By Jeff Barnes
Special to The Sentinel
COLLEGE PARK – While the Maryland Terrapins women’s soccer team prepares for classes to begin in College Park in a couple of weeks, the team will not be taking any classes on campus with its newest member.
Mikayla Hirsch, a nine-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia, will only be entering the fourth grade.
During a signing ceremony at the University of Maryland’s XFINITY Center on Aug. 11, Mikayla signed a letter of intent and became an official member of Maryland’s women’s soccer team.
Mikayla was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2014. She joined the Terps through Team IMPACT. The non-profit, headquartered out of Boston, connects collegiate athletic teams with children who are facing serious or chronic illnesses.
“I hope I can help the team win games, stay silly and get better at soccer,” Mikayla said.
As an official member of the team, Mikayla will attend some practices, games, dinners and other team events. Her favorite pregame song is “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X and one of her favorite things about the University of Maryland is its mascot – a turtle. She said she wants to be a pediatric gastrointestinal doctor when she grows up and teach people who want to become nurses.
In the short time she has been a part of the team, senior goalkeeper Erin Seppi said “KK” – her nickname – has fit right in.
“From the start, she has been super outgoing, super mature, she has been able to hold conversations with us,” Seppi said. “She is just so excited to be around us and it makes us even more excited to be around her as well.”
Mikayla’s parents said her involvement with the team has been a positive experience for her.
“It’s been a lot of rough times for her the last five years since she’s been diagnosed and every time we bring up Team IMPACT or bring up the Maryland soccer team, it just lifts her spirits,” said Keith Hirsch, her father. “It just gives her something to think about, it gives her something to look forward to, and the girls have been wonderful.”
Leah Hirsch, Mikayla’s mother, said the team has welcomed her from the very beginning.
“These are college students, you never know how they’re going to respond,” she said. “Each and every one of these girls has been amazing. We went to a game initially after our match, and you would have thought they knew my daughter for a month.”
Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract, belonging to a group of conditions referred to as inflammatory bowel diseases. These diseases affect an estimated 3 million Americans, according to the Chron’s and Colitis Foundation, but are most often diagnosed in adolescents and people between the ages of 20-30.
Leah Hirsch said most people cannot tell that Mikayla is suffering – on the outside she looks like a typical nine-year-old girl.
“No one really knows about it,” she said. “But when you live with it and she walks inside the door, that’s when you know about it. But she really tries and does a really great job of just putting on a good game face and being positive about everything that she goes through.”
Head Coach Ray Leone, who called Mikayla his “number one recruit,” said his team is learning as much from Mikayla as she is from the rest of the team.
“This kid is tough,” Leone said. “It’s going to be hard for you to say, ‘oh, I’m having a hard day,’ with Mikayla going through what she’s going through.”
Seppi said she has not heard Mikayla complain once, even as the team practiced outside during the recent heatwave. She said Mikayla is always ready to conquer the next obstacle and brings back memories of when they started playing soccer as children.
“She’s so passionate and it’s really cool to have like a little reminder of us, like why we play the game,” she said.
Both of Mikayla’s parents are alumni of the University of Maryland, which makes her involvement with the Terps extra special.
“She never wanted to wear Maryland gear when we asked her to, but now she wears it all the time,” Keith Hirsch said.