FRANKLIN, Ohio — The loudest ovation after the Division II state boys volleyball final Sunday afternoon was saved for Fenwick High School coach Pete Ehrlich.
After the Fenwick players received their state championship medals, they walked over and hugged Ehrlich near the sideline inside Pickerington Central High School's gymnasium.
Ehrlich received his medal to enthusiastic cheers. His wife, Jamie went over to embrace her husband in his wheelchair. Fenwick fans chanted "Play for Pete."
There wasn't a dry eye inside the gym.
Pete Ehrlich turned his wheelchair around and tapped the location of his heart with his left hand toward the crowd. He blew kisses with each hand before turning around to wipe tears away.
"The Fenwick volleyball family has been such a huge support for me and my ALS," Ehrlich said. "And I don't know if I've ever felt so much love, so much support, so much knowing people care."
Ehrlich is a man of faith. He believes his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- also called ALS -- isn't forever.
And when the time comes that he no longer has to fight the disease, the Falcons' state championship this past weekend will accompany him to heaven.
"My eternal hope gives me so much confidence to portray that to the guys, help them realize - you don't have to feel sorry for me," Ehrlich said. "You don't have fear what I'm going to face. I can struggle with that, but God always gives me peace. He brings me back to trusting him. Brings me back knowing that this is a gift. The gift that helped propel the team. It impacted the fans."
Players, coaches and fans dedicated this season to the 58-year-old Ehrlich, who was diagnosed with ALS in April 2019 while coaching at the school. The team and school community adapted #PlayforPete. Everything had a purpose within the program.
"It wasn't for any one individual. It was a bigger cause," said Jamie Ehrlich. "And I think that's what spurred the kids on, the families on, everybody on. And so in the end it's kind of like a trophy that lasts instead of one that you work so hard for and then you put it on a shelf and it loses its gloss."
'Coach Pete' has impacted countless lives around Fenwick High School with his messages of courage, faith, hope and love.
"He's just a great guy," Fenwick athletic director Kyle Sasala said. "And he's living his life to the fullest the best way that he can. He's just a guy that can bring people together."
Pete Ehrlich knew how to bring the Falcons together this spring. He formerly worked with Athletes in Action at the University of Cincinnati and drew on that experience to inspire the student-athletes with positive messages that beyond the sport.
"We're not defined by whether we win or lose," Ehrlich said. "We are defined by the creator that made us."
Ehrlich reminded the Fenwick players of that faith message on a daily basis. The team became his ministry. The student-athletes gained a perspective on life through the former volleyball player, official and longtime coach.
"Living out my ALS in front of them I think is a constant reminder," Ehrlich said. "And over and over I would tell them this is temporary. As hard as it is, it's not going to last forever. And when my time comes and I leave this place I'm going to be singing and dancing and playing volleyball again."
Ehrlich instructed the Falcons on how champions act, think and respond to adversity. The team believed it would be a state champion starting in May.
He recited a quote from Muhammad Ali, asked the players about the characteristics of a falcon, explained how the season was like building a house and told the players to stay focused for the state tournament like it was a business trip.
In the end, it was like artwork, Ehrlich said.
"He's really believed in these boys, told them they were champions every day of this season and they believed it then they achieved it," Fenwick assistant coach Tina Gustely said.
Fenwick, ranked No. 1 in the Division II state poll, won its 22nd consecutive match in the state final. The Falcons received multiple individual accolades statewide.
However, the love for 'Coach Pete' clearly went beyond volleyball.
"Seeing that strength and courage through this terrible illness on him is really inspiring for all of us," said Fenwick volleyball player Will Richards, a 2021 graduate. "It impacts me through my faith. It just makes me appreciate life and relationships and the people around me."
Ehrlich's resolve allowed him to never miss a match in his fifth year of coaching at the school. He considered stepping down this past winter but the coaching staff and families wouldn't allow it.
"He is a man who has dedicated his entire life to the mission of bringing people closer to God and he uses sports in that way," Gustely said. "We pray before every match and after every match and before every team meal. He really wants to instill values and morals with these kids."
Jamie said Pete has always had a special gift to be able to connect with student athletes - whether they were in high school or college. Families at Fenwick told Jamie they appreciated the fact that Pete coached their sons.
"When you don't have much time or you know your life is about to come to an end you want to know you made a difference," Jamie Ehrlich said. "And you know they made me see he's made a difference."
The team prayed together for a final time at the tournament in the Pickerington Central High School Field House before a reception that night back at Fenwick.
Ehrlich held the trophy and told the team how proud he was of their effort. The team formed a prayer circle. The emotion was palpable.
"He just prayed for all of us and thanked God for each of his players - all of us and all the talents he's given us," Richards said.
"He admitted during that prayer - he said, 'My days are numbered,' and we all started tearing up because no one wants to hear that of course. But he said the state ring means a ton to him and it means a lot to us too that he's so inspired by this moment and that we could actually have this impact on his life."