BLAKE SEBRING: As Woodlan deals with “What ifs…,” positives can come from loss

Woodlan captains take possession of the Class 2A state runner-up trophy following a 15-14 loss to Southridge on Saturday in Indianapolis. (By Justin Kenny of The News-Sentinel)
Matt Hirsch

After Woodlan’s 15-14 loss to Southridge in Saturday’s IHSAA Class 2A football championship game — falling behind in the final minute — I called a friend yesterday to talk about what the Warriors must be feeling. Better than anyone, he intimately understands the unique disappointments the Warriors are living with today as they wonder how they might have changed the outcome.

Because the memory of defeat always lasts far longer than the joy of victory, those questions will last a while. My friend knows they can’t be answered, only grown from.

Though he was only 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, Matt Hirsch was a lineman and kicker on the 1981 Woodlan state finals team that lost the Class A title game to Hamilton Southeastern. After Barry Ehle’s state-record 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, an extra point was blocked, but Hirsch had a chance to win the game with 11 seconds left on a 33-yard field goal.

“I think I had done everything I could to prepare for that moment,” Hirsch said Sunday. “I kicked it exactly as I wanted to. I thought it was perfect. Then it was no good.”

As the kick sailed wide right by about three feet, Hirsch’s head was buried into the Lawrence Central High School field mud. He was inconsolable, unable to look his teammates in the eyes because he had let them down.

He can name them all: Barry Ehle, Devin Anderson, Mike Hetrick, Jeff Berning, Troy Gerig, Kevin Shull, Billy Smith, Lowell Delagrange, Mike Szajna, Nick James, Todd Brown, Jerry Hammon, Bob Tuggle and Ralph Kurtz were his senior teammates, not to mention Jim and Steve O’Keefe, Mike Kouder, Todd Heckley, Dale Miller, Mitch Armbruster, Brent Werling, Todd Gerbers, Lynn Frecker, Steve Goeglein, Scott Goeglein, Tony Persyn, Keith Delagrange, Mark Kinney, Dave Shanebrook, Gary Vondran, Brian Evilsizer and Bob Doctor.

“These fellas all felt the pang of defeat as I did,” Hirsch said. “They understand how this group of boys feels today. When you have a chance to win it for your team, your coaches, your school and your community… it just hurts. I had to deal with some adversity, I had to figure out what was important.”

In some ways the miss haunted Hirsch, but mostly he buried it far inside and tried not to think about it. He decided to continue playing football and attended Valparaiso University where his freshman roommate already knew what happened. There were a few nights we stayed up talking about it — and he’s always been there for me when I needed him to listen.

But what makes me the proudest about being Matt Hirsch’s friend is that he never allowed that miss to define him or determine what kind of man he was going to become. It certainly affected him, and sure, he has regrets and it still hurts, but mostly it drove him to be a better person, believer, teacher, coach, husband and father. He fought past it, and it was a struggle.

“Sure, sometimes I wonder what my life might have been like, but I believe I’m far richer today because I missed it,” he said. “Would I be a teacher today? Who knows. I wondered what happened to the boys on Hamilton Southeastern team. How did their success propel them forward? My failure inspired me forward.”

After starting his college career believing he wanted to become an engineer, Hirsch changed his major and found his true calling as a teacher, first in Woodburn and then in Michigan, Florida and now back in Michigan at South Pointe Scholars, a charter school in Ypsilanti. He also coached at Woodlan from 1983 to 1999.

“Learning how to prioritize is what truly is important,” Hirsch said. “I think I have a little bit of a different bent than most people when it comes to athletics. Winning was important and it would drive me nuts if we lost, but I think what I shared with every senior I coached after their last game was a hug and an `I love you.’ It was about the relationship, the people, the connection. Wins and losses ultimately didn’t matter. What mattered to me was how was I a part of this journey with you? Did I help you become a better man, a stronger person?”

Those memories built together on the field, the court or on the mats, are the most important things that last, which shape the young men and women into what they will become. Scores don’t last as long as people, and frankly, they never should. There are always more important things ahead such as parenting, family and friends.

“I think I am far richer, a better person, a better Christian and a better everything having missed that field goal,” he said. “I sure would have liked to have made it and seen what else would have happened, but again, where would I be today?”

So many friends and family members told Hirsh over the past two weeks they hoped the Warriors would win the state title for his sake. He simply hoped they’d win for themselves.

But Hirsch knows exactly how the Warriors feel today, and his heart hurts for them. He knows it’s going to take time to recover and heal, but he also knows that with strong guidance they will.

As he was driving home last night, a thought from a Lutheran school teacher came back to him. “Winning doesn’t make you a champion, it’s what you do with experiences that ultimately determine a champion.”

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of News-Sentinel.com. Email Blake Sebring at bsebring@news-sentinel.com.

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