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Students struggle with death of classmate

?CHINA GROVE — Eric Huerta Soto’s teammates on the wrestling team at China Grove Middle School called him “Toto.” He got the nickname, teammate Jacob Gulley said, because he was small.
Even so, Soto’s death this week has left a big void in the community from China Grove Middle, where he also played soccer, across the county to a ranch where he volunteered every weekend.
The 14-year-old died Sunday morning when the car he was riding in veered off Goodnight Road and slammed into a tree. The driver, Francisco Romero Huerta of China Grove, has been charged with felony death by vehicle and driving while impaired.
Monday “was a very tough day,” China Grove Middle Principal Linda Johnson said. And students continued to struggle Tuesday with the death of their classmate and teammate.
School counselors were on hand to speak with students as well as additional counselors sent in by the Rowan-Salisbury School System.
The school has also provided “safe rooms” where students can go to grieve in their own way. Johnson said some students created artwork and wrote letters.
Students took the posters and notes they’d created to the Tuesday visitation for Soto’s family. His funeral is today.
Many of the students having the hardest time are Soto’s soccer and wrestling teammates, said Jim Barringer, who coaches the school’s wrestling team.
The wrestlers made a sign in memory of Soto, writing messages and condolences, and took it with them to their Monday match at Knox Middle School.
“We miss you toto! See you Bud,” Jared Lamb wrote on the poster.
“We love and miss you Eric. We will see you again in the future. Continue wrestling and playing soccer up there buddy. Love, Cameron,” another student wrote.
Barringer let the team decide if they were up to competing Monday. He said they wanted to wrestle to honor Soto. The team huddled together to pray in the gym at Knox, he said.
“It was very moving being in the stands,” Principal Johnson said. You could’ve heard a pin drop.”
Many of the students have never had a classmate who died. However, some of the same students attended school with another student, Patty Burgdoff, who died in a 2006 collision involving an intoxicated driver.
Teachers have been very sensitive and have allowed students frequent breaks, Johnson said.
The students were too distraught to talk to a Post reporter on Tuesday, but Johnson said they are beginning the healing process.
Sarah Rogers, an employee at Lazy 5 Ranch, said Eric volunteered at the park almost every Saturday with his older brother, Carlos.
Eric did everything from feeding the animals to cleaning out cages.
“He worked hard at everything he did,” she said. “He loved being here, and we enjoyed having him.”
Rogers said Eric’s death has been a tragedy that’s shocked everyone at the ranch.
“It’s really sad because he was just a great kid all around,” she said. “I can’t say enough about the family and the way they care about each other.”
The ranch is hosting a fundraiser for the family on Dec. 15. They’ll be selling barbecue plates for $8 each starting at 10 a.m. that day.
“Every bit of that money is going to the family for their expenses,” Rogers said.
The funeral service will be held at noon today at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Kannapolis.

Post reporter Sarah Campbell contributed to this article.

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