Santa Fe Christian students strive to ‘play like Will’

If William Wardrip seemed just a bit too eager to offer a handshake, those who knew him best warned to approach with caution. Knowing Wardrip, he probably had a buzzer clenched between his fingers.

“He was a natural born prankster,” said Keaton Giannotti, a SFC senior who was Wardrip’s teammate on the football and lacrosse teams. “Literally, every time I saw him he would just make me laugh.”

Even after rookie blunders initially infuriated teammates, it was nearly impossible to stay mad at Wardrip, Giannotti said. In an instant, Wardrip’s smile could turn the meanest, nastiest, “what the heck are you doing” stank eye, to mush.

“He knew how to push buttons and he always pushed my buttons,” Giannotti said. “He would always make me extremely mad, but I could never stay mad at him because he was just such a great kid.

“He just put a smile on everybody’s face.”

The SFC football team, and the entire community is now grieving Wardrip’s death. The 16-year-old Encinitas boy was killed in a tragic car accident in the early morning hours of Oct. 25.

Despite his fun-loving nature, Wardrip was an undersized overachiever on the football team, who never backed away from a challenge, exemplifying the team’s spirit, coach Nick Ruscetta said.

Wardrip made the varsity his freshman year, playing the physical inside linebacker position at just 125 pounds.

He sat out his sophomore year but returned this year to play strong safety and right guard as a 5-foot-11, 165-pounder.

His work ethic, attitude, and the way he was constantly pulling for and pushing his teammates, combined with exceptional football instincts, set him apart as a team leader, Ruscetta said.

“He was always lifting up his teammates,” Ruscetta said. “He never, ever a bad word to say.

Everything about him was kind of why you coached high school sports.

“He left a huge mark on all of us.”

Ruscetta said the Eagles haven’t dedicated their season to playing for Wardrip, noting that wins and losses don’t accurately measure effort. Instead, the Eagles have dedicated their season to playing “like Will.”

The Eagles won their sixth game to start the season less than 24 hours before the fatal accident on San Dieguito Road in Fairbanks Ranch.

On Oct. 31, a day after attending memorial services, a vigil and a burial, the Eagles gave all they had, playing their hearts out, according to their coach, in a 30-21 Coastal North League loss to Francis Parker of San Diego, the state’s top-ranked small school.

“It’s way bigger — that almost goes without saying,” Ruscetta said of what his players are experiencing on a human level, compared to the implications of a football game. “Win or lose that game on (Oct. 31) does not change one ounce of what our boys are going through.”

Ruscetta said Wardrip’s death has forced his players and staff to lean on each other, their community and their Christian faith.

Ruscetta compared Wardrip’s loss to the death of a family member, noting the tight bonds that form at a small school such as Santa Fe Christian.

He said the situation has been “incredibly difficult” for both players and coaches.

Ruscetta said successful sports programs teach life lessons, noting that the challenges of facing crucial third-and-long situations prepare athletes for the pressures they’ll face as adults.

Performing at one’s peak, while grieving the loss of a close friend, however, is beyond the scope of what high school sports is supposed to prepare students for, Ruscetta said.

He said just showing up for class and trying to focus in practices amid the shock and grief of recent events has been no easy task for anyone involved.

“How do I deal with all the emotion with all the things that are going on?” he said. “There’s really no textbook for that.”

Santa Fe Christian summoned local youth pastors to counsel students, and an extended network of parents and relatives have pitched in, too.

“The love and support we’ve gotten from this community has been unbelievable,” Ruscetta said.

Giannotti said the situation has brought the team together, forcing players to lean on each other.

The practices, and a weekly pasta dinner where they shared stories about Will, have helped the Eagles return to a semblance of normalcy, he said.

“Will would’ve wanted us to carry on,” Giannotti said. “He wouldn’t have wanted us to grieve him.

“We know he’s in a better place.”