Written by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | [email protected] | ToledoFreePress.com
When the Ottawa Hills High School (OHHS) girls’ basketball team travels to Gibsonburg on Feb. 7, a familiar face will be missing from the student section.
Senior Brian Hoeflinger made it a point to come to every game, home or away, and was known for his exuberant clapping, said classmate Grace Petro, a varsity basketball player.
“He could clap on anything — his leg, his cheeks, other people — and he always dressed up [to match the game’s theme],” Petro said, smiling at the memory. “You just expected him to be at every girls’ game. I think he only missed one game. He was usually one of the only students there. He felt bad the girls’ team didn’t have many supporters. He just loved going to everyone’s games and supporting them.”
Three days after Hoeflinger’s death, Petro teared up instantly at the mention of her friend’s name.
She and the rest of the OHHS community were left in shock Feb. 2 as word spread that the popular 18-year-old had been killed in a car accident the night before.
Memorial items were placed at the site of the Feb. 1 accident.
Smart, positive, goofy and kind-hearted are words that come up again and again when people describe Hoeflinger. The Ottawa Hills resident, who previously attended St. John’s Jesuit High School, transferred to OHHS for his senior year and seemed to transition seamlessly into the student body, said OHHS Intervention Specialist Sharon Abendroth, whose son Matthew played golf with Hoeflinger.
“He walked into our school less than a year ago, but you couldn’t tell,” Abendroth said. “He fit into our family very well. It was a natural fit and it felt like he’d been here for years. You couldn’t ask for a better kid to join your school.”
‘A good kid’
Ottawa Hills superintendent Kevin Miller said Hoeflinger was “a good kid involved in good things.”
“He was a very present young man, a great personality,” Miller said. “Just a personality that endeared himself to the people around him. That’s what I know about Brian. He was just a very vibrant young man.
“We’re a small school system,” Miller said. “Our average class size is about 75 and about two-thirds of every class has been here since kindergarten. It can be hard for a new student to come in and fit into the friendships that have been formed for many, many years, but Brian did that with ease.”
Academics were important to Hoeflinger, who carried a 4.5 GPA and made several references on his Twitter account in January to taking advanced placement classes, including AP English and AP Calculus, doing homework and staying up late studying.
Hoeflinger also displayed a creative side, Miller said, recalling a self-portrait made as part of a digital photography class assignment depicting him crouching beside his golf bag.
“It was unusual and showed a great eye, so he was not only intelligent, but creative,” Miller said.
The OHHS golf team competed at the Division III state golf tournament in October, finishing fourth. Hoeflinger was named first team all-conference and second team all-district.
Abendroth said Hoeflinger was a mentor to her son, a sophomore golfer.
“To my son, he was a leader, a mentor, a great role model, athletically and academically,” Abendroth said. “I don’t know if it’s because he had younger siblings or what, but he was able to connect with kids of all ages. It was a gift he had.”
Hoeflinger has three younger siblings: brother Kevin, 15, and sisters Julie, 14, and Christie, 11.
Although he coached him for only one season at OHHS, golf coach Jim McGill had known Hoeflinger for years through his involvement with the Toledo Junior Golf Association, where Hoeflinger played and McGill is a director.
“Brian was such an awesome kid and an integral part of the team,” McGill said. “He befriended the entire team, including all the younger kids. He had tremendous golf ability and in terms of being a leader, he led by example and character.”
Senior Elizabeth Noble said everyone at OHHS liked Hoeflinger, even those — like her — who didn’t know him well.
“He was just a happy light in the halls,” Noble said. “All his friends want him to be remembered as the goofy, happy, smiling person he was.”
In honor of Hoeflinger’s goal of attending the University of North Carolina to become an orthodontist, Petro, Noble and the other OHHS cheerleaders wore light blue bows in their hair featuring the initials “BH” and a heart at the boys’ basketball game at Maumee Valley Country Day School on Feb. 5. There was also a moment of silence and many Maumee Valley players wore light blue socks.
Petro and Hoeflinger became fast friends after meeting last spring.
“The one thing he would always tell me is he wanted everyone to love each other and just get along. He was always positive about everything no matter what,” Petro said. “You could really just tell he cared about other people. Obviously everyone cares about others, but you could just tell when he talked to you that he cared about you and others.”
Petro helped organize a surprise party to celebrate Hoeflinger’s Dec. 28 birthday. On the day of the party, Hoeflinger tweeted: “It’s my birthday! I’m 18 years old and happy as hell! Can’t wait to see what the future holds :)”
Petro and Hoeflinger were both at a friend’s house on Feb. 1, hanging out watching a movie with about a dozen friends after the boys’ basketball game against Cardinal Stritch High School. The two didn’t talk much that night.
At some point, Hoeflinger left the house. Shortly before midnight, he was southbound on Edgehill Road in Ottawa Hills, driving a black 2008 Pontiac G6 registered to his mother, when the vehicle left the west side of the road, struck a tree near a bridge over the Ottawa River and caught fire, said Lt. William Bowers of the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Toledo post.
The crash was reported at 11:54 p.m. Feb. 1 by Sgt. Mark Kolasinski of the Ottawa Hills Police Department, who came upon the wreck during a routine patrol. According to the police report, Kolasinski found Hoeflinger unconscious in the driver’s seat, wearing a seat belt. He used a fire extinguisher to knock down some flames in the engine compartment before he and several other first-responders from various local departments worked together to free Hoeflinger “just as the vehicle [became] engulfed with flames.”
Shortly after midnight, Petro got a call from a friend who lives near Edgehill Road saying there had been an accident. Petro said her mind immediately jumped to Hoeflinger and she and some friends went out looking for him.
“I feel like we all had a feeling,” Petro said. “We just knew something wasn’t right. We were just hoping he was at someone’s house or somewhere else.”
They drove by the accident site about 12:30 a.m., but couldn’t get too close because police had blocked off the bridge. Besides Ottawa Hills Police, personnel from the Ohio State Highway Patrol, Toledo Police, Sylvania Township Police, University of Toledo Police and Toledo Fire and Rescue also responded to the scene.
Petro drove past Hoeflinger’s house a few times, but he didn’t appear to be home. Around 2 a.m., a friend called to tell her Hoeflinger had died.
Hoeflinger had been drinking the night of the crash and was found to have a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.15. The crash remains under investigation.
“Brian made very few mistakes like that in life,” Abendroth said. “He was a hard worker, loved life, great family. Really had some neat goals.”
The school’s annual Turnabout Dance, where girls invite guys, was scheduled for Feb. 2. Hoeflinger was planning to attend and had a date, Petro said.
The dance was postponed by school administrators, but the vigil that took place instead was completely student-driven, Miller said.
“Kids find ways to mourn in their own ways and one of those ways was to form a vigil,” Miller said. “If we just kind of step to the side, they will figure out how to get through this together. They were just sharing their thoughts and feelings and taking some time to honor a classmate.”
The vigil was attended by more than 270 people, representing several schools, Petro said. Hoeflinger’s parents, Brian and Cindy Hoeflinger, were also there.
“The enormous outpouring of love and support for Brian and our family has been overwhelming to say the least,” Hoeflinger’s father posted to his wife’s Facebook page Feb. 5. “We are realizing just how many lives one individual can touch in such a short lifetime and in such a positive way. There are no words to describe the appreciation and love we feel for everyone supporting us in this time of intense pain. But the memories of which are being shared with us through Brian’s friends in person and through Facebook are a testament to the love and joy Brian brought to so many people and how he touched their individual lives. Our entire family is realizing that Brian’s death was not in vain because so much good and positive energy has been instilled in so many people he knew. That’s how Brian was and that is how he will always be remembered!”
The family has set up a Brian Hoeflinger Memorial Scholarship Fund through Huntington Bank. No further details were available at press time.
The place where Hoeflinger’s vehicle left the road is on a curvy, quiet, wooded street, a little more than a mile drive from his home. Not far away a sign reads, “Please drive slowly, we [heart] our children.”
On Feb. 2, someone spray painted Hoeflinger’s initials and a heart in blue on a tree at the crash site.
By Feb. 5, dozens of flowers had appeared along with a green teddy bear and a stuffed dog. A note affixed to the tree with a pushpin reads “To: Brian, Stay Strong.” An oversized paper card proclaiming “WE [heart] U BRIAN!” contains notes from several schoolmates.
A rock outside Ottawa Hills High School was also spray painted with blue letters reading “RIP BH” on the front, “We [heart] You” on the top and a cross on one side.
The first few days back to school have been somber, Miller said.
“It’s been quiet,” he said. “We’ve tried very hard to bring some normalcy to the students’ lives because that’s very important, that there are activities and just a regular school day they can count on, but we balance that by being very sensitive to their needs. We had 19 counselors in the building on Monday and of course our own counselors remain available. It’s just balancing a sense of normalcy with acute sensitivity to the needs of our students.
“They say it takes a village [to raise a child],” Miller said. “Our entire community has come together to help us deal with this loss. Not just Ottawa Hills, but surrounding communities. His was a wonderful young life full of potential and we’re incredibly sad. When you go on a journey like this, if you can do it together, it makes it a little bit easier.”