By Steve Robinson | August 1, 2017 - 10:54 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

FootballNORMAL – Illinois State University head football coach Brock Spack told reporters at the team’s annual Media Day on Aug. 1 his team had “a very good off-season, and that the first practice the team had was typical of a first day back when even the veterans tried to get back in the routine again.”

The Redbirds, who finished 2016 below .500 for only the second season in Spack’s tenure up to that year, begin Spack’s ninth season when Butler visits Hancock Stadium for a non-conference contest on Saturday, Sept. 2 for a 6:30p.m. kickoff.

“We’re a long team and athletic,” Spack said. “But we’re inexperienced in certain spots.” That means as of yet untested talent the Redbirds will get five weeks between Media Day and their first game to put players into position in time to start the season.

Spack said his troops will have their hands full against Butler, and then again at their first away game at Eastern Illinois on Sept. 9.

While 6 foot-3 Jake Kolbe is set to start at quarterback for the Redbirds, a competition in training camp will determine from whom he will receive snaps, Spack said. Peoria Richwoods High alum Tyler Brown and Dan Helt, a 6 foot-5 senior were rotated through on the position of center during camp’s first few days.

Spack said junior quarterback Kolbe has recovered from an injury he sustained last season and has spent time in the weight room this summer which has made him “a bigger guy structurally” according to his coach. The Redbirds “are Jake’s team now,” the coach added, the result of Kolbe stepping away from the shadow of graduate Tré Roberson. Roberson is now playing defensive back for NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.

Redshirt Players Will Study: Being a redshirt freshman player has advantages and disadvantages. It gives you a year to the team’s playing system and study the team playbook at length for one season before stepping up to be on the field. But that means you sit out a whole season when a player would rather be trying to contribute. Ryan Zitkus, a redshirt freshman from Bloomington Central Catholic would like to find himself playing center in the future for the Redbirds but said he knows the wait to take to the gridiron will be worth it. “If I become a starter…great,” Zitkus said. “If not, I’m going to support the guys in front of me.” Right now though, Zitkus said he’s “just trying to learn the game.”

Zitkus will have some company familiar to him while he waits to hit the gridiron. His BCC teammate, John Hayes, is also redshirting this season, looking to start making plays for ISU next season. During his senior season last year at BCC, Hayes caught 12 passes covering 223 yards, and scored three touchdowns. His longest catch was from 40 yards and he averaged almost 19 yards per game. He could come in handy on defense, too, if Spack and the Redbirds have a need. In his senior year at BCC, he made 25 solo tackles and shared in making 26 tackles on the season. He is credited with 12 sacks and forcing quarterbacks to hurry their throws nine times.

“Being a redshirt didn’t seem like a bad idea,” reasoned John Ridgeway, a Bloomington High grad who looks to be part of the Redbirds’ offensive line in 2018. “Doing this gives me a chance to know the plays better and to come back stronger next year.”

ISU Redbird HelmetUniversity High alum Austin Galindo is redshirting this year, as well. On the ISU roster, he’s a defensive lineman. He said he has been studying the playbook with guidance from his older teammates. He said he also realizes he will need to make on-field adjustments from what he was used to in high school once he hits the turf for the Redbirds.

Normal Community High School alum Garrett Hirsch is also redshirting, in the wings studying the role of offensive lineman, as it were. “Obviously, everybody strives to be a starter and be ‘the guy,’” he said of those wanting the nod from the coaching staff to take the field in a key situation. “But it’s a process and there’s a position battle going on” even as early as day two of training camp.

Hirsch said he’d like to try out for center and that after his redshirt period ends, he’d be studying the Redbirds’ playbook for the next four years. “It would be like a test that never ends,” he joked.

Normal West Alums Breen, Bumpus Prepare For Their Junior Year: Two Normal Community West High School products, Zach Breen and Cole Bumpus return for their junior seasons with the Redbirds. The 5 foot-10 Breen was a backup kicker/punter for Sean Slattery last season. In that role, “I got to learn a lot, and hopefully, can take what I’ve learned into this year.

Breen said punter Reese Attard, a native Australian who graduated in the spring, did teach him Rugby punts. Those include starting out by running as though you are rolling out to throw a pass. Kicking in that manner, Breen said, keeps defenders from getting to close to kickers compared to how close they might get to one who kicks in the traditional manner. “Rugby punts don’t involve as many steps,” Breen explained.

Younger guys are getting up to speed as camp opened, Breen added.

Bumpus, a defensive back, said one of his goals this season, is to “be a leader on special teams. Ultimately, as a team, our goal is to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship.”

Missouri Valley Football ConferenceBumpus said ISU having been the last team selected to get into the FCS Championship playoffs last season didn’t bother him. “Our being selected that far down only showed me the selection committee respected us because we were the only 6-5 team to get in. But it also showed me how strong the Valley is in terms of competition.”

As far as personal goals this season, Bumpus said, “I’m just going to put as much hard wo9rk in as I can and see where it takes me.”

This Is Lexington Native Hoselton’s Senior Year: ISU’s 2017 campaign is Lexington native and BCC product George Hoselton’s final season as a Redbird. “It’s crazy I’ve already been here 4 ½ years,” he said. He said his goals this final season are “more for the team than for myself.” He did say winning MVFC Championship was a top goal. That was followed by “taking care of the football more.”

Spack’s Record: As Spack begins his ninth season patrolling the sidelines in 2017, he carries into it a 62-35 record which includes four appearances in the FCS playoffs, with the farthest the Redbirds have soared in them is to lose in the championship game to North Dakota State in January 2015 to complete their 2014 season. ISU’s regular season conference record under Spack is 41-23.

Circle Your Calendars: ISU opens the season at home against non-conference visitor Butler on Saturday, Sept. 2, starting with a 6:30p.m. kickoff. MVFC season for ISU starts on the road at Missouri State on Sept. 23 with a 2p.m. contest. MVFC foe South Dakota State will be the opponent for the Redbirds’ Homecoming game on Oct. 21 at 2p.m.

Steve RobinsonFor Normal Community West High School head softball coach April Schermann, it might have been more nerve-wracking than a Regional or Sectional playoff – sitting at dinner with seven other high school softball coaches from across the country waiting for the announcement by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association at their 52nd annual convention to learn which coach had been selected as Coach of the Year.

But if she was nervous, Schermann, who just completed her 13th season and has amassed a 350-108 mark in that time as the Wildcats head coach came across with her usual cool-under-pressure demeanor. The finalists for Softball Coach of the Year sat at dinner during the event held at Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center in East Peoria on June 21, a function which was part of the organization’s week-long convention.

The announcement to find out who won in that specific category came complete with a wait. After all, it was one of 19 categories in which the top coach would be named, such as coaches of the year of football, basketball, and baseball, among others. Each category had eight finalists, and whether the person honored was there or not, those in attendance were given a brief recap of the person’s career highlights. Softball Coach of the Year was 12th in the lineup.

Schermann’s competition for the honor – four of them were not present – all had good numbers in terms of wins to their credit, as well. Schermann has a 350-108 mark to put up against the folks who she was vying for the honor with. And at events like that, whether you are there or not, you want to hope for good things for the local coach.

But it was Jim White from an Iowa high school who came away with the honor.

“As I was sitting and listening to all the bios of all the coaches who were finalists, I was in awe of them and their many accomplishments,” Schermann said. “I’m honored to be among such great people. I was very touched to hear how those coaches have impacted the lives of young men and women, and just glad to be a part of this profession that helps young people achieve their highest potential,” she added.

Schermann already does that as a math and science teacher at Normal West and will continue to do that, trying to shape young minds. She received, either alone or with colleagues, five grants from the Beyond The Books Educational Foundation this spring for projects, among which, deal with 3-D printing. She received the group’s Beyond The Box grant of $10,000 for work involving that. In total, with colleagues, Schermann wrote proposals for and received grants totaling $13,059.

Thanks to that kind of effort, I’m sure the kids in those classes will benefit from and be impacted by what they do and learn there.

Dave Dougherty, NHSACA Executive Director, explained after the awards banquet that judging for finalists begins with a group of experts in the competing coaches field who assign a score to each finalist. That leads to three NHSACA vice presidents who score the finalists again. Those two scores are then added together. That grand total determines who becomes the award recipient for that sport. NHSACA divides the country into eight regions, with a finalist from each region attending the dinner, if their schedule allows.

Dougherty said NHSACA uses specific qualifiers to narrow the field such as national service, State service, how the coach has benefited their community, and take into consideration any honors the coach has received.

In terms of finding a winner, Dougherty said NHSACA will break a tie scoring down to 1/10 of a point. “We’ve had a recipient who outscored their second place competitor by less than 5/10 of a point,” he pointed out.

When the kids who make new discoveries and learn something about both the subjects they are being taught by her, and possibly learn something about their abilities in the process, it will be because Schermann led the way, showing it to them. Isn’t that the point to teaching, which is in itself, the greatest reward?

BaseballEAST PEORIA – It wasn’t the outcome the Lady Hornets were looking for when they got to the Illinois High School Association State Softball Finals, but their efforts allowed them to claim 4th place in Class 1A after dropping a 6-3 decision to Princeville in the consolation game at Eastside Centre here on June 3.

Princeville Wins 6-3; Heyworth Takes 4th In Class 1A: Witnessed by 300 fans, the consolation game between the Lady Hornets and the Lady Princes was scoreless for four innings, both squads’ defense having their say. Then, in the top half of the fifth inning, Heyworth (22-12) got started with a single up the middle from right fielder Madison Riley. After second baseman Alexandra Williams flied out to Princeville catcher Molly Davis for Heyworth’s first out, left fielder Maddie Quattro singled and advanced to second base on an error by Davis.

With runners at second and third, Riley scored on a single by shortstop Ashley McKinney, giving Heyworth a 1-0 lead. Next, Hornets first baseman Somer Marlett singled and advanced to second on a poor Princeville throw while McKinney and Quattro scored, increasing the Lady Hornets’ lead to 3-0. Heyworth catcher Maddie Sims and pitcher Adyson Slayback ended the inning by lining out and striking out, respectfully.

Heyworth HornetsPrinceville (26-9) countered in the bottom of the fifth inning, as with one out, a single to left field by center fielder Chloe Lane advanced second baseman Natalie Cokel to second after having been walked. A shot into center field by third baseman Caitlin Pullen moved her from first to second on the defensive throw, scoring Cokel, 1-0, while Lane moved to third. Lane scored on a fielder’s choice increasing the lead, 3-2, and moved Pullen to third. Princeville shortstop Jessica DeVries singled and stole second giving Pullen a chance to score, tying the game at 3-3.

Princeville first baseman Madison Roe’s triple scored DeVries, putting the Lady Princes in front, 4-3. A single by pitcher Haley Holt scored Roe, upping the lead to 5-3. Heyworth went down in order in the bottom of the sixth inning when center fielder D’Laney Gardner, shortstop Paige Schiffman, and right fielder Madison Riley went out in order.

Princeville tacked on another run in the bottom of the sixth inning, making Princeville’s lead, 6-3, as Cokel scored to lead off the inning having gotten to second on a wild pitch by Heyworth’s Slayback and scored on a Lane single. In the top of the seventh, Holt sat down Williams, Quattro, and McKinney to prevent a Hornets rally.

Holt (23-6) was the winning pitcher for Princeville while Slayback (15-8) took the loss.

Heyworth head coach George VanWinkle choked up a little as he talked about media members afterward, wiping a tear or two after the team received their trophy and medallions from tourney officials for their efforts.

“A good team beat us today, that’s all you can say,” VanWinkle said. “I’m just tickled to death that we’re here. These kids…the seniors especially, have been with me since they were in sixth grade.” VanWinkle struggled to hold his emotions in check while talking about the girls he’s been coaching for that long.

McKinney said she felt good about the fact she and her teammates made it to State, but added, “Also though, it’s a sad time because my days of playing softball are over.”

“We felt a little more confident going into this game than on Friday against Goreville,” explained Gardner. “But some games don’t always end the way you want them to. Both McKinney and Gardner have plans to attend Heartland Community College this fall.

IHSALosing To Goreville, 11-0, In Semis Sent Hornets To Consolation Game: The Hornets’ optimism toward playing in the championship game got dashed fairly quickly on June 2 as the opponents from Goreville, a community roughly 90 minutes from the Illinois-Kentucky line, blanked the Lady Hornets, 11-0. As a crowd of 550 fins watched, the Blackcats crossed Heyworth’s path first for a home run off of Slayback in the top of the third inning when first baseman Camren Anderson launched a pitch over the fence in deep left field to help her team take a 1-0 lead. Then, to lead off the top of the fourth inning, designated player Macy Goins singled, which began what turned out to be a long frustrating defensive half-inning for Heyworth.

Goreville (25-8) added six runs while the Lady Hornets accounted for two of their three errors in the contest by that point. The Blackcats went on to score one more run in the sixth inning and another two in the seventh inning to round out their scoring effort. With the victory, Blackcats pitcher Cheyenne Walker increased her record to 12-3, while Slayback finished with a 15-7 mark.

Regarding the semifinal, VanWinkle said, “The reality is, we got beat by a really good team. It’s not that we played that poorly. They just flat out beat us.”

“I was really upset, but what can you do?” Slayback said of that loss. “I’m very glad we had the chance to make it to State with these girls. They were amazing.”

By Steve Robinson | May 29, 2017 - 10:05 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

BaseballWith Cubs great Ryne Sandberg coming to The Corn Crib on Sunday, May 28 to coach third base for the ‘Belters against Frontier League opponent Lake Erie, and then meet, greet, and sign autographs for fans, you would expect a large crowd for the occasion. And there was one – a total of 3,525 faithful showed up to get a chance to see the one-time Cubs second baseman and third baseman give directions and encouragement to guys trying to either get into or back to the minors thanks to a shot with the CornBelters.

And the autograph line stretched from the entrance to Suite 201 at the ballpark, where Sandberg awaited the folks — all the way to the very first concession stand nearest the stair entrance that leads to the parking lot, a distance I would guess is about 250 feet. I met up with some folks, one before she entered the ballpark, and one in line, who both had interesting stories of their own growing up Cubs fans and looking forward to a chance to meet the guy who fans came to know simply as “Ryno.”

CornbeltersFor Bethany Theobald, being a Cubs fan who grew up in enemy territory (aka St. Louis), “We would go to at least one game at Busch Stadium in full Cubs gear and take pictures at the St. Louis Zoo, which, of course, got us a couple of funny looks..”

“We did this for years from when we were young until we were 17,” Theobald, now 34, said. She carried a sweatshirt and a couple of Sandberg baseball cards she said were part of her collection and in better shape than the bulk of the cards she had saved over the years. She wanted to get the two 1985 Sandberg cards signed.

The second person I saw that really intrigued me was in line to get a second base bag signed. Paul Slack, an Ottawa resident made the trip down to The Corn Crib with his wife, Shelli and his teenage daughter to get the mission accomplished. The base was purchased at a Cubs game during which Major League Baseball was selling game-used merchandise. Slack bought the bag at a Cubs game against Cincinnati on Aug. 12, 2012.

“I made the decision to buy the base in hopes Ryne Sandberg would sign it for me,” Slack said. The base isn’t the only item in Slack’s collection, it turns out. His basement man-cave at his two-story home is all-Cubs, the majority of it a shrine to Sandberg. He has more than a few items personally autographed by the guy who spent a career defending either second or third base.

Frontier League“I told my wife she could have the rest of the house, but to just give me the basement” for the extensive collection, Slack said. He has other items Sandberg has signed for him in the past, mostly when he was managing the Peoria Chiefs of the Midwest League in 2007 and 2008 before the Cubs moved him to the Tennessee Smokies of the Southern League in 2009. From there, Sandberg was promoted again to manage the Triple-A Iowa Cubs for a single season in 2010, which was followed by managing the Lehigh Valley IronPigs of the International League for two years. Toward the end of the 2012 season, the team that drafted Sandberg out of high school in 1978 in the 20th round, the Philadelphia Phillies, hired him to manage the Phillies and finish out the 2012 season. Sandberg would manage the Phillies for one more full season in 2013 and for 74 games in 2014 until he was fired and replaced by Pete Mackanin.

Slack didn’t have the base when Sandberg was in Peoria, he said. “So basically, I’ve been waiting for the right time ever since.”

Slack said he spent Game 6 of the Cubs’ World Series against Cleveland last year “pacing a lot” as he watched the Indians lead that game in the late innings before the Cubs came from behind for the victory.

“He was my favorite player growing up,” Slack said of Sandberg. “I’ve stuck with him and he’s a class act.”

Steve RobinsonIn the world of Special Olympics, family is a component of athletes’ lives that receives a high ranking along with all the things it’s dedicated to teach them: Teamwork, sportsmanship, a sense of belonging, some individual skills, and self-worth.

But at many of these events I’ve covered over the years, the parents, grandparents, and siblings come out but sometimes, not as much, any of the siblings’ friends to share in the experience.

Another thing that is missing at Special Olympics competitions that so-called “normal” sporting events have is cheerleaders. This was, after all and for all intent and purposes, a high school basketball game. When was the last time you went to a high school game and there were no cheerleaders?

With regard to that aspect of the event, Rachel Roth, a senior at El Paso Gridley High School, may have started something March 17 at Horton Field House on Illinois State University’s campus. Roth talked a few of her fellow EPG cheerleaders into coming out to cheer for EPG’s Special Olympics Basketball team during their run for a title.

Roth is the sister of Jordan Peacher, a member of EPG’s team which was making its second appearance at State Basketball. She brought her friends to cheer on the Titans against their first opponent, Rushville Special Olympics.

That meant EPG senior Maddie Morrison, and juniors Lacey Kiefer, and Kailyn Waldemar, all of whom cheer for EPG on sidelines at football and basketball games, would put their skills to use cheering for another Titans team. Morrison said the girls, “figured ‘why not?’ because the joy that the sport brings to Jordan and the other players is greater than anything else we can do for them. It’s just a small act and it lights up their world.”

That meant EPG’s team, and head coach Cindy Martorana and her troops were very happy to see the foursome shaking pompoms and lending encouragement when needed during their first game. EPG team members are: Peacher, Andrew Hartman, Zoey Slightom, Caleb Turner, Brady Neill, Geneva Powell, and Courtney Adkins.

“Jordan and his teammates have talked about coming to State for weeks,” Morrison said. The team qualified for State at District competition, held at Illinois Wesleyan University’s Shirk Center in January. Morrison said the Special Olympics team members were the ones who planted the idea of having the cheerleaders come to the State Tournament. After the girls agreed to come, Morrison added, team members would say to them when they saw them in school hallways, “Can’t wait to see you!”

“I think I will get joy from seeing this team’s faces light up when they see us at their game,” Kiefer added. “I think it’s just awesome.”

For Waldemar, her experience with Special Olympics came earlier from knowing a cousin who once participated in one of its programs.

Peacher’s Sister Helps With His Basketball Game Skills: Roth said the four siblings in her family, including Peacher, regularly shoot hoops in a local park. In addition to Roth and Peacher, they are joined by an older brother and a younger brother. The foursome spends that time bonding and helping Peacher bolster his playing skills.

As a result of that practice, my brother has excelled quite a lot,” Roth said. And Peacher has returned the favor by attending EPG football and basketball games, to watch his sister and her fellow cheerleaders while taking in Titans games.

What the girls who shook pompoms and cheered got out of this surprised me. Not because of what one of them said but because what she said didn’t seem to take any prodding from the questions I asked (sometimes, for teens of any age, the thought is there, it seems, but the wording isn’t, but it eventually comes forward with a little guidance).

But Morrison had the exact thought for the situation: “This experience we get out of this is greater for us because it gives us a whole different perspective on how to look at life.”

“These athletes take the smallest event and for them, it’s big,” Morrison said. “For us, it’s just the experience of coming here and seeing them happy.”

And after Saturday’s double overtime 38-36 win over Rich Township Saturday at Shirk Center to win their division’s championship, you’ve never seen a happier bunch of players and family members.

As a result, everyone got something out of the experience.