Bridgette Freije swore up and down to her friends that she wasn’t going to cry on senior night.
Her dad knew better.
During Bridgette’s four years on the girls soccer team at Whiteland, her sister, Serena Piotrowski had never seen her play in a game — but that changed Thursday when Serena, on leave for the weekend from the U.S. Marine Corps, made a surprise appearance at the Warriors’ home match against Triton Central.
Bridgette had no idea what was afoot until the tail end of pregame player introductions, when public address announcer Jim Robling gave way at the end to Piotrowski, who grabbed the microphone to call out her sister:
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Number 6, my little Eli, Bridgette Freije.
Bridgette gasped briefly in surprise before being overcome by emotion. She cried for a moment as Serena made her way down from the press box to the field, where the two met and shared a lengthy, heartfelt embrace.
After the match — which the Warriors lost, 4-3 — Bridgette Freije tried to explain the array of emotions she felt before the game. For a moment, she said, she thought Robling had just forgotten to introduce her.
“Then I heard that voice,” she said, “and I was like, ‘I know that voice better than I know anything else in my life.’
“So that’s when I started to cry.”
Hatching a plot
Piotrowski, who played soccer herself at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette before the family moved to Johnson County about four years ago, had left to join the Marines shortly before Bridgette started her high school career.
She had yet to catch a match, and she was determined to do so this season. As it turned out, the final home game — this Saturday against Greenwood Christian — was going to be the best fit. So Serena booked a Friday flight and hatched up a covert plan with older sister Tabitha Spence, the second of the Freije family’s four daughters.
But plans changed. Greenwood Christian asked that Saturday’s match be moved back from 10 a.m. to later in the day due to SAT conflicts. Whiteland, though, has its Homecoming dance Saturday night — so while it was willing to switch the game time, it opted not to stretch things out with senior night pageantry. That part was moved to Thursday instead.
No problem. Piotrowski switched her flight to Wednesday — and as it turned out, the schedule change enabled her to pull the wool back over her mother’s eyes.
“That made it real easy to lie,” Spence said with a laugh. “She told Mom that her leave was not approved after telling her that she was trying to get it approved — then Serena immediately called me and said, ‘She doesn’t know now; let’s keep it a secret.'”
Originally, Spence was the only person around who knew about Serena’s surprise — but eventually, Piotrowski decided that their father should be involved, despite misgivings about whether he could keep the secret.
Mark Freije didn’t disappoint. He took the idea and ran with it, even contacting the Marine Corps to line up a color guard for Thursday’s match.
That extra pageantry provided some nice cover, as it turned out.
“My wife thinks that color guard is to honor the fact that Serena cannot be there,” Mark Freije said last week, “and for Bridgette, to honor her sister who’s serving in the military and cannot be present at the game.”
Not telling his wife was difficult for Mark, but he was determined not to spoil the surprise — even if it meant some arguments at home. Joann Freije works every other weekend, and she grew agitated when Mark insisted, without telling her why, that she needed to take this particular weekend off.
With Serena sitting beside her at the match, Joann admitted that the moment was worth all of the deception — “Not that they’re all not going to get it later for not telling me,” she added, “because they will.”
Peyton and Eli
Bridgette and Serena, born almost five years apart, weren’t particularly close when they were younger — but as they grew up and the age gap between them became less significant, that changed.
“We were always mean to each other growing up,” Piotrowski explained. “But then we got older and she only wanted to talk to me or do stuff with me, so that’s when we really became close.”
The passion that the two sisters shared for soccer certainly helped to bridge the gap. And when Bridgette followed Serena’s path and chose to make goalkeeper her primary position, the comparison to the NFL’s Manning brothers was a natural.
Serena became Peyton, and Bridgette was Eli — and the two have used those names for one another ever since.
Of course, little Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings (and he got his second four years before Peyton did), but older brother Peyton will always claim the upper hand in their sibling rivalry. Bridgette, similarly, has had an impressive career playing several positions with the Warriors — but Serena isn’t about to give her too much credit.
“I will never admit that she will ever be as good as me,” Piotrowski insisted last week.
“But from what I hear, she’s pretty damn good.”
‘I’m not crying that night’
Mark Freije recalled overhearing a conversation that Bridgette was having recently with her friends.
“They’re talking about crying that night — and she says, ‘The only way I’m crying is if Serena’s there, and she’s not going to be there, so I’m not crying that night.’ And I’m sitting there, hearing her tell her friends this, and I’m like … ‘She’s going to bawl her eyes out.’ ”
Indeed she did.
“It was awesome,” Piotrowski said afterward. “She bawled her eyes out and everything.”
The perfect crime
In the end, everything fell into place. Mark Freije, who was up in Chicago for a weeklong work conference, got the go-ahead to leave a day early so he could drive Serena down from the airport Thursday morning to Spence’s house, where the two hid out for the afternoon until it was time for the match.
Bridgette had no clue what was up — and neither did most of her family and friends before Piotrowski hopped to introduce “Eli.”
Mark Freije said last week that he had been working hard to make this a tear-jerker event for everybody, particularly his daughters.
“It was priceless,” he said. “It was worth everything.”