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Parents, friends, coaches pay tearful tribute to young softball star.

BRANDON, Man. - Ashley Neufeld was remembered Monday as a person who played with heart both on and off the softball diamond, working through injuries, sharing her passion for the game with younger girls, and touching many hearts during her short life.

BRANDON, Man. - Ashley Neufeld was remembered Monday as a person who played with heart both on and off the softball diamond, working through injuries, sharing her passion for the game with younger girls, and touching many hearts during her short life.

More than 1,000 mourners packed Brandon's large United Church to say goodbye to the 21-year-old softball star who died last week along with two of her teammates when their SUV sank into a North Dakota pond.

"Ash, we will always see your smile and feel your hugs," Neufeld's mother Bev told those gathered as she fought back tears.

Photographs, flowers and uniforms Ashley Neufeld wore during her softball career adorned the altar of the church, which was so full, extra chairs and a TV screen were set up in a separate room to handle the overflow. Many in the crowd wore softball jerseys. Former teammates and competitors filled several rows.

"This past week has been the worst roller-coaster ride ever," Bev Neufeld said. "But to see the support from both Ashley's home here in Brandon, Manitoba and in Dickinson, North Dakota is what has pulled us through this."

Ashley Neufeld was in North Dakota attending Dickinson State University and she played on the school's softball team.

Police believe the three teammates inadvertently drove into the pond while they were driving around looking at the stars.

The other two women - Kyrstin Gemar, 22, and Afton Williamson, 20 - were from California. Neufeld's dog was also found dead in the vehicle.

Neufeld's father, Phil, told the funeral he can still hear his daughter's voice.

"Whenever Ash was hurt or struggling, her mother would say 'be strong'," he said. "We can hear her voice in our heads telling us the same thing back now, which along with all the support, has helped us through this past week."

Former coaches talked about Neufeld's determined spirit. Relatives talked about how Neufeld cherished her family, and how she would drive for hours to attend get-togethers while juggling her school work and softball.

Rev. Shannon McCarthy told the crowd there is no reason or rationale for the girls' death.

"This was not what God wanted for Ashley, for Krystin or for Afton," she said. "There is no why, which makes it even harder for us to understand the randomness of life."

Neufeld and her friends died not far from the North Dakota school they attended. Two of their friends received phone calls late on the night the accident happened, but the lines quickly went dead. Police described the first call as a very scratchy" plea for help in which one of the students said they were near water.

The bodies were found last Tuesday.

News of the deaths shocked everyone who knew Neufeld.

She was a gifted athlete well-known in Brandon, a city of 43,000 roughly 200 kilometres west of Winnipeg. Her mother was also a talented ball player and was recently inducted into the Manitoba Softball Hall of Fame.

Stark County Sheriff Clarence Tuhy said the SUV was found resting on its wheels in about three metres of water hidden by tall grass. The doors and windows were closed.

Autopsies expected in a week or two will help determine the exact cause of death and whether the women were on drugs or drinking. Authorities have said there is no indication they were.

The Jeep is also being examined to see if it malfunctioned.

 
 
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