‘Coach’ personified tough love, on and off the mat

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By Robert Howey

Indian Land High School assistant principal David Sweem’s words resonated with me as we discussed coach Mike Kersey earlier this week.
Coach Kersey died Tuesday afternoon as a result of an ATV accident at his Van Wyck home last Saturday afternoon.
Since that time, there’s been an outpouring of emotion, much woven through the many stories of Kersey’s impact on the youngsters, both elementary school and high school students, he touched over the course of a 17-year career education career in Lancaster County.
Sweem, who also coaches football with the IL Warriors, nailed Kersey’s persona.
“Mike didn’t always tell you what you wanted to hear, but what you needed to hear,” Sweem said of Kersey.
A prime example is former Warriors’ wrestler Michael Swann. He wouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the three IL state champions Kersey coached – Harley Lail, Rondale Truesdale and Trevor Jones.
But Swann, in time under Kersey’s guidance, became a solid competitor on the mat.
This story of survival goes beyond wrestling. It’s about life lessons learned under Kersey, a father figure to many in his coaching career at Indian Land and Lancaster high schools.
After his high school career, Swann chose to pursue the military and joined the Army. As fate would have it, he was deployed to Afghanistan.
As part of his training there, Swann’s company went on a 25-mile march through the desert in 115-degree heat.
Swann consumed most of his water in his backpack on the march out. At the destination, the company was offered hot tea, but for fear of being tainted, they were advised to refuse.
On the way back, Swann, with little water, fell out.
Amid the sea of sand, stifling heat and his incoherence, the familiar booming voice of coach Mike Kersey rang out.
“Get up, Michael Swann, get up. Quit feeling sorry for yourself. Get up.”
Those were the same words Swann heard from Kersey when he was molding him as a Warriors’ wrestler.
When Swann returned home, his first stop was to see Kersey and tell him of his ordeal, and, at the same time, thank him for saving his life.
Kersey, throughout his career, touched many lives. Through wrestling and his physical education class, he quite likely saved other lives by guiding them through his tried and true motivation and “tough love.”
Kersey, his distinct commanding voice and waving arms, would be the first to jump on a wrestler in his own way, but once he got it right, would also be the first to pat him on the back.
“Mike never gave up on a kid,” Sweem said. “He always saw the good and  potential in a kid and pushed them to reach it.”
That was because Indian Land wrestling was a family affair.
“Mike was loved by every kid he ever taught or coached,” Sweem said.
Indian Land wrestling was successful over his 10 seasons in the county’s Panhandle because all components worked together, from the wrestlers and their parents to the IL fans.
Even Mike’s own parents, Faye and Wayne Kersey, were deeply involved. Faye kept the scorebook and Wayne was the team’s biggest supporter.
Kersey was passionate about his sport and wrestlers, but again family meant more as he left coaching in support of his wife, Erin, who was pursuing her master’s degree.
His hope was to return after Erin earned her advanced degree.
Mike, as he planned, will be back, but in a new locale.
“They must be starting a wrestling program in heaven,” Sweem noted.
If so, they’re getting an outstanding coach.