With Sylvania Northview High School's 2012 state championship hockey season as a backdrop, I saw the elevating power of life-giving interactions that can transpire between a teacher and a student-athlete.
Melissa Belcher is a dynamic math teacher at Northview, who demands the best from her students. A keen sense of humor enables her to engage students in the finer points of the Pythagorean theorem.
Mrs. Belcher is also a highly regarded volleyball coach at Central Catholic High School; she led the Lady Irish to a state championship in 2007. The other plate she lovingly keeps in the air: She is married and the mother of two young boys.
Two years ago, Mrs. Belcher was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS is a progressively degenerative condition that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
She continues to teach and coach, even though the hurdles are getting higher and coming more frequently. The Northview and Central Catholic communities have conducted events to provide emotional support and financial help to the Belcher family.
Zach Felser, a graduate of the Northview Class of 2012 and a standout hockey player, was a student in Mrs. Belcher's homeroom and math classes. Zach is greatly moved by the strength of character his teacher and mentor has shown as she stares down ALS.
During the 2011-12 hockey season, the Northview faithful cheered a team that won league, district, and state titles with a blend of talent, determination, and all-in intensity. Before the team boarded a bus to Columbus for the Frozen Four state finals at Nationwide Arena, students and faculty held a spirited send-off assembly.
I was standing along the gymnasium wall. Mrs. Belcher was seated near me. The hockey team lined up to be introduced.
As the spotlight was about to be turned on him, Zach broke ranks and placed in Mrs. Belcher's lap a framed hockey picture of him. The inscription read: "You are my inspiration. I am playing for you." Mrs. Belcher cupped her hand over her mouth.
The next day, Northview beat Olentangy Orange 6-0 in the state semifinal game. In the finals, the Wildcats pressured perennial powerhouse St. Edward from the opening face-off to win a 5-2 victory and the school's first state championship.
As I waited outside the locker room to congratulate the players and coaches, I peered toward the bench area. The team huddled together while Zach spoke with Mrs. Belcher, who was leaning in from the stands. Amid their celebration, 20 jubilant hockey players paused to pay homage to a teacher's resilient spirit.
After the team's euphoric postgame meeting, Zach made his way to the foyer of Nationwide Arena for pictures. The gentle smiles on his and Mrs. Belcher's faces indicated that the emotion of the state championship had turned into a moment of grace.
During a community celebration to honor the team, Zach and Mrs. Belcher addressed an enthusiastic crowd. Both described how they had affected each other's life.
Zach gave Mrs. Belcher's son his hockey helmet, signed by the team. She gave Zach a framed collage of pictures and articles related to the team's memorable season. Their supportive embrace drew a standing ovation.
Thirty years from now, I will remember how an inspiring relationship between a math teacher and a hockey player made a state championship even more meaningful. Mrs. Belcher and Zach Felser show us that the people we meet and help along the way are more important than the destination.
Brad Rieger is superintendent of Sylvania Schools.