McCrabb: Fenwick’s state champion coach with ALS ‘takes every day like it’s his last’

When the volleyball landed in the net and fell harmlessly to the court, meaning Fenwick High School’s boys volleyball team had won its second state championship, head coach Pete Ehrlich leaned on his faith for encouragement as he had countless times.

“Total gratitude to God for blessing me with the energy and strength to make it through the whole season,” the fifth-year coach said.

Before the season started, Ehrlich, 58, diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, two years ago, considered stepping away from the game he had coached at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy and Fenwick. His ALS had progressed and Ehrlich wasn’t sure if he’d have the stamina to coach.

But those closest to him — his wife and children and his Fenwick family — convinced him to return in hopes of winning the school’s second state Division II Ohio High School Boys Volleyball Association title and first since 2013.

So Fenwick dedicated this season to Ehrlich. The motto was #PlayForPete.

The Falcons disposed of Olentangy 25-22, 25-18, 25-16 last week to win state at Pickerington Central High School.

What transpired after the straight-set match was something right out of Hollywood. When the state championship medal was placed around Ehrlich’s neck, he turned his electric wheelchair around, patted his chest and blew kisses to the Fenwick faithful who greatly outnumbered the Olentangy crowd.

“Play for Pete. Play for Pete. Play for Pete,” the fans chanted.

It was the culmination of a season that saw the Falcons be ranked No. 1 in the Division II state poll and win 22 consecutive matches.

It also served as a testament to Ehrlich and his family. He can’t drive so his wife of 32 years, Jamie, his father-in-law or one of his children transported him from his Lebanon home to every practice and match.

“Incredible support,” said Ehrlich, who also praised the work of his two assistant coaches, Tina Gustely and Dave Reed.

He recently passed two years since he was diagnosed with ALS. He didn’t know much about the disease that has no cure in 2019. Now he knows more than a medical journey.

“Ignorant at first,” he said. “I didn’t know what the diagnosis would lead to. I’ve always been very, very optimistic and I felt my progression was pretty slow. Then I came to grips what it meant. It dropped me to my knees. I’m thanking God for the days I have left.”

Despite coaching at Fenwick for only five seasons, Ehrlich’s impact on the school can’t be measured in time. The lives he touched will far outlast his records.

“For me, you learn that you can’t take anything for granted,” said Kyle Sasala, Fenwick’s athletic director. “He has the best attitude toward everything. He has a great spirit. He takes every day like it’s his last. He brings his faith into coaching. He’s a great coach and a great human being.”

Coaching is the easy part. Being a great human being is what separates Ehrlich from the others.

“He commands a room,” Sasala said. “Everything that comes out of his mouth is gold. I’m not an emotional guy, but he brings me to tears.”

There will be plenty of tears when ALS finally beats Ehrlich. The disease is undefeated.

He could either sit in his wheelchair and die in the dark or live life to the fullest.

He prefers the latter.

“No matter what adversity you have, no matter how hard life is, God is still good,” he said.

Then he dropped this bomb: “I have to look at ALS as a gift from God. It’s hard, but it’s something that was a source of motivation for my team.”

You won’t get any argument from outside hitter Will Richards, the Class of 2021 valedictorian who will study chemical engineering at Notre Dame. He said Ehrlich served as his coach and his hero the way he led the Falcons to the state title while batting ALS.

“Winning state was huge for Pete and for us,” Richards said. “But winning was more than the game. It’s a happy memory for Coach Pete. He instilled in us moral and faith lessons. It was more than Xs and Os. He taught us life lessons, how to overcome adversity, what he has tons of experience with.”

Then Richards brought up his coach’s faith.

“He knows this ALS is temporary,” he said. “He knows he has heaven in front of him.”

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