McFarland High School was a lot different when Ray Kirch graduated from there in 1974.
His graduating class consisted of just 88 students, the facilities were basic, and there were no sports available for girls.
“I just wonder how many of my classmates could have excelled in track, basketball, soccer and other things but they weren’t given the chance,” said Kirch, who starred on the Spartans football team before playing college football at UW-Eau Claire.
While he spent much of his career as a high school football coach and teacher in Minnesota, he returned to McFarland to serve as athletic director in the 1990s.
Now retired, Kirch looks back on his days as a student-athlete at McFarland with an enormous amount of pride.
The community provided him with role models who helped him succeed as a teacher, football coach and school administrator.
One was Bill Rice, the McFarland football coach when Kirch was on the team as a running back and linebacker.
After an unsuccessful season in 1972 when Kirch was a junior, the Spartans turned things around the following year and won a share of the Capitol Conference title with Waunakee.
After losing its season opener to Oregon, McFarland defeated Waunakee 6-0 as Kirch helped the offense with 35 yards rushing.
The Spartans followed that win with a 28-12 victory over Poynette as Kirch ran for 113 yards including a 41-yard gallop to the end zone. Next came a 31-0 shutout over Lodi with Kirch pounding out 52 yards rushing and an 8-yard touchdown run.
After a 12-8 loss to Waterloo, McFarland rebounded with a 14-7 win over DeForest and a 26-20 triumph over Wisconsin Heights.
Entering the season finale against Verona, the Spartans had a chance to win conference. Kirch sprinted for two touchdowns and scored on a 2-point conversion for a 20-7 win and a share of the league title.
Weeks later, Kirch was in a basketball uniform with hopes the Spartans could win its second straight boys state basketball championship. McFarland reached the Class C title game against Mineral Point, and while Kirch didn’t score, Tom Sawyer had 26 points and center Bill Pearson had 21 in a 65-43 victory.
Sports to acting
Kirch and Pearson were also participants in the school’s drama program under the direction of Gene Olson.
“I remember the one production we did of ‘John Brown’s Body,’ a Civil War play. Billy Pearson, all 6-5 or 6-6 of him played Abraham Lincoln,” Kirch said. “To know Billy on that level was totally different and absolutely wonderful aside from playing basketball with him. It stretches you as a student-athlete quite a bit more.”
Kirch also played golf under head coach Gary Oftedahl. Kirch said his experiences in sports were all positive.
“My coaches taught me the value of being involved in sports; that maybe you weren’t necessarily the best but that sense of camaraderie with teammates was important. I felt the coaches cared about me more than just as an athlete. Certainly, I was better at football than I was at basketball or golf. But I still felt valued by Coach Mills and Coach Oftedahl as a kid,” Kirch said. “That small-town atmosphere was awesome. Members of the community just cared about the whole kid.”
After graduation, Kirch tried to make the UW football team as a walk-on. The experience was overwhelming, and following a brutal hit by one of his teammates, Kirch knew he didn’t belong there.
“I played in the spring game in 1975. I was at linebacker, and on one play, Larry Canada (who was later drafted into the NFL) came at me on an isolation play followed by the tailback with the football,” Kirch said. “As I was lying on the turf at Camp Randall, I thought I better go somewhere else. I think I’m in over my head.”
Kirch moved to UW-Eau Claire and played two seasons under head coach Link Walker, an old-school type from the days of high-topped football cleats and helmets without masks.
“He yelled a lot. I remember when a tight end caught a pass after dropping it four straight times, Link feigned a heart attack on the field,” Kirch recalled. “He was a colorful guy. You didn’t get the warm and fuzzies from Link that I would have gotten from my high school coaches.”
Road to Minnesota
After graduating from UW-Eau Claire in 1979 with a degree in English, Kirch was hired as an English teacher at Blaine High School in Minnesota, where he served as the assistant football coach.
Eventually, he was elevated to activities director at the school, but in 1994, when Kirch had the opportunity to return to McFarland High School to serve as athletic director and assistant principal, he jumped at the chance.
“We enjoyed coming back and getting to know many old friends and classmates who were now adults,” Kirch said. “It was the thrill of a lifetime for me being in the same building working with a guy like Bill Rice, still there teaching. I loved him when I was a football player and even more so as a colleague in 1990s.”
Yet, Kirch’s time in McFarland would last only two years. In 1996, Blaine High School made him an offer to return as full-time activities director. He and his wife, Becky, returned to Minnesota. Son Billy and daughter Kate graduated from Blaine in 2002 and 2006, respectively. Blaine won four state football titles during Kirch’s time as a football coach and administrator.
Kirch eventually moved on to Watertown-Mayer and Osseo High School in Minnesota before announcing his retirement.
Back on the job
In 2015, the retirement came to an end when Kirch was named activities director at Mahtomedi High School.
In the 2017-18 school year, Mahtomedi won Minnesota state championships in baseball and girls soccer, reached the state semifinals in boys hockey and boys lacrosse and had top 10 ranked teams in football, boys soccer, girls lacrosse, and boys and girls basketball. After that, Kirch retired again, presumably for good.
He is now 63 and a regional secretary for the Minnesota State High School League. His responsibilities include administering postseason tournaments in everything from football to track and field to speech and debate.
“I run the books, I hire the officials, sign a lot of checks. That keeps me involved in the schools,” Kirch said.
He still makes his way to McFarland periodically. Last summer, he and McFarland’s current athletic director, Paul Ackley, participated in the Bill Garvey Memorial Golf Tournament at Stoughton Country Club. He also attended his 45-year high school reunion. Despite moving around a lot in his career, he is happy with how his life has turned out.
“I knew I wanted to coach, and the best way to be a coach is to be a teacher.” Kirch said. “In coaching, you teach kids about winning humbly and losing gracefully, and appreciating the people around you.”