Kingstree Senior High School Girls’ Volleyball and Basketball Head Coach and Athletic Director Sonya Burgess was on top of the world. Her Class AA Lady Jaguars were poised to take on Lake City Lady Panthers on Tuesday, February 19, where the victor would go on to play for the Class 2A Lower State Semifinals. But the night before their appearance something went horribly wrong.
On the early evening of February 18, Burgess was traveling south on Highway 52 near Cades with her three young children when she swerved to avoid a vehicle that had entered the highway. In an attempt to avoid the vehicle, Burgess swerved her 1999 Ford Expedition to the right then over corrected, causing her vehicle to overturn. Burgess was ejected from the vehicle before it came to rest on the opposite (northbound) side of the highway. It was then that Burgess was struck and killed by a vehicle traveling northbound. Incredibly, both drivers drove away.
Burgess was pronounced dead at the scene. Her children were transported to Williamsburg Regional Hospital and treated for minor injuries.
The news of Burgess' final moments spread quickly. The local hospital emergency room was filled to capacity, forcing many to wait in the darkened parking lot. But no one complained. Instead, they reached out to their fellow neighbor for quiet comfort. The silent vigil continued inside. Her devoted players sat motionless: their eyes drenched in tears as they tried to fit the pieces together. The details would not be immediately forthcoming - leaving them and the community in limbo.
Burgess is a graduate of Claflin University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in biology. She received her master’s at South Carolina State University. She was married to Marcus Burgess, Vice President for Institutional Advancement, Division of Institutional Advancement at Voorhees College.
Burgess joined Kingstree Senior High School in 2000 where she taught biology. She was chairwoman of the Science Department, a teacher cadet instructor, and athletic director. In 2003, she became head coach of girls’ basketball as well as coach of the volleyball team. She was named North-South All-Star Coach of the Year and Regional Coach of the Year. Burgess guided her Lady Jaguars to three regional championships. "Mrs. Sonya Burgess was an outstanding individual who gave love, patience, understanding, time, energy, motivation and a sense of high expectations to her students in the classroom and on the basketball and volleyball courts," said Williamsburg County School District Superintendent Dr. Yvonne Jefferson-Barnes. "She motivated her students to excel, and taught them to value themselves and others. The care she exhibited for the students in her charge was an extension of that which she had for her personal family; she loved them and they loved her back. She respected them, and they returned that respect two fold. She truly possessed a teacher’s heart, and the Williamsburg County Public School System, will miss her more than words can express. We are all saddened by this significant loss."
The Lady Jaguars were scheduled to play Lake City the following night with the victor sealing a spot in the Lower State Semifinals Championship that Saturday. The next morning they met with administration where they made the decision to play Lake City in honor of their coach. The Lake City High School Gymnasium was filled with supporters holding posters blazoned with photos of their beloved coach, teacher, and friend. Longtime assistant coaches Theodis Faison and Shirley Madison continued the Lady Jaguar tradition and helped guide the fearsome troopers to a 57-44 victory.
The following day the driver that is suspected of triggering the sequence of events that led to Burgess' death was arrested. Daveline Lashon Holmes of Georgetown was charged with reckless homicide with death resulting, and hit and run, duties of a driver involved in accident with death occurring.
Four days later, Burgess' Lady Jags would find themselves at the Florence Civic Center as contenders in the Lower State Tournament. They would face 2012 State Champion Bishop England, a powerhouse out for a repeat performance. Under the lights of the Civic Center and enveloped by their own team of community support, the girls played with courage and determination but came up short.
Less than 24 hours later on Sunday a memorial service was held at the Kingstree Senior High School Gymnasium. It was attended by at least 5,000 people - so many that a wing was set up with live video feed to accommodate the overflow.
One by one, dozens of mourners stood before the immense gathering to pay tribute to their friend. Facality members, sorority sisters, coaches, politicians and others recalled poiqnant, intriguing, and from time to time, humorous memories. Her life was such that Representatative Carl Anderson announced the day after Burgess' death, SC House of Representatives stood in silent prayer for the family and in the memory of her. Anderson added that Senator John Yancey McGill, who could not attend as his mother was ill, had requested a resolution that would extend their deepest sympathies even further. "From the House of Representatives, Representative Ronnie Sabb and myself, we will see to it that the house adjourns in memory of Sonya Smith Burgess, which will be placed in the history of the South Carolina Ledger."
Before the service began, Ms. Burgess' father-in-law, Mack surveyed the overflowing gymnasium. "The Burgess family has always been a loving, giving family," said Mr. Burgess. "What you see here is that love coming back tenfold."