By Bill Herr, Icon Columnist
What is the greatest example of friendship between two individuals that you have ever experienced? My choice falls on two of my former students from Bluffton High School, Matt Schweingruber and Eric Smith.
Matt graduated in 1994. He then went to Taylor University (Indiana) and earned a degree in education. Today, Matt and his wife, Shirley, live in Yonkers, New York. He teaches fourth grade at PS 128, the Audubon School, in New York. Matt loves to teach.
Eric graduated in 1996. He went to Taylor University for two years, then transferred to Ohio State University in Columbus and earned a business degree. Today, Eric and his wife, Brittany, live with their four children, three sons and a daughter, ages 5, 11, 14 and 16 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Eric is the CEO of a company called Winsor Learning. The company helps students who need help with reading. By talking with Eric, I could see that he is enthusiastic about his work.
Although they were separated by two years in high school, Matt and Eric have become best friends. Both were very competitive in the sport. Eric went out for football one year, his junior year, and was good enough as a catcher to make the second team in the Northwest Conference. Matt played basketball for four years and was in college during his junior and senior years. Eric also played basketball for four years, and they both made the starting five together for two years. In Matt’s senior year, the team won the sectional tournament, the first time by a Bluffton High School basketball team in over 20 years.
Their senior years each won the “Cappy Clark” award – given to the senior male athlete who best embodied the virtues of a legendary former coach beloved of Bluffton’s midget football teams. But the sport they loved and excelled in together was cross country (CC) and track.
The cross country team in Matt’s senior year and Eric’s sophomore year was ranked first or second in the state for most of the season. The team finished 7th in the state meet, but it was an exciting season. Steve Stitzel was the CC’s coach. Before the team headed to the state meet, Coach Stitzel spoke at a cheering session during which a video of the team was shown, and the team received a standing ovation from the student body.
In the spring of that year 1994, Matt and Eric were looking forward to the track season. During the previous summer, Matt and Eric had been training together, running around Bluffton. When they were about two blocks from home, one of them suddenly picked up the pace and the race began. Each would go into a dead sprint to beat the other house.
On the track, Matt ran the 3200m relay (four runners each run 800m before passing the baton to the next runner), the 300m hurdles, the 1600m relay and the 400m relay. In Matt’s sophomore year, the 3200m relay team he was part of took second place at the state meet and set a Bluffton High School record of 7:56.87 which still stands. . The other riders were Brian Hilty, Brett Eikenbary and Mike Stechschulte. Mike Stechschulte graduated and over the next two years Eric Smith took his place on the team – Eric’s first and second year. This team won the state championship in the 3200 m relay both years. Brian Hilty was the anchor (ran fourth). Eric has also run the 1600m relay, the 400m and the 800m. He was good enough in the 800m to take first place at the Northwest Conference meet his sophomore year.
The stage was now set for the track team to compete in the district meet next week, followed a week later by the regional meet to determine which individuals or relay teams would qualify for the upcoming state meet. will be held at the Horseshoe in Columbus. Steve Bruskotter was a track coach at Bluffton High School for many years, leading multiple teams in the 2nd place state meet. In the last year before his retirement in 2008, Bluffton was state champion.
The track team had a rule that at the time of district and regional qualifying anyone could challenge someone else on the team to replace that person in their qualifying event. If he issued a challenge, he had to race that person in team practice, one-on-one. To replace him, he had to beat him in the race, and also had to beat the fastest time that person had ever run in the event.
During the weekend following the conference meeting, Matt Schweingruber thought a lot about taking on a challenge. He wanted a chance to place high in the state competition in an individual event. He didn’t think he was good enough to qualify in the 300m hurdles. The event he had the best chance in was the 800 meters, as he had run 800 meters in the 3200 relay. But he would have to challenge either Brian Hilty, who was considered the team’s best 800m runner , or challenge Eric Smith, his best friend who had just won the 800m during the conference meeting. Matt decided to challenge Eric. He thought it was his last chance as a senior and Eric had two more years to compete.
Coach Bruskotter said he was surprised when Matt said he wanted to challenge Eric. But the rule was in effect. And at practice the following week, the whole team stopped to watch Matt and Eric run 800 meters against each other. Matt won, beating Eric’s best time in the event. Matt and Brian Hilty would run the 800m at Districts, and Eric would not run the event. Coach Bruskotter said he was sorry for Eric. Matt said he was sorry for Eric. I asked Matt if this had put a strain on their friendship. He said he didn’t think so. He said: “I went to Eric’s after practice and we talked about it.” When I asked Eric if that had strained the relationship, he replied, “I was very competitive, but deep down I knew Matt would probably have a better chance of winning at State.”
In the district meet, Matt took first place in the 800m and Brian ran second. At the regional meeting the following week, they reversed. Brian ran first and Matt second. Now fast forward to the state meet in Columbus at the “Shoe”. Sitting near the finish line was a large group of Bluffton fans. I was seated, if I remember correctly, about eight rows back. Sitting right next to me, to my left, were Don and Nancy Schweingruber, Matt’s parents. Matt was on the track with the other competitors, each positioning themselves where they would start the 800 meter race. The winner would be state champion. I remember thinking, “The other runners better be ready because Matt is ready to run the race of his life.
In the 800m, runners are standing at the start. They position themselves in a curved position called “cascade”. This is how the runner on the inside does not have an advantage over the one on the outside. The race is two laps around the 400 meter track. There are 16 riders in the final and 8 lanes. There are two riders in each lane and the riders must stay in their lane during the first lap until the last curve before the straight. At that time, runners could move to where it was to their advantage to be.
The runners were in their place. The announcer said, “Runners are ready” and the shot went off. The race was on. When the riders passed at the end of the first lap, Matt and two other riders were leading the race. As the same three leaders rounded the final curve of lap two, they pushed hard, striving for the lead. As they neared the finish line, they were nearly tied. A runner had a slight advantage. After the race, Matt immediately looked up at his parents and held up two, then three fingers. He wondered how he had ended up. Don and Nancy both held up three fingers. Matt had a look of disappointment on his face. But what a race he had run! Brian Hilty was also in that final race. Matt said Brian didn’t do as well in the 800m because he had to run the mile race right before the 800m race.
Matt and Eric ran together at Taylor University for two years before Matt graduated and Eric transferred to Ohio State. In February 1997, Matt was part of the Taylor 3200m relay team that won the NAIA Indoor National Championship. Matt said this team had a very talented rider from Kenya and twin brothers from Alaska who were very good.
Eric was the best man at Matt’s wedding, and Matt was the groomsman at Eric’s wedding. While at Taylor together, Matt said he and Eric had a radio show together one day a week that was mostly on campus. The name of their program was “Bluffton Finest”. I told Matt and Eric that the only name that could have topped that was “Bluffton Friends.”