javelin this upcoming season.
She competed only two years for coach McKenzie Ragan after last season was wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It has been tough on the kids and we will see that the rest of the year," said Ragan, who is also the girls basketball coach in the small town in rural Buchanan County near St. Joseph with an enrollment of 57 high school students. "My hope is we find a way to honor her in what we do and how we do things from here on on out.
"She always had a smile on her face and an infectious spirit. She is one of those kids that worked hard without any complaints and you knew you would be the best of her."
Donaldson was about as well rounded as you could want for a student-athlete.
She was the co-captain of the cheerleading squad and was a key player for the softball team this fall. While still somewhat new to the sport, the second baseman became a key bat in the middle of the lineup and helped DeKalb reach a district final.
"She was always smiling, joking, and pushing everyone around her to be a better version today compared to what they were yesterday," Butterfield said.
Outside of the classroom she was the vice president of the Future Farmers of America, the historian for the Future Business Leaders of America, secretary for the National Honor Society chapter at the school and active in the student council.
In the summers, she would show livestock at the Missouri State Fair.
"She made friends everywhere she went, she never met a stranger," said DeKalb superintendent Travis Dittemore, a former cross country coach at the school. "If you had 100 CJ's in our building we wouldn't need a principal or school resource officers or any of that, that was the kind of kid she was."
Dittemore got the call late Sunday night about the accident. The driver, Wyatt Gardner, 18, of Rushville, Mo., attempted to make a right hand turn and lost control. His pickup went off the road, down an embankment and came to rest upside down in a creek.
Gardner and a 15-year-old boy from Faucett - the same hometown of Donaldson - was also in the accident. Gardner had only minor injuries and the other passenger was listed as having no injuries, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Gardner, who also went to high school in DeKalb, was booked into jail on charges of felony driving while intoxicated/resulting in death, though formal charges weren't filed in Buchanan County as of Wednesday.
"It's been tough," Dittemore said of the mood around DeKalb this week. "In my 32 years of education, yesterday (Monday) was my worst day. To see the families hurting ... the kids hurting and there is a not a darn thing you can do."
Dittemore noted that as of this week, Donaldson was currently sitting No. 1 in GPA in the senior class and was on her way to be the valedictorian.
She was accepted to the University of Missouri-Columbia with plans to study animal science with a future goal of being a veterinarian.
DeKalb High School will host a memorial service for Donaldson on Friday, from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.