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Bluffton teammates, Bluffton friends

By Bill Herr, Icon columnist

What is the greatest example of friendship between two individuals you have ever known? My choice is two of my former students at Bluffton High School, Matt Schweingruber and Eric Smith.

Matt graduated in 1994. He next went to Taylor University (Indiana) and graduated with 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 City. Matt loves teaching.

Eric graduated in 1996. He went to Taylor University two years, and then transferred to Ohio State University in Columbus and obtained a degree in business. Today Eric and his wife, Brittany, live with their four children, three sons and a daughter, ages 5, 11, 14, 16 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Eric is general manager of a business named Winsor Learning. The company helps students that need assistance with reading. In talking with Eric, I could tell he is enthusiastic about his job.

Although they were separated by two years in high school, Matt and Eric became best friends. Both were very competitive in sports. Eric went out for football one year, his junior year, and was good enough as a receiver to make second team in the Northwest Conference. Matt played basketball four years, and was on the varsity his junior and senior year. Eric also played basketball four years, and they were both on 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 20-plus years.

Their senior years, each won the "Cappy Clark" award –given to the senior male athlete that most epitomized the virtues of a past beloved legendary coach of Bluffton midget football teams. But the sport they both loved and excelled in together was cross country (CC) and track.

The cross-country team of Matt's senior year and Eric's sophomore year was ranked first or second in the state most of the season. The team finished 7th at the state meet, but it was an exciting season. Steve Stitzel was the CC coach. Before the team went to the state meet, Coach Stitzel spoke at a pep session at which a video of the team was shown, and the team was given a standing ovation from the student body.

In the spring of that year, 1994, Matt and Eric looked forward to the track season. During the summer before, Matt and Eric would train together, running around Bluffton. When they were about two blocks from home, one of them would suddenly pick up the pace and the race was on. Each would go into a dead sprint to beat the other home.

In track, Matt ran the 3200m relay (four runners each run 800 meters before handing the baton to the next runner), the 300 meter hurdles, the 1600m relay, and the 400m relay. In Matt's sophomore year, the 3200m relay team of which he was part took second place at the state meet and set a Bluffton High School record of 7:56.87 which still stands. The other runners were Brian Hilty, Brett Eikenbary and Mike Stechschulte. Mike Stechschulte graduated and in the next two years, Eric Smith took his place on the team–Eric's freshman and sophomore years. That team won the state championship in the 3200m relay both years. Brian Hilty was the anchor (ran fourth). Eric also ran the 1600m relay, the 400m run and the 800m run. 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 participate in the District meet the next week, followed a week later by the Regional meet to determine which individuals or relay teams would qualify for the State meet held at the Horseshoe in Columbus. Steve Bruskotter was the track coach at Bluffton High School many years, leading several teams at the state meet to 2nd place finishes. In the last year before he retired, 2008, Bluffton was State Champion. 

The track team had a rule that when it came time for District and Regional qualifications, anyone could challenge someone else on the team to replace that person in his qualifying event. If he made a challenge, he had to race that person at a team practice, head to head. To replace him, he had to beat him in the race, and also had to beat the best time that person had ever run in the event.

During the weekend after the conference meet, Matt Schweingruber thought heavily about making a challenge. He wanted to have a chance to place high in the state meet in an individual event. He didn't think he was good enough to place in the 300 hurdles. The event he had the best chance in was the 800 meters, since he had run 800 meters in the 3200 relay. But he would have to challenge either Brian Hilty, who was considered the best 800m runner on the team, or challenge Eric Smith, his best friend who had just won the 800m in the conference meet. Matt decided to challenge Eric. He figured it was his last chance as a senior and Eric still 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 next week, the whole team stopped to watch as Matt and Eric raced 800 meters against each other. Matt won, beating Eric's best time ever in the event. Matt and Brian Hilty would run the 800m at Districts, and Eric would not run the event. Coach Bruskotter said he felt sorry for Eric. Matt said he felt sorry for Eric. I asked Matt if it strained their friendship. He said he didn't think so. He said, "I went to Eric's house after practice and we talked about it." When I asked Eric if it strained the relationship, he said, "I was very competitive, but in my heart-of-hearts, I knew that Matt could probably have a better chance of winning at State.”

In the District meet, Matt took first place in the 800m and Brian ran second. In the Regional meet the next 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 sitting, as I recall, about eight rows back. Sitting right beside me to my left was Don and Nancy Schweingruber, Matt's parents. Matt was on the track with the other competitors, each positioning at the spot where he would start the 800meter 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 800, the runners are standing at the start. They position themselves in a curved position called a "waterfall." This is so the runner on the inside doesn't have an advantage over the one outside. The race is two laps around the 400 meter track. There are 16 runners in the final and 8 lanes. There are two runners in each lane, and the runners have to stay in their lanes on the first lap until the final curve before the straightaway. At that point, the runners could move themselves to where it was to their advantage to be.

The runners were in their position. The announcer said, "runners set" and the gun went off. The race was on. When the runners came by at the end of the first lap, Matt and two other runners were leading the race. As the same three leaders rounded the last curve on the second lap, they pushed hard, straining to take the lead. As they neared the finish line, they were almost in a dead heat. One runner had a slight edge. After the race, Matt immediately looked up at his parents and held up two, then three fingers. He wondered how he finished. 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 just before the 800m race. 

Matt and Eric ran track together at Taylor University for two years before Matt graduated and Eric transferred to Ohio State. In February of 1997, Matt was on the Taylor 3200m relay team that won the National NAIA Indoor Championship. Matt said that team had a very talented runner from Kenya, and twin brothers from Alaska that were very good.

Eric was best man in Matt's wedding, and Matt was a groomsman in Eric's wedding. While together at Taylor, Matt said that he and Eric had a radio program together one day a week that was mostly on campus. The name of their program was "Bluffton Finest." I told both Matt and Eric that the only name that could have topped that was "Bluffton Friends."