Jackson seniors keep Chase’s memory alive

Chase Bircher never got to play for the Jackson High School boys basketball team. But in many ways he is always with the Timberwolves.

During games, at practices and off the court, signs of Bircher — some obvious, others subtle — are everywhere.

His name and uniform number, 10, are on green wristbands worn by Jackson players and their family members. At least one player also wrote Bircher’s initials and number on his game shoes.

And an especially meaningful tribute to Bircher appears on the chest of Ryan Todd, Jackson High’s Seattle Pacific University-bound senior guard. A four-year varsity team contributor, Todd has worn No. 13 on his T-wolves jersey every season.

As a freshman, Todd decided to fuse his childhood number, 3, with 10, the number Bircher always wore. Todd’s heartfelt formula is 10 + 3 = 13.

“It just felt so right to honor him that way,” said Todd, who grew up playing basketball and baseball with Bircher. “We clicked so well on the court that now it’s like putting us together basically and saying, ‘OK. We’re doing it together. We’re still out there as teammates.’”

‘The funniest person I knew’

On the basketball court, Bircher was a dazzling dribbler; a gifted point guard who created easy baskets for teammates, scored when needed and relentlessly pestered opposing ballhandlers.

Off the court, Bircher was hilarious and magnetic.

“He was the funniest person I knew. I didn’t know one person that knew Chase that wasn’t a friend of his. Everyone loved Chase,” said Brandon Rucker, a Jackson senior who played youth hoops with Bircher.

Whether he was improvising dance moves, belting out songs in a goofy opera-style voice or making ridiculous, Jim Carrey-like facial expressions in photos, Bircher had a way of entertaining everyone.

His mom remembers her son and his teammates constantly clowning around in their hotel during all-star baseball trips in the summer. “They were just goofy. They just liked to laugh, and Chase was usually the instigator,” Debbie Bircher said.

In basketball, Chase Bircher was also a ringleader. He and Todd, both guards, helped ignite a devastating full-court defensive press that made their up-tempo fifth-grade Wolfpack team almost unbeatable. Besides Todd and Rucker, the dominant squad featured three other boys who are now seniors on the Jackson varsity team: Andy Gay, Marshall Massengale and Mike Wishko.

“It was non-stop press,” said Chase’s dad, Mark Bircher, a former Washington State University wide receiver who coached the Wolfpack fifth-graders, “and they were very good at it.”

“We had such a great group of kids and a great group of parents,” Debbie Bircher said, “and Mark had a lot of fun with all the boys. It’s just kind of a common bond that I think they will always share. Even though they were so young I think there will be memories that they will always have.”

She’s right. Here’s how Rucker fondly recalls the experience: “That basketball season was probably the most fun I’ve ever had, and Chase and Mark (Bircher) were definitely a big part of it.”

‘Chase is gone’

One of Todd’s favorite memories from the summer of 2003 was getting to know Chase Bircher better.

During an all-star tournament trip with the Mill Creek Little League baseball team, Todd and Bircher shared a hotel room. They became close buddies, carefree 11-year-olds who loved being goofy. They played video games, jumped on mattresses and made diving catches on the bed, emulating their favorite Major League Baseball stars.

“He was just all about having a good time,” Todd said of Bircher, “and it’s tough not to like a kid like that.”

When all-star baseball ended for the Mill Creek boys they went separate ways, planning to spend the last few weeks of summer vacation with their families before sixth grade started.

During the second weekend of August, Rucker, one of Bircher’s hoops buddies, was riding in a car. Rucker’s dad answered his cell phone. Something was wrong — Rucker instantly sensed it in his dad’s quavering voice. After hanging up, Rucker’s dad said, “Chase is gone.”

On Aug. 9, 2003, Bircher drowned in an outdoor public pool in Ephrata, where the Birchers went to celebrate Bircher’s grandpa’s 70th birthday party. Somehow, the lifeguards on duty did not notice Bircher — a great young athlete but not a particularly good swimmer, his mom said — sink to the bottom in the deep end.

Bircher’s older sibling, then-14-year-old Kyle Bircher, eventually saw Chase and frantically pulled him to the surface.

An effort was made to resuscitate Bircher and he was transported to the hospital. But it was too late.

Chase Bircher was gone. He was 11 years old.

“When you heard the news and you heard how it happened, you were just shocked,” Todd said.

“It was just something that you couldn’t comprehend, especially at that age,” said Brandon Rucker. “He was gone so quickly.”

‘It touched my heart’

In the nearly six and a half years since Bircher’s death, his former teammates have honored him in numerous ways.

They ordered the same brand of green basketball shoes Bircher wore during his final season with the fifth-grade Wolfpack. They wear commemorative wristbands and put “CB10” patches on their uniforms.

The former Wolfpack players who are now seniors on the Jackson High varsity squad vow to go all-out every minute of every game, because they know Bircher would do no less if he were still here.

On Dec. 9 the tributes to Bircher reached a new peak. Jackson’s Todd, the SPU recruit, organized a 3-on-3 basketball fundraiser for his senior project called the Chase Bircher Memorial Tournament. Featuring 20 teams and 75 athletes in two divisions, the competition took place at the Jackson gym.

Grasping a microphone and standing alone at midcourt before games began, Todd explained the purpose of the event to the participants and the crowd.

“We are here to remember (Bircher) and all he stood for,” said Todd, “and to let him know that he is forever in our hearts.”

Then Todd invited Bircher’s mom and sister, eighth-grader Callie Bircher, to the court. To their surprise, a group of Chase’s former pals — including current Jackson hoops players Rucker, Gay, Massengale and Wishko — presented a signed, framed uniform. It’s the same uniform Chase Bircher wore proudly for the Wolfpack team in fifth grade, his final season. (Watch a video of the event above)

With team fees, concessions and donations, the memorial tournament generated more than $1,000. The money will go into a scholarship fund named in honor of Bircher that will help Jackson student-athletes pay sports participation fees.

“I was very touched,” Debbie Bircher said of Todd’s decision to organize the tournament.

“It’s really cool seeing that one of his friend’s is doing this for him,” said Callie Bircher, “and it’s cool seeing that we’re not the only ones that care (about) and remember him. There’s a lot of people still thinking about him, even though it was six years ago.”

Before he started putting together the tournament, Todd called Bircher’s dad, who coached Todd and Chase Bircher on the Wolfpack team. Mark Bircher, who now coaches the Glacier Peak High junior varsity girls basketball squad, was overwhelmed; he could hardly talk.

“Definitely, it touched my heart,” Mark Bircher said. “I think every time I run into Ryan I just about lose it just because of all the stuff that he’s doing to keep Chase’s memory alive.”

After coaching the Glacier Peak JV girls to a one-point overtime win on Dec. 9, Mark Bircher arrived at Jackson High near the end of the memorial tournament. Within minutes of entering the gym, he got a huge hug from Todd.

A birthday present

The next day, Dec. 10, the state-ranked Jackson boys basketball team played host to Edmonds-Woodway. Led by Todd’s 15 points, Jackson won 71-60.

It was an emotional victory, on the day that Chase Bircher would have celebrated his 18th birthday.

Before tip-off Todd quietly said his usual pre-game prayer, asking Bircher to be with him and help him play with the energy and enthusiasm Bircher always had.

The player who wears No. 13 did not disappoint. Chase Bircher would have been proud.

Mike Cane: mcane@heraldnet.com. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam.

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