After boyfriend’s death, attleboro’s pierce finds solace in basketball, drive to help others local sports thesunchronicle.com physics electricity and magnetism study guide

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She had every reason to believe that her life was on an upswing as the summer drew to a close. She would be continuing her basketball career at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth in a year’s time, and she was happy in a year-long relationship with fellow senior-to-be Nicholas Vero, accompanying him and his family on a summer-ending vacation early in September on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Vero, 17, was swimming off Hatteras Point in the village of Buxton, N.C., when he was caught in a rip current caused in part by huge swells formed by the passing Hurricane Irma. He was swept out to sea and drowned. His body was discovered four days later after an extensive search that involved the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Park Service and local and state rescue organizations.

The unthinkable tragedy robbed family and friends of an affable, engaging and well-rounded young man who loved sports, animals, the study of history and the pop-culture genre of superheroes. Pierce, meanwhile, lost the love of her young life — a kindred spirit with whom she could share just about anything.

“We had so many things in common,” she said recently. “He had played a little basketball … he played his freshman year but he didn’t try out the next year. We both loved superheroes and comics, and video games. And Nick and I would go to comic conventions in Rhode Island or Boston and we would dress up as our favorite characters together.”

What followed for Pierce was intense grief, followed by a search for answers and meaning — and then a burning desire to turn a senseless tragedy into a source of motivation, and eventually, a force for good that would be worthy of the superheroes that entertained them.

What has emerged is the nonprofit organization Nick Vero’s Superheroes, which his mother, Lindsey, said was founded to help restore the sense of community she and her family felt from their neighbors once they learned of Nick’s death, and to sustain it on a daily basis for others in need.

Samantha Pierce, right, takes a shot at what used to be a basketball hoop at the court behind St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Attleboro as Lindsey Vero looks on. Pierce and Vero are raising money through the nonprofit Nick Vero’s Superheroes to honor Vero’s son Nick, who died while on vacation with his family last September. The group’s first project is to restore this court. MARK STOCKWELL

Pierce is an active and enthusiastic participant in the group, which will stage its first major fundraiser Saturday at the Marilyn Rodman Center for the Performing Arts (formerly the Orpheum) in Foxboro. Among the first projects the group wants to undertake is the restoration of a basketball court on the property of the St. Vincent de Paul Church on Linden Street in Attleboro, where Nick and his friends played as children.

“I really didn’t know how I was supposed to move forward from everything that was going on,” she said. “I surrounded myself with all of Nick’s friends and all of my friends, and I never wanted to be alone. I always had somebody with me (and) people were always coming over and keeping me company. And they were really supportive about that.”

In those initial days and weeks after she returned home, Pierce relied heavily upon a select cadre of individuals to get her to the next day — parents Jeff and Amy, her sister Ashley, her mother’s sister Laura and best friend Rory Hopkins, a fellow member of the AHS girls’ basketball team, foremost among them.

And then, there was basketball — although at first, Pierce was not certain she could find the strength to meet the responsibilities of being not only the captain, but also one of the few returning veterans with appreciable varsity experience.

“When (AHS principal) Bill Runey gave me a call and told me what happened, obviously your first thoughts are worrying about Sam’s welfare and well-being,” Crowley said. “Her as a basketball player was not even a factor. It was more about what we could do to help Sam heal.”

“Coach Crowley came to my house one day,” she said, “and he said, ‘You don’t have to play if you don’t want to. Basketball isn’t the No. 1 priority here.’ And he said, ‘Basketball will always be there for you.’ So I thought that I would just go in, see if it’s too much, and if it was I’d talk to coach about it and maybe end it.

Pierce said that even before Nick’s death, she had been going to professional counseling to deal with anxiety and depression issues. Afterward, her therapist referred her to an EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) specialist to utilize a relatively new discipline of psychotherapy that helps patients cope with post-traumatic stress. She now undergoes sessions twice a week.

“I definitely thought that going in to practice every day was an escape,” she said. “I could just leave everything behind me and just have fun during the practice, or have fun during the games. And I did, but there were some occasions where something would remind me too much and I’d get upset. But other than that, I was able to push through it.”

“She came in with a good attitude and she worked hard, and obviously, basketball was her distraction,” Crowley said. “Sam was amazing, to say the least. She had to heal as a person, first and foremost — and she did, not only from the support of the people she had around her, her friends and family, but the Attleboro community in general.”

“Definitely at the start of the season, I was on the quieter side as a captain because I wasn’t really 100-percent feeling the confidence,” she said. “Eventually I definitely felt more comfortable. It was like an outlet for me to just let out everything I was going through. Even though I did have my struggles, it was definitely a way for me to power through.

“Throughout the whole season, I had countless times where I would talk to Coach Crowley. If I had something on my mind, I could always talk to him, and he would help me through it. He’s such a great guy, I couldn’t have asked for a better coach this season.”

Pierce recalled one game against North Attleboro in late January in which she may have turned the corner. She was scoreless in the first half, and was further set back by the presence in the visiting team’s locker room of a picture of a young man who had died. The photo was not intended to be a reminder to Pierce of her loss, but it troubled her nonetheless.

But there was another aspect to her recovery. She and Nick thoroughly loved superhero mythology, attending comics conventions and dressing up as their favorite heroes. She and Nick dressed as Teen Titans heroes Starfire and Robin at one ComicCon, and then as Batman villains Poison Ivy and Red Hood at another.

In his honor, Pierce donned the Nightwing uniform for the convention they had planned to attend. Then came an inspiration — the symbol from Nightwing’s uniform adorned the warmup shirts she and her AHS basketball teammates wore before games, and it also appears prominently on the Nick Vero’s Superheroes T-shirts sold at fundraising events.

Some may see superhero culture as frivolous, but Pierce has drawn strength from it — particularly from the recent “Wonder Woman” film that was the first of its genre to feature a female lead character and be directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins).

“That movie, I definitely connected with it because she lost Steve Trevor … and you could see how that pushed her and made her even stronger,” Pierce said. “I feel like Nick’s death has had a tremendous impact upon me, but in the long run, it’s going to make me stronger.”

“I obviously still struggle with reminders … I’ll be walking through school and I’ll see something that reminds me of him, or at home, or I’ll think of him all the time. But I do little things here and there to keep his memory alive, like wearing necklaces or bracelets that he gave me, just to keep a little piece of him with me.