BOURNE - For every high school team, regardless of sport, the pregame routine is usually consistent: Step on the bus, ride to the game, then ride home.
That routine changed dramatically for the boys’ hockey team at Natick High after senior Justin Bailey died unexpectedly from natural causes on Jan. 4.
“We have a great bus driver in town, Bill Dempsey, who’s coached a bunch of sports for us,’’ and has sons who played hockey for Natick, said Tim Collins, the school’s athletic director. “He always would swing by the gravesite on the way to a game and on the way home from a game,’’ including the playoffs, Collins said. “And that helped get the guys together and get them to think about it.’’
Before games, the Red and Blue players stood at Bailey’s grave in Dell Park Cemetery and held hands. “We’d say his name and say, ‘We’re going to do this for you, buddy,’ ’’ coach Karl Infanger said.
The Red and Blue advanced to the Division 1 South final - the team’s deepest postseason run in years - before losing, 3-1, to top-seeded Milton on Sunday.
At 8-8-4, Natick entered the tournament as the ninth seed in the South sectional, but bounced Brockton by a 5-3 score, edged Super 8 invitee Needham, 3-2, and defeated Norwood, 1-0, to earn its shot against Milton.
Senior goalie Derek Kwok said Bailey’s passing, and the togetherness that the loss fostered within the program and in the community, was a factor as the Red and Blue ventured into the tournament.
“I think we got as far as we did because Justin was looking down on us,’’ said Kwok, a captain who was stellar in net all season. “I think he gave us a couple of good bounces that went our way.
“Speaking for myself, I felt his presence. I got the feeling he still was with us and was looking down on us.’’
Kwok was especially appreciative of the support the Red and Blue received from the Bailey family - parents Ben and Nicole, along with younger brothers Mason and Griffin.
“His family came to all the games,’’ Kwok said. “Their coming showed how much Justin loved playing hockey. They knew he loved being on the team, and it gave us some extra motivation.’’
Griffin Bailey, a sophomore, was a goalie on the junior varsity team; Mason Bailey played for the Natick Comets II team that recently won the state PeeWee Tier III title.
“Justin’s family has been truly amazing,’’ Collins said. “They’ve been around a lot. They brought cookies for the team after every game. They’ve really been a strong family through all of this.
“They’ve been a great model for our kids to see how you truly deal with tragedy. They’re the ones that have dealt with great adversity this year, and with such class and real dignity. His family’s been great for us as well.’’
“I really believe we mourn for the living,’’ said Ben Bailey. “Being there for each other is important. I told [the team] that our family would do whatever we could to help the team heal.
“We were completely blown away by the town’s response’’ to Justin’s death, he said. “We couldn’t have gotten through this without the people from the school.’’
How the Red and Blue advanced to the South final, let alone complete the regular season, was a testament not only to Bailey’s family but also to the team’s inner strength.
“I think we’re a team first and foremost,’’ Infanger said. “I think we relied heavily on being a family. We all got together pretty much every night after Justin’s passing. We really focused on being together and being there for one another. It’s been a real emotional season. But we consider ourselves a tight-knit family.
“It’s a family that’s going to get through this with the Baileys and everyone else, including the whole town.’’
The small, close-knit hockey community also played a significant role, Collins and Infanger said.
“The hockey community really rallied behind us,’’ Infanger said. “The kids saw this and realized there’s something bigger than what we are here. The kids bought into that and supported each other.
“There were tough days. Some kid might have ended up playing a few minutes and going to the bench and shedding a few tears. But he never did it alone. Somebody always sat with him.’’
When the Red and Blue players arrived at a rink, they went through a pregame ritual that began with hanging Bailey’s No. 17 jersey on the wall behind their bench.
“Everyone tapped it before they went on the ice,’’ Kwok said. “It was another way to show we felt he was still with us.’’
The players also recited his name before stepping on the ice.
“By doing that and touching his jersey, I think it was a way for the kids to experience a catharsis,’’ said Infanger.
“I think the team wanted Justin to be part of it. Playing games was a way to include him.’’
Ben Bailey said “a lot of good things have come out of this for the kids, teachers, staff, and our neighbors,’’ noting that one parent, Ted Donahue, asked the selectmen about running with Justin’s No. 17 in the Boston Marathon.
The selectmen also approached Bailey about setting up a scholarship fund in his son’s honor.
“I used to think that I lived on the best dead-end street in Natick. Now, I realize that I live in the best town in Massachusetts.’’