Staples High senior Alexandra O'Kane says that the girls cross country team still feels the loss of its friend and leader, Caroline Koenig, every day.

Koenig, the team's top returning runner, had her season cut short before it ever began when she was struck by a vehicle on Long Lots Road while on a training run with teammates on Aug. 27. She suffered compound open fractures of the tibia and fibula in her right leg and faces a lengthy recovery process--one that's come with surgical procedures to stabilize the leg.

Laddie Lawrence, who has been associated with Staples cross country for 51 years--41 of those as head coach--said that it was the first incident of its kind in his time with the program.

The shock and heartbreak of Koenig's injury struck right to the program's core.

"We all pretty much felt the shock," sophomore Erica Hefnawy said.

"I think it was tough on the girls, especially early on, because of the ones that were also there on the scene when it happened," Lawrence said. "It was kind of traumatic for them."

With the help of O'Kane, one of Staples' three captains, and her mother, the team has devised a "lighthearted" way to show their love and appreciation for Koenig. The team created neon green T-shirts emblazoned with the words, "Run for Lil' Tom" and wore them to school on the day of the first meet, Sept. 11.

"Everyone was noticing them, knowing what they were for," O'Kane said. "It raised awareness for her, and we wore them to the meet that day. Everyone from the other teams, all the parents, really just saw our unified support for our teammate who we obviously feel the loss of every day."

Koenig, an all-state runner as a sophomore in 2011, was given the nickname "Little Tom" by her assistant coach, Malcolm Watson, while training with Staples' boys team in preparation for last season's New England Championship meet. The name caught on and its placement on the shirt drew plenty of emotions from Koenig, who said she was both "surprised" and "very happy" when she saw the shirts at the opening meet.

The Wreckers, who have dedicated their season to Koenig, also have used the shirts as a fundraiser and sold 70 of them to people in the community.

"They said, `She needs a boys' name' so they called her Little Tom. That's kind of just been a running joke with us," O'Kane said. "Instead of putting her name on the shirt, we decided to do something lighthearted and spirited."

Koenig has continued to receive an outpouring of support from teammates, as well as from other cross country programs in the FCIAC. Trumbull High's girls team presented Koenig with flowers at the opening meet and the runners wore blue and white colored ribbons in their hair as a tribute to her. A number of other boys and girls teams have given Koenig get-well cards.

"A lot of people have been supporting me and understanding how much I love running, and how much I wish I could run," Koenig said. "It's great to have everyone thinking about me."

Lawrence called Koenig a "wonderful kid" and said he isn't the least bit surprised by the overwhelming support she's gotten.

"When you're a cross country runner, you're not just on a team or in a league," Lawrence said. "Everybody who has anything to do with the sport will support you when something like this happens."

Koenig has been attending some of Staples' practices and meets and she plans to continue to do so as she progresses in her recovery. She said her goal is to start light running in the winter indoor track season and to start competitive running in the spring outdoor track season.

"As soon as I can get back to it, I'll run," she said.

With T-shirts in hand, the Wreckers are anxiously awaiting that return.

"I think it shows how much we value her and how much she means to us," said senior Georgia Kursten, one of the team's other captains along with senior Caroline Corbally. "The fact that what happened to her was so tragic, we had to do something to show our support...and we're going to be there all the time."; 203-255-4561 ext. 114;