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Grandville community rallies around football program

Football   | Jeff Chaney

State Champs! Sports Network

Grandville - Brian Parsons is sure happy for the start of a new school year and high school sports season.

That's because of the Grandville High School athletic director, his school and the school's community went through last year.

It all started December when high school principal Chris VanderSlice was diagnosed with leukemia and took a leave of absence to treat the disease.

It didn't get any better as the school year went along, as three students died.

Freshman Alyssa Arends lost her battle with cancer, Roman Aguilar-Emmons was killed in a car accident and Ryan Fischer died in his sleep because of an enlarged heart.

Each tragedies hit the community hard. Fischer's death hit Parsons close to home. Not only was Fischer a three-sport athlete, but Parsons' son, Mitch, was a teammate of Fischer's on the Bulldogs hockey team.

The Grandville hockey team was enjoying a spectacular season, advancing all the way to the Division 1 state semifinals, with Fischer leading the way from his center position.

 On March 7, the morning of Grandville's semifinal game with Detroit Catholic Central, Fischer never woke up, and the Grandville athletic department was thrown into a tailspin.

"That was the worst day in education for me," said Parson, who has been in the profession for 15 years. "We (as a family) are very close to the Fischers, and it was a hard day."

But Parsons and the rest of the Grandville education department had to go to work, preparing the school for the horrible news that one of Grandville's finest students, a student that had been accepted to both West Point and the Naval Academy, had a plan B of attending Notre Dame or Texas A & M in their ROTC department, but had decided to attend West Point, was gone.

This, as well as what to do about the hockey team, which, under normal circumstances, would be excited to be in the Division 1 semifinals.

The decision was made, with the blessing of the Fischers, to play. The whole team met at the Fischer's home, and Scott Fischer, Ryan's father, went around to each player and told them they had to play, and to play for Ryan.

Despite their sadness and grief the Bulldogs persevered but lost to Detroit Catholic Central. Waiting for the team at home was a funeral, a funeral for one of their own.

"That's hard to explain, not only to students, but adults, what's happening," Parsons said. "That was a rough week, because earlier in the week Alyssa passed away, the hockey team had a great win in the quarterfinals and the wrestling team was at the team finals. So it was the timing.

"It was a long, rough year, but you just have to deal with it the best you can," he added. "Students are very resilient. We gave them a lot of support. But it's not only the students, but the staff and the community, and we all had to rally together and make the best of it, and that's what we've done. The theme here is Pride and excellence for the high school, and we tie into that with a slogan we use 'Got Grit'. We are trying to provide a culture here that you have to battle, whether it's academically, athletically or life. That's our motto, and that's what we are sticking to this year with a fresh start."

Fast forward to this year, and the grit is showing, in the classrooms, in the athletic department and throughout the school.

The football program is undefeated as the freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams are all off to 2-0 starts.

All three have tough games this week, as the varsity team host Muskegon.

The boys tennis and boys and girls cross country teams are also off to great starts, as the tennis team has already won the Jenison and Holland invitationals, while the girls cross country team was second at the Kenowa Hills Invite and won the West Ottawa Invitational. The boys cross country team came in third in both.

As is the case in most schools, it's the football program that creates enthusiasm.

Last year the Bulldogs struggled through a 2-7 season. But new coach Eric Stiegel has the team playing well.

"That sets the tone for the whole school year, it really does," Parsons said. "Not only in the building, but also in the community. As the AD, I am very pleased that we got off to a great start. People are smiling and they are upbeat, so hopefully we can keep that going."

One of the players in the junior varsity team is sophomore Connor Fischer, an outside linebacker and backup quarterback for the Bulldogs.

He is playing well, and Scott and Roni, Connor's mom, are back in the stands cheering Connor on every game.

Roni Fischer admits that it is hard walking into the stadium to cheer on Connor, but the new school year has also been a little bit of therapy to her and her family.

"It is really tough," Roni Fischer said. "The first time I went into the stadium, your mind is flooding with memories of Ryan. Certainly with football, he played all four years. It's hard, but we concentrate making sure Connor is his own kid, and he can achieve his own goals."

The loss of a child is an emotion that only a parent that goes through that tragedy can only feel, but Roni Fischer says she is moving on because of Ryan.

"Every day is tough," Roni Fischer said. "I can't imagine a day it won't be. Unfortunately, the loss the magnitude of losing Ryan, it's tough to wake up every morning. I usually ask myself how he would deal with that day, and that gets me up. He was the type of kid that would never let anything get him down, and keep moving forward."

So life goes on, and Scott and Roni Fischer enjoy the accomplishments of not only their own children, the Fischer's have an older daughter, Kelsea Fischer, who is a sophomore on the Wisconsin-Whitewater gymnastics team, but that of their Bulldog family.

"Last year was fantastic for Kelsea," Roni Fischer said. "Her team won a Division III national championship and she got a ring this year and that was a positive experience, with everything the family has gone through.

"What I certainly feel in Grandville, and we have blessed with a great community," she added. "As a community, we have been able to stay positive with some very bad tragedies. A lot of senior this year played with Ryan, and they text me often. And they are wearing Captain America gloves in memory of him, because he was such a fan of Captain America. And they just installed tribute monument, and the kids all touch that when they come out on to the field. It has all been very positive."

And that's what Parsons and the Grandville family want.

"We don't want to forget, we always want to remember all three students," Parsons said. "We will do things to keep them in our mind, but at the same time we are trudging forward the best we can."