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Ashari Hughes Vigil

Wade Vandervort

Diamondbacks varsity flag football player Lillian Felise, second from left, cries during a candlelight vigil for Ashari Hughes at Desert Oasis High School Jan. 11, 2023. Hughes, a 16-year-old sophomore died following her flag football game on Jan. 5, 2023.

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Ashari Hughes, a 16-year-old sophomore at Desert Oasis High School, died following her flag football game on Jan. 5, 2023.

Twayne Hughes watched the flag football championship game nervously from the sidelines, worried the girls playing for Desert Oasis High School were putting too much pressure on themselves to win.

They had dedicated their season to the memory of Hughes’ daughter and their teammate, Ashari Hughes.

Ashari died Jan. 5 after going into cardiac arrest after a game. One minute she was taking part in a victory against Valley, the next she was unresponsive and requiring CPR.

She was stable and alert when she was transported by ambulance from the school. It was the last time her teammates would see her alive.

Ashari was 16.

“They were playing for her, to honor her. That made me nervous for those girls,” Hughes said. “It created extra pressure, because they didn’t want to let Ashari down. They would be hard on themselves if they didn’t win.”

They wound up beating Legacy for the title, and the Hughes family was front and center for the postgame festivities.

When the game ended, coach Todd Thomson scrambled to locate the game ball and raced over to present it to the Hughes family. He was joined by the players, all shouting “Ashari, Ashari” in unison.

It was a moment the family will never forget and a moment celebrated Monday night during the Sun Standout Awards at the South Point Showroom.

The Hughes family and members of the Desert Oasis team accepted the Moment of the Year award at the Sun’s annual high school sports awards show honoring Southern Nevada’s top athletes, games and more.

Just like the championship game, Hughes was overwhelmed by the support in keeping her daughter’s memory alive.

“I come to the games to support the girls and not expecting any of this,” she said of receiving the game ball. “I’m so appreciative that they continue to include us.”

A refuge on campus

A portable classroom in the parking lot at Desert Oasis serves as the flag football team’s clubhouse. Players watch game film, eat meals and socialize there.

In the days after Ashari’s death, her teammates rarely left the room. They consoled each other, shared memories of their fallen friend and faced the reality that the outcome of a sporting event was secondary in the grand scheme of life.

“It was a lot to process, and I’m an adult,” Thomson said. “I’m competitive as a coach, and in the days after she died, I didn’t know if I could (carry on). I wanted to keep coaching, but all of a sudden winning and losing didn’t matter.”

They had a week off between games and only practiced once — a workout session that involved a lot of standing around and continuing to grieve, players said.

Along the way, the girls came to a consensus: They’d finish the season. And they’d finish giving it their best, “just like Ashari would have wanted,” said Devon Patmon, a team captain.

They won all 15 of their remaining games, and most were in blowout fashion as they outscored opponents 519-132.

The closest result was an overtime win in the playoff semifinals against Del Sol, when the Desert Oasis players wouldn’t be denied in the back-and-forth affair. They knew they were playing for more than themselves and were determined to give their all for Ashari, because she gave everything she had for the team.

“I don’t think there was any pressure to win because if we played our hardest, we knew we had the team that could do it,” senior Mackenzie Cuddihy said. “Playing for (Ashari) motivated us to be at our best.”

Ashari’s impact

Twayne Hughes received handwritten letters from Ashari’s friends in the days after she died. Each detailed the impact Ashari had on their lives.

She was described by teammates as a sweet person whom everyone considered a close friend. She had just started attending the school, yet many felt they had known her for years.

Those letters shined a light as to her impact on the team. Some of the girls decided to join with Ashari’s encouragement. And if they struggled, she was there to lift them up.

“She was passionate about playing football,” her mother said. “The other children, she inspired them to play.”

Ashari, who was smaller in stature, was always drawn to the game. She watched football on television and repeatedly asked her mom if she could play. When flag football was offered at the high school level, she immediately went to a summer workout.

Hughes said that although her daughter was small, she packed a lot of power. She played defensive back for Desert Oasis.

“She had such an impact on the other (players),” Thomson said. “She was everyone’s friend. She was going to take care of the other girls.”

Ashari had a leg injury in the initial weeks of the season, but she never missed a game or practice. She loved the competition and wanted to support her teammates. They became sisters, always messaging each other after games or practices and planning their next social outings.

For many of the teens, Ashari was the first person they knew who died.

“It’s still tough to say the words — she’s gone,” senior Kate Perkes said. “It changes you. It changed all of us. It brought us closer together.”

It’s been four months since Ashari was taken from her teammates prematurely. The players are still emotional when talking about their friend and struggle processing what happened.

They are also determined to keep fighting for Ashari — whether that’s in the next flag football game or later in life.

“Even after she passed, the mom would come around to our games,” Thomson said. “Having that family around was meaningful for the girls” in coping with the death.

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Article written by #LasVegasSun