Willard assistant boys’ basketball coach Dave Hirschy was as animated as ever throughout Wednesday’s Division III district semifinal game at Norwalk High School.
Hirschy could be seen writing notes and frequently communicating with head coach Joe Bedingfield. He was shouting instructions and giving tips to the Crimson Flashes basketball players both during the game and in timeouts.
“That’s what makes Coach Hirsch a special person,” said Buckeye Central girls’ basketball guard Taylor Ratliff. Her father, Jason, is a longtime Willard teacher and lifelong friend of Hirschy. “If you didn’t know him, you’d have no idea what he’s been through.”
The resurgence of the Willard boys’ basketball team — one of the most accomplished program’s in Ohio history — this winter has been a special ride for many throughout the community and Huron County.
The Crimson Flashes (21-3) won the SBC Bay Division league title, and will play for the district championship at 3:30 p.m. Saturday vs. Upper Sandusky in Norwalk. It’s the first time since the 2005-06 season the Flashes have accomplished both feats.
But this season has been particularly needed and special for Hirschy, a 1980 Willard graduate and former head coach. In late October, Hirschy’s wife, Kathy, died at the age of 52, after a five-plus years battle with a rare disease of the front lobe of her brain — often associated with dementia.
Less than three weeks after her death, Hirschy was at the first practice of the season in November, ready to dedicate himself to the program.
“Obviously she’s always there on my mind, and the grieving process is tough,” Hirschy said. “But it was good to get back inside the gym and be around the kids again.
“It’s always nice to win, but I also stay real busy with preparation, scouting and practices,” he added. “Joe has been wonderful, and has really given me a lot of say. We work so well together, and we’ve got a special group of kids putting in the time, which has made it a fun season up to this point.”
A devout fan
Kathy (Rosso) Hirschy was much more than the stereotypical wife of a head coach.
“In other words, she wasn’t just my only fan sometimes,” Dave joked.
When Kathy was a senior in high school, she was the statistician for the 1983-84 Willard team that reached the state semifinals under Bob Haas. She was also a “Flashette,” a group of girls who formed a tunnel as players were introduced under a spotlight in pregame introductions — when Willard basketball was at its pinnacle.
Her father, Dr. John Rosso, was the team physician, and her late mother, Patricia, was a Secor — two family names long intertwined in Willard athletics.
“She was a Willard season-ticket holder long before we started dating,” Dave said. “Some of our earlier dates when I was helping coach at Bucyrus Wynford were Willard basketball games. Those games were a big part of her life.”
That is also what made her diagnosis extremely difficult. Willard was just 4-17 in Dave’s first season as head coach in 2008-09, but he had turned the Flashes around to an 18-7 mark by the 2012-13 season — with plenty of talent coming back for the next year.
But when Kathy started showing signs of her illness, that was it.
“She actually wanted me to keep going, but I just didn’t feel like I could do that,” Dave said. “It’s tough to teach and coach as it is, and then to come home and take care of her, something was going to get cheated. And there was no way in the world I was going to cheat her.”
And so Dave took off four years from a sport to which he had dedicated most of his life. To stay connected, he would sit in the living room and listen to the Flashes’ games on the radio.
Then, prior to last season, Willard hired Bedingfield as the new head coach. He had previously been an assistant under Hirschy.
“Dave was pushed back into the game by Kathy’s caregivers and myself,” Bedingfield said. “I know two different sides of Dave. I know the coach I worked under, but then he also got a lot of perspective from taking care of Kathy during that time and knowing to let go of little things sometimes.
“Dave is a better person and coach because of everything he’s been through,” he added. “For him to give up his dream job as head coach here, then come back and not miss a beat with the film prep while taking care of his wife — that says everything about who he is.”
Kathy died on Oct. 18, and her services were held four days later.
Dave then received a phone call from one of his closest friends in basketball, longtime St. Paul boys’ head coach Mike Smith.
“He took me to Indiana and we watched Purdue and Ball State practices that following weekend to kind of get me out of town a bit,” Dave said. “It was good therapy.”
Smith and Hirschy have visited more than 100 different college practices over the years in an attempt find that one little tip that might make a difference in their coaching careers.
But this time, Smith was a little hesitant — but felt it was the right decision to ask Hirschy to go to Indiana.
“I really didn’t know if I should ask him, but then I thought it could be good to get away for a bit,” Smith said. “There was a coaching clinic going on locally, but he didn’t think he could go to that one, given everything. So that was a good trip because no one there knew his circumstances.”
When Hirschy returned to practices at the start of the season, there was never a sense of players not knowing how to react.
“Because he never brought any of that to the gym,” said junior standout Cooper Parrott, who was also a ball boy for two years when Hirschy had previously been the head coach.
“When it comes to basketball, Coach Hirschy likes to keep it that way,” Parrott said. “There isn’t another coach who watches more film or scouts like he does. He treats every game like it is a championship game, and as an assistant — that’s a lot of help to the team.”
Taylor Ratliff has known Hirschy her entire life, given her father’s relationship with him.
When Kathy died, the sophomore student at Buckeye Central knew just what she wanted to do — and which night she would do it.
Ratliff spearheaded a fundraiser selling t-shirts in Kathy’s memory, and centered it around a Jan. 22 home game vs. St. Paul — a night where Smith was in the building with Hirschy.
With 394 shirts sold, $2,454 was sent in Kathy’s memory to the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration in Radnor, Pa.
“He’s always been a really big influence and pushed me to work hard and be my best in everything,” Taylor said of Hirschy. “It was a way to pay it forward to him. He’s gone through so much, but no one would really know that because he’s always smiling or telling jokes.”
Parrott said the night of the fundraiser game was one of the few nights where Hirschy openly talked about Kathy and everything that had gone on. But even then, he was quick to turn the focus back on the team.
“I think this season means a lot to him,” Parrott said. “But I also think he’s worked hard to get here, so it’s rewarding in both of those ways.”
Within the last week, Ratliff played twice at Willard High School, as Buckeye Central won two games to capture a Div. IV district championship. Her team played in the regional semifinals late Thursday evening.
When she gets to play at Willard, it’s always meaningful, but this time felt a little different.
“It has definitely been a special season for both of us,” Taylor said. “But I’m a lot happier for Coach Hirsch. You never once heard him complain, and he deserved this kind of season they’ve had more than anyone else.”
For his part, the circumstances of the last few weeks haven’t been lost on Hirschy. The Flashes take a 16-game winning streak into Saturday’s game.
“That point hasn’t been lost on me, and it’s something I thought a lot about over the weekend,” Hirschy said. “Taylor is injured and basically playing with one hand. She’s a special young lady who I’ve known her forever because of Jason and I.
“It’s been a great season,” he added. “There is still a sense of loss with not having Kathy here to enjoy it — but she’s got the best seat in the house.”