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.

By Steve Robinson | November 12, 2017 - 10:32 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

VolleyballNORMAL – It’s a short trip from University High School to Redbird Arena, but 17 years have gone by since the Pioneers made the short jaunt to claim any trophies in State Volleyball. And although they didn’t make it to the title game, head coach Mike Bolhuis’ squad did claim a prize – 3rd place – after a 25-21, 19-25, 25-19 victory over Arlington Heights-based St. Viator High School Saturday.

Game 1 was a tight point-for-point contest for the first 17 points scored by each side until kills by U-High’s Isabel Schaefbauer and Addy Loeffler followed by two attack errors by St. Viator’s Catherine Hickey, followed by another Pioneers kill from Illiana Lin, put U-High up, 23-17 en route to victory, which was sealed with another Loeffler kill.

Game 2 saw St. Viator use scoring streaks to march toward victory by its conclusion. While serving, Michela Mueller and Carrie Leazer anchored the Lions’ attack, each of them, along with Hickey, scoring a service ace. A kill by Hickey followed up by an attack error by U-High’s Lin, helped make the Lions’ victory official.

In game 3, U-High trailed as much as five points, 11-6, in the early going thanks in part to kills by Kate Nottoli, Jessica McDowell, and Hickey before the Pioneers stormed back on kills by Schaefbauer and Loeffler and a service ace by Juarez, tying the game at 11-11. The contest would be tied four more times from there with a last tie at 17-all before two kills by Lin, a service ace by Juarez, and attack errors by the Lions gave U-High the victory.

Schaefbauer and Loeffler led U-High in kills with 11 each during the three-game set, with Lin following with 9. Schaefbauer, Juarez, and Kimmy Sendelbach each scored a serving ace. St. Viator had more takeaways with 229 to U-High’s 111. Hickey led in total kills with 15. Leazer led her team in serving aces with three.

After losing game 2, Bolhuis said, “the biggest thing we talked about most was blocking and we felt when St. Viator was taking half-swings, we were jumping too early. So we talked about block timing and where we were positioning ourselves. In the third game, you probably saw a prime example of us blocking at our best.”

U-High PioneersLoeffler Played Through An Injury: Fans probably couldn’t tell, but Loeffler, who sprained an ankle earlier in the season, was playing with that ankle having been re-injured during play at the State tourney. “I sprained it previously in the season and then I re-rolled it on Thursday. So, yeah, it was fun.”

Juarez told reporters when game 3 was tied at 17-all, and McDowell was serving, “Jess is a pretty consistent server so I knew she was going to be aggressive. But the ball was going to be in. She kinda got us rolling at that point.”

Senior Abbey Collins called being with this team this season “The most amazing experience. I wouldn’t trade this season for anything. We had the best team chemistry. This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I love my team.” Some of her teammates responded to her comments with reactions of “awww.”

St. Viator’s 4th place finish also marked the first Volleyball tourney trophy in that school’s history. Head coach Charlie Curtin called getting it, “’Unbelievable.”

“This year, the girls came together, they clicked, they worked hard in the offseason. I’m just so proud of them,” he said.

Of the third game, Curtin said, “U-High played extremely scrappy defense and they got a lot of one-arm digs and they were able to capitalize on it. We made a couple of mistakes and they compounded them and it was hard for us to get our heads back in the game.”

St. Viator wound up facing the Pioneers in the 3rd place game as a result of losing their semifinal against Chicago Resurrection 32-30, 23-25, and 18-25.

Pioneers Lose To Belleville Althoff In Semifinal: The Pioneers found themselves in the Class 3A consolation game as a result of losing their semifinal match to Belleville Althoff, 25-13 and 25-21 on Nov. 10. The victory gave the Crusaders a 40-1 record going into a State Championship match Nov. 11, while Bolhuis’ Pioneers fell to 28-11.

U-High found themselves down quickly in game 1, 4-0, the result of three Pioneers attack errors and a kill from Althoff’s Annika Beal. The Pioneers first point came from a kill by Loeffler, 4-1. The Crusaders remained I front throughout the contest with the closest U-High coming was 12-9, the result of miscues from an attack error by Addie Burris and a serving error from Amber Juarez. From there, the Crusaders coasted to a quick 25-13 victory.

Game 2 was tighter with U-High’s Schaefbauer serving and being credited with a kill combined with a kill from Althoff’s Karinna Gall to tie the game at 3-3. But from there, a kill by Althoff’s Louise Comerford put Belleville in front, 4-3, where they stayed for the remainder of the contest. U-High did pull within one, 22-21, thanks to an Althoff serving error before Althoff pulled away on another Burris kill, a Pioneers attack error, and another Burris kill.

“U-High played the game we were expecting but we stuck to our game plan,” Althoff head coach Sara Thomas-Dietrich said. “We focus on our game and make changes as needed.”

“A true sign of how we played was seen in that second set,” Bolhuis said in summing up his Pioneers’ play. “We came back in the second set and played the best we could. That second set showed the way we play and the style of Volleyball we’ve preached all year.”

Belleville Althoff faced Champaign-based St. Thomas More in the championship match, winning in two games, 25-16 and 25-23.