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.

By Steve Robinson | August 25, 2018 - 10:33 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

NORMAL – As they are for any team’s opening game, thoughts of a positive season were on the minds of players, coaches, and fans alike when University High took to the Hancock Field turf against Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin in a Central State Eight season opening matchup.

But at the 9:16 mark in the fourth quarter, with the Cyclones up 42-0, the cheering stopped and the stadium was silent as fans watched trainers for U-High and then paramedics attend to sophomore wide receiver Savion Jackson who was knocked unconscious during a kickoff return. At first, there were murmurs in the crowd and then complete silence as fans watched the 5 foot-10, 165 pound Savion being worked on. From the time trainers and paramedics got to Jackson to the time he was wheeled off the field, roughly 20-25 minutes passed. Once Jackson was headed to the ambulance on a stretcher, fans could be heard applauding the young man.

Some U-High students cried and held one another from the time Jackson was first attended to and continued doing so even after the game had been called and the ambulance left the stadium. Frustration and grief had some Pioneers players starting back toward the school building located at the corner of Main and Gregory Streets, but they were corralled by assistant coach Mike Troll who ordered them to stay on the field for a message from head coach John Johnson, and Troll added they needed to walk back to the school as a group.

“He woke a couple of times,” Johnson said about Jackson during that post game talk. “His vitals are very good. He’s going to be okay. Guys, we lost a football game, but that’s just a bunch of light bulbs on a board. We’ve got to play for Savion from here on out, right…?”

“He’s going to be back, he’s going to fine, he’s going to be okay,” Johnson added as he spoke to his players, many of whom were either sobbing or wiping away tears and putting arms around one another.

Following his talk with his players, Johnson told reporters Jackson “jerked and convulsed twice which was a good sign because he was breathing.”

As for the game itself and their opponents, “Like I told the kids, they’re strong up front on both sides of the ball.”

Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin (1-0 in Central State Eight, and overall), ranked third in Illinois High School Association Class 6A, held that 42-0 lead which stood at the point in the game when Jackson’s injury occurred. Once Jackson regained consciousness and was asked questions by medical personnel and was secured to a gurney, a public announcement was made that the game was over.

The Cyclones scored three times in the first quarter, stunning the Pioneers home crowd, starting with a five yard touchdown run by senior running back Joey Milbrandt, followed by an extra point by senior kicker Cade Holloway, giving the visitors a quick 7-0 lead. The Cyclones would score twice more in the quarter, allowing them to go into the second quarter with a 21-0 lead, which they extended to 28-0 at half, and 35-0 after three quarters.

Springfield SHG head coach Ken Leonard had nothing but complimentary things to say about how U-High played against them. “I thought U-High’s secondary did a good job,” he explained. “I thought they tackled well. As a team, they made us work for it because they hung tough.” The loss left U-High with an 0-1 mark overall and in conference play.

By Steve Robinson | June 4, 2018 - 10:21 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

BLOOMINGTON – Fourteen years have gone by since the last time University High’s Softball team made it to a Super Sectional contest. But no thanks to New Lenox Providence, the Pioneers season ended six innings short of achieving the team’s goal making it to State Finals. Two four run innings in the first and second innings secured an 11-1 victory in six innings for the Celtics over the Pioneers. U-High’s season under head coach Al Toliver ends at 24-11. The game had roughly 125 fans in attendance at the softball field at Illinois Wesleyan University .

After U-High’s first three batters – freshman shortstop Abby Knight, left fielder Jen Kuhn, and senior second baseman Lexi Tennison – went down in order to open the game, New Lenox Providence (28-11) went to work in the bottom of the first inning. With one out, Pioneers sophomore starting pitcher Maddie Roop walked senior catcher Taylor Young and junior catcher Shannon Smith before a single by junior center fielder Lex Leighton loaded the bases for freshman first baseman Nicole Mucha.

Mucha smacked a double which cleared the bases putting her on second base, giving the Celtics a 3-0 lead. Mucha was called out at third thanks to an outfield throw received by senior third baseman Grace Matheis as Mucha was trying to slide in. New Lenox Providence did get a fourth run when Layton scored on a double by designated hitter Hannah Falejczyk, increasing the lead to 4-0.

U-High switched out sophomore starting pitcher Maddie Roop after an inning and a third for senior pitcher Maddie Boucher, but the Celtics would get four more runs off of Boucher, expanding their lead, 8-0, after two innings.

The Pioneers’ lone run came in the top of the fourth inning as senior second baseman Lexus Tennyson’s blast into left field gave her a single. That was followed by Boucher who was called out on base running after having singled but tried to get a double only to get throw out trying to get back to first. In the ensuing play, Tennyson made it to third and scored on a single by sophomore center fielder Emily O’Leary, giving the Pioneers their only run of the contest, 8-1.

The Celtics scored two more in the bottom of the fourth and one more in the bottom of the sixth to close out the scoring, but the Pioneers showed some spirit thanks to sophomore right fielder Makaylea Sepich who had three catches including one diving catch in the sixth inning robbing Courtney Mahalik of a base hit.

“I knew they were probably a really good hitting team and they showed it today,” said Pioneers head coach Al Toliver. “They’re just a very solid, solid team up and down the line, so my hat’s off to them,” he added.

About his team’s season, Toliver said, “Winning the Sectional over at Washington is a huge highlight for us. And then coming back home, we hoped for better today, but today, the better team won.”

For the Celtics’ part, their head coach, Jay Biesterfeld, said going into this contest his team was hoping “for a good first few innings and put some pressure on them. Obviously, things worked out a little better than we expected.”

“We just wanted to come out and drive the ball and make some plays,” Biesterfeld added.