By Steve Robinson | October 12, 2019 - 10:28 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

NORMAL – University High’s season of struggle continued Oct. 11 amid the school’s homecoming celebration at Hancock Stadium, as Central State Eight Conference leader Chatham Glenwood came to town. The visiting Titans outmuscled the Pioneers en route to a 48-0 victory.

Chatham Glenwood (7-0) won the pregame coin flip and deferred receiving the ball until the second half giving U-High (2-5) first crack at getting down field. Despite a flag against each team during the drive, the Pioneers got as far as the Titans’ 31 before senior quarterback Camden Barclay’s pass was picked off by senior defensive back Jacob Crabtree, allowing the Titans their first possession of the night.

Three plays later, senior quarterback Luke Lehnen took advantage of an opening in the Pioneers’ defense and rushed 61 yards for an opening touchdown at the 6:48 mark in the opening quarter. Senior kicker Alek Votava’s extra point began the scoring with the Titans leading, 7-0.

U-High’s ensuing possession would end in a punt, giving the Titans the ball at U-High’s 48 after a short return. But a facemask call against the Pioneers on the first play of the Titans’ drive would allow Chatham Glenwood to begin again from U-High’s 14 yard line. One play later, senior running back Norkel Leflore would dodge Pioneers defenders to enter the end zone for his team’s next touchdown, followed by Votava’s extra point, giving Chatham Glenwood a 14-0 lead going into the second quarter.

Chatham Glenwood would score three more times, putting 20 more points on the board for a 34-0 lead when it looked like U-High had found a solution to only having short drives against the Titans defense. Starting at their own 29 yard line, Barclay connected on passes to senior wide receiver Zane Sorensen, junior tight end Angelo Bernal, and junior wide receiver Savion Jackson to get to the Titans’ 34 yard line. Jackson caught his pass but briefly fumbled, recovering it to salvage the drive. On 4th down, officials called pass interference against the Titans, moving U-High to the Titans’ 19 with a new set of downs.

A pass to and two running plays by senior running back Rashad Wilson got the Pioneers to the Titans’ 8 yard line. That was followed by two short yardage runs by Barclay on second and third down, one that gained two yards and one that lost one yard, getting the Pioneers to the Titans’ 7 yard line in preparation for a fourth down play. But on fourth down, officials called holding against the Pioneers and Chatham Glenwood opted to decline the penalty ending the drive, turning the ball over to the Titans.

Three plays later, Leflore found an opening in the Pioneers’ defense and dashed 93 yards for the Titans next score followed by Votava’s extra point, giving Chatham Glenwood a 41-0 lead at the half.

At that point, game officials employed IHSA’s “Mercy Rule,” – as a result of the 40-point difference in the game score, game officials used a continuously running clock, stopping it for only timeouts taken by a team or because of an injury. The running clock began as the third quarter opened.

By Steve Robinson | September 21, 2019 - 10:25 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

NORMAL – Two Central State Eight teams which find themselves near the bottom of the standings squared off at Hancock Stadium Friday night when University High hosted Jacksonville. Although the Pioneers managed to keep the contest close in the first half, the Crimsons scored 10 unanswered points in the third quarter to help pull away from the Pioneers, 31-19 before a crowd of roughly 800 fans.

Junior running back Chris Pulley’s 2 yard run for a touchdown gave Jacksonville (2-2 Central State Eight) the only score either side would get in the first quarter, capping an 8 play, 80 yard drive, followed by senior kicker Collin Brunstein’s extra point, putting the Crimsons up, 7-0, with 2:32 left in the quarter.

A 10-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Camdyn Barclay to junior wide receiver Savion Jackson would help U-High (0-4) pull within one, 7-6, with 8:12 remaining in the second quarter, but senior kicker Wyatt Berg’s extra point kick would sail away from the goal post, allowing Jacksonville to keep that slight lead. Jackson’s touchdown would cap off a 10 play, 65 yard march for the Pioneers toward that score.

But the score would not stay that close very long because junior running back Michael Walker would take the ensuing kickoff for the Crimsons at their own 35 and dash through Pioneers defenders for his team’s next score at the 7:58 mark in the quarter, followed by Brunstein’s extra point, putting Jacksonville up, 14-6.

U-High would pull within two, 14-12, when Barclay would connect with Jackson a second time on the night, this time from 14 yards out for a touchdown followed by an unsuccessful extra point try with 2:11 left toward halftime. A poor punt by Jacksonville gave U-High a short 40-yard field to work with toward that touchdown.

The Crimsons won the pre-game coin toss and opted to defer receiving the ball until the second half. During the half, they chewed up either time on the clock or yardage to keep the Pioneers at bay. Their first possession of the second half lasted 12 plays going 74 yards and ended with junior quarterback Ryan Maul’s 15 yard touchdown run followed by Brunstein’s extra point, pushing the Crimsons in front, 21-12 at the 7:58 mark in the third quarter.

U-High could have pulled within six had their ensuing possession worked out better than it did. After the ensuing kickoff, they began working with the ball from their own 45. Passes to Jackson and senior and senior wide receiver Spencer Parker helped get the Pioneers in range for a 35 yard field goal. But Berg would miss the field goal try. From their own 20, the Crimsons would march 80 yards on 10 plays, with Brunstein kicking a 33 yard field goal to double up the score on the Pioneers, 24-12, with 41 seconds left in the quarter.

The Pioneers would start their next series of downs from their own 20, but two plays later, Jacksonville senior defensive back Chase Vega would intercept a long Barclay pass giving the Crimsons possession at their own 44 yard line. Sixteen plays later, junior running back Gavin Roegge would score from a yard out followed by another Brunstein extra point, increasing Jacksonville’s advantage, 31-12 with 4:12 left in the contest.

A 6-yard touchdown run in the closing minute of the game was the last score U-High could muster, followed by Berg’s extra point.

“We’re a football team that runs between the tackles,” Crimsons head coach Mark Grounds explained, adding U-High defense didn’t allow for that in the first quarter forcing his team to make adjustments. Once that was done, he said, his team didn’t deviate from the alterations they made. “We saw U-High had adjusted their coverage and that was something we expected and practiced against. I saw they moved their linebackers up and there wasn’t much hesitation from them tonight.”

“I thought we played hard but the better team won,” explained U-High head coach John Johnson. “They were more physical than we were up front. Up front is where they beat us, in the trenches.” He said Jacksonville’s initial second half drive simultaneously used up the clock “while wearing us out.” He added his team doesn’t have a team that’s physically big enough to “sustain a football game right now.”

“We have to tackle better and we have to block better,” Johnson added. “And if we do that, maybe we can sneak out a win here because we pulled out trick plays tonight and some of them worked and some of them didn’t.”

Prior to the contest, students, parents, and teachers from Thomas Metcalf Elementary School, numbering around 175 people, gathered in Horton Field House for a pregame meal. Then prior to the game, Metcalf cheer team members joined U-High cheerleaders on the Hancock Stadium turf to help fans cheer on the home team. Like U-High, Metcalf School is a lab school overseen by Illinois State University.

The game was an emotional matter for the Crimsons because of a death in the team’s family. Grounds gave the game ball to Lona Jackson, mother of Crimsons defensive end Jaylon Jackson. Their son and brother, Alex, passed away earlier in the week.

By Steve Robinson | February 9, 2019 - 10:45 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

NORMAL – Springfield Lanphier High head basketball coach Blake Turner admitted his team is used to being at the top of the Central State Eight Conference, but this season has been different, due in part to having young players on a team that has been struggling to stay around .500 all season. The Lions managed to keep host University High at bay for most of the first quarter, but spent the remainder of the contest chasing the Pioneers, who won the contest, 73-60 before around 600 fans.

Junior guard Jason Snodgrass’ trey inside the game’s first minute put the Lions up, 3-0, but was quickly stifled by a trey from U-High junior guard Alex Wood followed by a deuce by Nate Torres, giving the Pioneers a fast 5-3 lead, but junior guard Larry Hemingway quickly tied the game with a layup at 5-5. Wood followed up with another trey giving the Pioneers an 8-5 lead.

But a deuce by Lions senior forward Karl Wright lit the fuse on a 9-0 run for the visitors which featured two free throws by Hemingway, a trey by Snodgrass, and deuce by senior forward Shain Chairs. That barrage forced U-High to call time, down 14-8 with 3:07 left in the quarter. A free throw by junior forward Joe Brown helped start U-High’s recovery, followed by a goaltending call against the Lions on a Torres shot, closing the Lions’ lead to 14-11. Wood closed out the quarter with a trey at the 1:07 mark followed by a deuce, which gave the Pioneers a 16-14 lead going into the second quarter.

A pair of 5-0 runs by the Pioneers highlighted the second quarter, the first of which began with two free throws by Torres. Torres was also intentionally fouled by Lions junior guard A. J. Frazier. In total, he went 3-for-4 and was followed by a deuce by junior guard Drew Wollenschlager, putting the Pioneers up by seven, 21-14. But a trey by Snodgrass closed the gap to 21-17 with six minutes left. Brown hit two more free throws for the Pioneers having been fouled by sophomore guard K.J. Dedrick, pushing the Pioneers up, 23-17.

A Snodgrass deuce helped pull Springfield Lanphier (11-13, 6-7 Central State Eight) within four, 23-19, but that was quickly followed by the Pioneers’ next 5-0 run which featured a deuce and free throw followed by another deuce all by Torres, extending U-High’s lead to nine, 28-19, prompting the Lions to call time out at the quarter’s 3:01 mark.

Following the timeout, Torres and Wood each sank baskets for U-High (17-7, 10-3 Central State Eight), extending the Pioneers’ advantage to 32-19 with 2:05 until halftime. Freshman forward Tye Banks’ deuce would be the Lions’ last points of the half, closing U-High’s lead, 32-21, before Pioneers junior guard Logan Christensen and Torres would each be fouled and combine for 2-for-4 from the line to push U-High’s lead, 34-21. Wollenschlager’s deuce would give U-High a 36-21 lead with 1:15 left. The two sides would go into halftime with a 36-23 Pioneers lead after Hemingway’s jumper closed the half.

Wollenschlager opened the third quarter with a trey at 7:46 pushing U-High up, 39-23, and that triggered a back-and-forth of baskets by Lanphier’s Wright, Torres for U-High and two unanswered deuces by Snodgrass before Lanphier called a 30 second timeout at the 6:01 mark, trailing by 12, 42-30. Coming out of the timeout, Hemingway and Banks hit back-to-back unanswered deuces, pulling the Lions within eight, 42-34, with 4:36 left in the quarter. Wood responded for the Pioneers hitting a deuce. That prompted Lanphier to call time again, down 44-34, at the 4:26 mark. Hemingway followed up with a one-man 5-0 run, a trey and two free throws, to pull his team within five, 44-39, at 3:28 in the quarter.

But an intentional foul committed by Chairs on U-High’s Wood leading to two free throws, followed by a deuce by Torres allowed the Pioneers to extend their lead to nine, 48-39, prompting another Lanphier timeout at 2:11 in the quarter. Hemingway went on another 5-0 run, including a trey, before freshman guard D. J. Starr’s jumper closed the quarter, with the Pioneers owning a 50-44 lead going into the fourth quarter.

Wright’s jumper seven seconds into the fourth quarter reduced U-High’s lead to four, 50-46, and prompted another Lanphier timeout. Coming out of that timeout, the game’s most intense period of scoring between the two sides took place starting with two free throws from a fouled Torres for U-High and two free throws for Lanphier from a fouled sophomore guard Maki Rose reduced the Pioneers’ lead, 52-48, with 7:20 left.

Wollenschlager’s deuce, two free throws and a trey by Wood helped push U-High in front of Lanphier, 59-48 with 6:12 left in the contest, but a trey by Banks shaved that lead to eight, 59-51. A deuce by Wollenschlager allowed the Pioneers to regain a 10-point lead, 61-51. A three-point play by Wright and a free throw by Morgan shaved U-High’s lead to six, 61-55 with 4:47 left, but two free shots by a fouled Hemingway put that lead back up, 63-55. A trey by Rose allowed Lanphier to come within five, 63-58.

Baskets by Starr and Torres again extended the lead to nine, 67-58 before Hemingway sank another basket pulling Lanphier within seven, 67-60, with 2:18 left prompting the visitors to take time out. But following that timeout, three Lanphier players, including Hemingway and Snodgrass, committed fouls sending Torres to the free throw line twice and Wood once. There the duo went a combined 6-for-6 leading to the final score.

Torres and Wood led the way for U-High in double-figures scoring 28 points and 24 points, respectfully. Hemingway’s 18 points led the charge for the Lions. He was followed in double-figures by Snodgrass’ 14 and 11 from Wright.

U-High head coach Andrew McDowell admitted that before this contest, his team’s free throw shooting “hasn’t been done very well at the end of games the last several games.” But he added, thanks to coaching by one of his assistants, Lester Hampton, the team had managed to improve from the charity stripe.

McDowell said his team is trying to learn to make adjustments when it encounters “aggressive pressure” from opponents. He added his team “needed this type of game to prepare us for the postseason.” He added he told his players to continue playing the way had all game during the fourth quarter when Lanphier was closing in, but to increase their intensity while doing that.

McDowell added Lanphier’s Wright didn’t suit up when the two teams met Jan. 8. “He’s an athletic difference maker,” McDowell said about Wright.

“U-High came out and jumped on us in the first half,” said Lanphier head coach Blake Turner. “I thought they were faster, quicker, more progressive than us in the first half. At halftime, I challenged the kids to come out more aggressive and play with a little more passion. At that point, it was not about Xs and Os. It was about competing.” Turner said he believed his players managed to match U-High’s intensity in the second half.

Pioneers Junior Varsity Wins, Too: U-High’s junior varsity team took on their counterparts in a contest prior to the varsity game, coming away with a 52-43 win.

By Steve Robinson | October 13, 2018 - 10:55 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

NORMAL – University High’s difficult season took another blow Friday, Oct. 12 at Hancock Stadium. The Pioneers, who have struggled with losses and adversity this season, sustained another blow due to a shutout orchestrated by Central State Eight Conference visitor Springfield High. The Senators blanked the Pioneers, 42-0, before roughly 140 fans. The rain which came earlier in the day stayed, leading to damp conditions throughout the contest.

Three Springfield players – senior wide receiver Cameron Jones, senior running back Justin Bivins II, and junior running back Taryn Wallace – each scored two touchdowns while Springfield’s defense rushed the Pioneers offense to the point of tossing three interceptions during the first half.

Springfield (5-3 overall and conference) ended U-High’s second series of downs of the game when junior safety Xavier Cooper intercepted a Pioneers pass helping put the ball on the Pioneers 42. Four plays later, Senators senior quarterback Rashad Rochelle connected with Jones for the game’s first score from 9 yards out at the 5:13 mark in the first quarter, followed by junior kicker Dae-Cheon Pippin’s extra point. That put Springfield up, 7-0.

Rochelle connected with Wallace on an 8 yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds left in the quarter followed by Pippin’s extra point to close out the first quarter with the Senators in front, 14-0.

Rochelle and Wallace connected again for a second time on a 37 yard touchdown followed by Pippin’s extra point, putting Springfield up, 21-0, with 6:36 left in the half. But on the ensuing kickoff, U-High special teams fumbled the ball and Springfield was able to land on it at the Pioneers’ 35 yard line. On the next play, Bivins dodged defenders for another score followed by Pippin’s extra point. That increased Springfield’s lead, 28-0

Four plays into the Pioneers’ next drive, Senators senior middle linebacker Caleb Small intercepted a pass giving Springfield the ball at their own 45. Two plays later, Rochelle passed to Jones who ran 60 yards for another score followed by Pippin’s extra point. That sent Springfield into the locker room at half up, 35-0.

In the third quarter, Bivins scored on a 24-yard run followed by Pippin’s extra point, increasing their lead over the Pioneers, 42-0. The loss moved U-High’s record to 1-7 both overall and in Conference play.

At that point, game officials employed Illinois High School Association’s “Mercy Rule” — as a result of the 40-point difference in the game score, game officials used a continuously running clock, stopping it only for team timeouts or injury timeouts.

By Steve Robinson | September 24, 2018 - 10:52 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

John Johnson is trying to put the University High Pioneers football team in a winning frame of mind. In his second year as head coach, Johnson seems to be trying to get his players to think of themselves as a unified group out to erase the 4-5 record they finished 2017 with.

When it comes to football, Johnson’s resume is vast – from high school to college to arenafootball2 to the pros, including a Super Bowl ring. Johnson was on the Green Bay Packers coaching staff headed by Mike Holmgren and led by quarterback Brett Favre when they defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI that year, 35-21.

But Johnson’s coaching roots got planted at the high school level, as head coach of Negaunee High School in Michigan 30 years ago. From there he coached at Harper College, moving on to Kentucky Wesleyan University, followed by the Peoria Pirates of af2. Peoria was where I first encountered John, covering the Pirates for a couple local daily papers.

When John was in Green Bay, he was an intern in the team’s marketing department before being added to the coaching staff. Making the leap from marketing to coaching was something his bosses in Green Bay knew Johnson wanted to do, he said.

As for his Pioneers’ season thus far, it has been be blown out or blow out the opponents. His team is 1-4 going into this week’s homecoming contest with Springfield Southeast. After three straight weeks of only managing seven points or less the first three weeks, and scoring 12 in a losing battle to Jacksonville two weeks ago, Johnson’s Pioneers opened fire on Springfield Lanphier, 41-12, in front of the Pioneers faithful at Hancock Stadium last week.

“We’re young and we’re kind of small up front,” Johnson admitted about his team. “We try hard.” But the problem is his players go into games facing bigger kids on the other side of the ball. “We tell the kids to keep on keeping on and keep playing.”

Johnson himself has continued to keep on keeping on, even when coaching football wasn’t how he earned his keep. It was in a supervisory role at Caterpillar in Peoria that helped Johnson win up as an assistant with Peoria’s af2 Pirates in the mid-2000s. Before Peoria, Johnson kept his hand in the game as head coach of a semi-pro team in Pekin, the Mid-State Steel before joining the Pirates. By 2009, he migrated east to join the Bloomington Edge. When he isn’t at U-High, he currently coaches the currently league-less Bloomington Edge.

One of Johnson’s former Bloomington players, Dusty Burk, played 50-yard ball for Bloomington and moved on to coach U-High a few years back. Now Burk is an administrator at Chatham Glenwood High School.

Johnson said he got the suggestion from Burk to apply for the Pioneers coaching post after the team went 3-6 under then-head coach Trevor Von Bruenchenhein two seasons ago. Johnson had seasoned players last year but the team’s record last year halted their progress toward the postseason.

Johnson said he’s “coaching really cool kids…really good kids” and describes the administrators he works for, which include U-High Principal Andrea Markert and Athletic Director Wendy Smith, as “awesome.”

“We’re pretty small,” Johnson reminds, with his Pioneers playing bigger kids from, among others, three Springfield high schools and two from Decatur who belong to the league
the Pioneers currently reside in, the Central State Eight.

Johnson commends Pioneers fans for being “great,” adding, “They never get on us and they cheer all game.” He adds parent groups back the team well and have a presence at games.

Despite their current situation in the standings, but because of the love he has for the game, Johnson adds, “I love being at U-High and it’s a good challenge. We’re working hard.”

There is half a season left for the Pioneers, and in the interest of full disclosure, this reporter is a U-High alum, but there will be no favoritism shown here, except to say, it’s hoped that after seeing the Pioneers make the playoffs in recent years, they get hold of the right combination of plays to help turn their fortunes around in the near future.