By Diane Gasper-O’Brien
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. – If you Google Fort Hays State University’s Darby Hirsch, you will find the words Academic All-American near the top of the results. But just what does it take to be an Academic All-American?
The Topeka senior is living proof that it’s possible to play a collegiate sport even while majoring in nursing – something some colleges and universities are known to actively discourage, deeming it impossible to succeed at both.
Hirsch not only participated in both but excelled in both arenas.
Following a record-setting season on the FHSU women’s soccer team last fall, Hirsch earned Academic All-America honors from the College Sports Information Directors of America organization.
An individual’s athletic and academic accomplishments are factored into the selection of the Academic All-America team, and Hirsch was a shoo-in considering the offensive stats she compiled while maintaining a perfect 4.0 GPA through her senior soccer season.
Some days began early with 7 a.m. lifting, then a day-long bevy of classes, labs and clinicals. Practices were set for night, sometimes early in the evening, sometimes as late as 8. No matter when practice ended, there were often at least a couple of hours of studying awaiting Hirsch before setting her alarm to start it all over again the next day.
Add to that some community service that is required for Honors College students, and it made for some long days and nights for Hirsch. But it was a challenge that she welcomed when she committed to Fort Hays State in 2016 to play soccer and pursue her nursing degree.
It would have been understandable for Hirsch to concentrate on nursing, a challenging major with extensive clinical experience requirements. She was awarded the Honors College Tier I renewable scholarship worth $10,000 each year. But she wanted to continue playing her favorite sport she played since she was 5 years old.
“Plenty of people thought I was crazy,” she said. “The weight of it didn’t really hit me.”
Even after a lot of late nights and studying in hotels and on the bus during road trips that normally meant three days away from campus, Hirsch wouldn’t change her college experience for anything.
Neither would her coach.
When Blake Reynolds signed on as Fort Hays State’s women’s coach in 2017, he anxiously anticipated tracking how well his sophomore standout forward could juggle a soccer ball and a stethoscope over the next three years.
Hirsch passed with flying colors. She is on track to graduate summa cum laude in May, and her career accomplishments will stand out in the record books. Her name will feature prominently for years to come, appearing on numerous top 10 lists for FHSU soccer. She finished No. 2 in career points – just two points behind the school record of 50. And she leaves as the Tiger program’s all-time career leader in assists (18), just as she did in high school at Topeka’s Washburn Rural.
Now, Reynolds looks forward to telling soccer recruits who want to major in nursing it can be done.
“I wanted to see if it’s really doable,” he said. “You want to be able to recruit to that if it is. We have several nursing majors on our soccer team. Darby set a great example for them, in many ways. She was kind of a test subject for me, without even knowing it.”
Reynolds said it’s hard to pin down any one particular attribute about Hirsch because she was a model of consistency.
“You can just count on her to do the right thing,” he said. “That’s why she is so well respected.”
It took a lot of time management and meticulous scheduling on Hirsch’s part. She even took on the role of mentoring some of her teammates who are either interested in pursuing nursing or are already in the program – mostly because she didn’t have that luxury. She is the first FHSU soccer player to graduate with a nursing degree, so juggling the demands of her major and soccer was something she had to figure out on her own.
But blazing her own trail was a goal of Hirsch’s when she traveled three hours west for college. She is the youngest of five siblings, and her older sister played soccer at Washburn University in Topeka.
It would have been easy to stay close to home after graduating with highest honors from Washburn Rural and earning all-state recognition in soccer. But she said she loved everything about Fort Hays State from the first time she visited.
“I just wanted to do my own thing,” she said, “wanted to make a name for myself.”
By Diane Gasper-O’Brien