HOLMDEL - Holmdel senior Justin McStay was a year older and a grade ahead of Jack Dowd and starred on the soccer field while Dowd made his mark as a lacrosse player.

Beyond those contrasts, both were athletes at Holmdel High School who wore the No. 9 on their jersey for their respective varsity teams.

When Dowd died suddenly while at a lacrosse scrimmage at Rutgers University on Sunday, it hit the the Holmdel community hard, especially those who shared the same broad athletic experience. For McStay, the only proper response was to turn in his No. 9 jersey for the remainder of the season as an acknowledgement of what Dowd's death and life meant to his schoolmates.

After grieving for two days, McStay and the Holmdel boys soccer team took the field again with a heavy collective heart and left that heart on the field in a 5-0 win over the previously-unbeaten Bulldogs.

"One thing everyone thinks is that it's never going to happen to you," McStay said. "It's such a tragic moment. To have a 1-in-5,000 chance of dying like that. Nobody thinks it's going to happen to (them) or anybody they know and everyone is just in shock. Nobody knows what to do."

According to a statement from the family, Dowd died as a result of arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD), a congenital condition that can lead to sudden death in young people.

Dowd's death hit the Holmdel community hard on another front - Dowd's father, Sean, is an English teacher at the high school, which made Sunday's events even more personal for those who were familiar with another member of the family.

"I was in three classes with him last year and he sat next to me in one of them," junior captain Joe Arena said. "I wasn't his best friend and we didn't really hang out outside of school, but we would talk pretty often. We'd laugh a lot about stuff and it's just so weird because when you look in that direction now, there're just an empty desk. It's heartbreaking."

McStay fittingly scored the first goal on Wednesday while donning his new No. 6 and then assisted the first of two goals by junior Anthony Arena. Both McStay and Arena have done plenty of scoring this season, but Wednesday's goals meant a little more.

"We all wanted to play well today," Anthony Arena said. "It meant a lot to go back out there and to get to play. A lot of the other people in the school were looking forward to coming out and showing support, so it was a good way for us to pay our respects."

Arena's two goals give him 13 on the season, all of them coming in the last five games. In those five games, Arena has registered three hat tricks and has two more two-goal games. His second goal made it 4-0 in the 70th minute, with junior Torre Avitabile getting him the ball to set up the finish.

He nearly picked up his fourth hat trick, but was denied by Rumson goalkeeper Jack Harvey on a one-on-one breakaway in the 20th minute.

With two trying days to cap off a five-day layoff, Arena did not lose his scoring edge - instead returning in top form. Holmdel was supposed to play perennial NJSIAA Group IV contender Monroe at home on Monday night, but the game was cancelled along with all other regular after school activities.

"We got the news Sunday night that he passed and Monday in school was the quietest day we've ever had but yet a million words were said," McStay said. "I've never felt so much emotion from the entire community and the entire school. It was incredible, in a bad and a good way."

"Walking into school on Monday, it was like Zombieland," Joe Arena said. "Nobody said a word. Everybody was quiet. It wasn't okay to smile yet. It was tough for me and it was tough for a lot of kids. It's hard to explain - no one could speak. I've never been in a situation like that in my life."

Anthony Arena was one of the players who would not have minded playing on Monday, but understood the decision to cancel the game and why many of the players preferred not to play.

"I think there were definitely a lot of people who didn't want to play, but I thought it might be a good thing," Arena said. "Everyone was obviously emotional, so I thought it might be good to have somewhere everyone could go and be together and be positive. But you could definitely understand why (the school) decided to cancel the game."

Seniors Mikey Neff and Cyrus Darvish also got in on the scoring act with a goal each and Neff also assisted the goal by Darvish that capped the scoring in the 77th minute. Neff scored on a well-placed through-ball by junior Mark McStay in the 60th minute.

While Holmdel looked sharp on the field in improving to 6-0 and improving its goal differential to 31-3, some of the Hornets had mixed feelings at the start.

"After we got the news, nobody really paid attention to soccer," McStay said. "Nobody paid attention to the games we had coming up. We didn't even think we were going to play today."

Rumson helped Holmdel transition to competition by meeting at midfield before the game and presenting the team with flowers. Once the game was over, the players felt all the way back.

"I didn't think we were ready to play on Monday," Joe Arena said. "Things were a little more normal today. I think we did the right thing."

"It's still going to be strange. I used to see him in the halls and say 'What's up Jack?' and now that's not going to happen anymore. Somebody you're used to seeing everyday isn't going to be there anymore and it's hard to comprehend. You never think it's going to happen and when it does, it makes you take a step back and not want to take anybody for granted."


*This post was updated to confirm Dowd's condition that led to his death, which confirmed in a letter written by his family on the website of Tap Into.