By Steve Robinson | January 13, 2019 - 10:03 pm
Posted in Category: LeRoy, Lexington, The Normalite

It’s Heart Of Illinois Conference/McLean County Tournament time again. The 108th annual event starts Saturday at El Paso Gridley High School with opening round action and runs through to a girls’ championship game and a boys’ championship game, both at Shirk Center on Illinois Wesleyan University’s campus on Saturday, Jan. 26. The tourney will take its customary break on Wednesday, Jan. 23.

Former local broadcaster L. A. Decker has served as public address announcer for the entire tourney at Shirk for a number of years now and has taken the pulse of the event for some time, predicting which teams will get furthest. The one thing Decker does not do, however, is predict who will win championship games. He said upholding that personal policy helps him maintain objectivity. He does, however, almost sound like a pro scout at times in his analysis which helps novice fans and students of the game know what is going on with local teams.

Lexington Girls Seeded Third: Decker points to the girls’ teams seeded first and second in the tournament as being “head and shoulders above” the remaining teams in the field. Those would be top seed Eureka (19-2 overall and 10-0 HOIC) and second seed Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley (17-4 overall and 8-1 HOIC). But coming right behind them are the Lexington Lady Minutemen (13-2 overall and 7-1 HOIC), earning the third seed. The key to Eureka is, according to Decker, “They don’t rebuild when they have new players. They retool.”

“Lexington could surprise some people,” Decker said, adding they would not be the only team to do so, saying the same about fourth seeded Ridgeview. Lexington has only lost a conference game and a non-conference game so far. “The Minutemen girls are definitely the surprise team from what I have seen in the records,” Decker said. The Ridgeview Mustangs were 15-4 overall and 7-1 Conference at this writing.

The Lady Minutemen recently lost to Dwight, a loss which halted a 9-game winning streak for head coach Bill Elias’ crew.

“Tremont beat LeRoy Jan. 8,” Decker reminded. “That vaulted the Turks ahead of LeRoy in the standings.

Decker said he sees Elias’ team in the final four of the tournament, along with the other top three seeds, but cautions either Deer Creek-Mackinaw or El Paso Gridley could sneak in to disrupt the scenario. With all the first round games at EPG Saturday, eighth seed Flanagan-Cornell will face ninth seed Heyworth to open the tournament on Saturday at 11:30a.m. Fourth seed Ridgeview hosts 13th seed Fisher at 1p.m. Fifth seed Dee-Mack hosts 12th seed Tri-Valley at 2:30p.m. Seventh seed EPG hosts 10th seed LeRoy at 4p.m. Sixth seed Fieldcrest takes on 11th seed Tremont to close out the day at 5:30p.m.

Decker said he “sees the chalk holding up” meaning the top four seeds survive their challenges, with Eureka facing GCMS for the title.

LeRoy Boys Seeded Fifth: GCMS is the top seed in the Boys’ Tournament bracket, with the Falcons owning a 15-2 record as of Sunday, including a perfect 7-0 conference mark. Deer Creek-Mackinaw is seeded second at 15-3 and 4-0 conference, and Tremont is seeded third. The Turks have a 15-4 overall record which includes being 4-2 in conference play. LeRoy, the fifth seed, has the highest seed in the Boys’ bracket of county schools, just below fourth seed Fieldcrest. While that won’t be seen as encouraging to some readers of this column, Decker said LeRoy (9-4 overall and 6-1 Conference as of this writing) should not be overlooked or counted out once play begins.

Head coach Rodney Kellar’s Ridgeview Mustangs are 10-8 overall and 3-4 in conference, and seeded ninth in the tournament. They are slated to take on eight seed Downs Tri-Valley to start the day Saturday at 11:30a.m. Lexington boys, seeded 13th, will open the tournament against fourth seed Fieldcrest Saturday at 1p.m. LeRoy’s fifth seed puts them against 12th seed Fisher in a 2:30p.m. matchup. Seventh seed Eureka meets 10th seed Flanagan-Cornell in a 4p.m. contest. Sixth seed EPG finishes the day at 5:30p.m. against 11th seed Heyworth.

Although they are the last single-digit seed, Decker said, he doesn’t know if that makes the Mustangs a longshot or the wild card in the race. He added Tremont is likely the team to watch because the Turks “have spoiled a few parties for teams” when on the court this year.

Lexington’s boys’ team has struggled in the early season, Decker said. The Minutemen as of Sunday were 7-11 overall and winless in six tries in conference play. Last season, the Minutemen “held their own,” as Decker explained it, against HOIC opponents but have yet to demonstrate that skill this season. Decker predicts GCMS and Tremont will square off for the championship.

Regardless of who wins, there will be bragging rights attained for the winners, disappointment and possibly a few tears shed by the defeated, but the games and their outcomes will at least give us a week where we can try to take our minds off of any winter blahs we may be encountering and give us time to enjoy the competition.

By Steve Robinson | December 2, 2018 - 10:59 pm
Posted in Category: NCHS, The Normalite

NORMAL – For one quarter, the first quarter of Normal Community High School ’s Big 12 Conference matchup against unbeaten Peoria Notre Dame, it looked like the Ironmen had the chance to keep pace and outpace their guests from the River City . But it only took a 9-0 run to start the second quarter for the Irish to overturn that advantage and stay in front of their hosts en route to a 57-45 victory.

It took nearly three minutes before any player on either side could penetrate the opposing defense to score the game’s opening bucket, but senior center Evan Pogge did so at the 5:13 mark putting NCHS (3-2) ahead, 2-0. That became a 5-0 run for the Ironmen when senior guard Blake Foster’s trey went through the hoop at 4:25. Peoria ND hit back-to-back unanswered deuces from junior Connor Dillon and junior Ben Kouri to close the score to 5-4 at the 2:35 mark. A three-point play, including a free throw by senior forward Christian Wilbourne doubled the score for NCHS, 8-4. But a trey from Kouri closed out the first quarter, with the Ironmen holding a one-point lead, 8-7.

From the opening of the second quarter, though, Peoria ND (4-0) went on a 9-0 scoring blitz which featured deuces from junior Declan Dillon, Connor Dillon, and senior Matt Pudik, topped off by a trey from senior Joe Gustafson, putting PND in front, 16-8 with 4:27 left in the half, prompting Ironmen head coach Dave Witzig to call a timeout. A trey by Ironmen senior guard Drew Kagel at the 3:17 mark closed that lead to 16-11, but the half ended on back-to-back unanswered buckets by Connor Dillon and Pudik, putting PND in front, 20-11.

Foster hit a trey to open the third quarter for NCHS, putting the Ironmen within six, 20-14, but Pudik replied with a trey of his own, putting PND up, 23-14. Foster hit another trey, closing the score within six, 23-17, but back-to-back treys by Pudik and Connor Dillon gave PND a 12-point lead, 29-17, before NCHS senior guard Daylen Boddie added a three to help keep the home team within nine, 29-20, with 3:49 left in the period. Wilbourne added a deuce to put the Ironmen within seven, 29-22.

Another Connor Dillon deuce and free throw by Kouri gave PND a 10-point lead, 32-22, with 3:02 left in the quarter. NCHS got five unanswered points from a Wilbourne rebound and a trey from Boddie pushing the Ironmen within five, 32-27, with 1:25 left in the quarter, but the Irish closed out the quarter on a 6-0 run thanks to back-to-back unanswered treys from Gustafson, putting PND in front, 38-27, going into the fourth quarter.

Senior forward Dishon Hall II’s deuce opened the fourth quarter for NCHS to help close PND’s lead, 38-29, with 6:41 remaining. Between free throws by Kouri and junior Declan Dillon for PND, Hall hit a deuce, but PND remained in front by 10, 41-31. Pogge and Wilbourne went back-to-back to the free throw line courtesy of fouls from PND, going a combined 3-for-4 to pull NCHS within seven, 41-34, prompting visiting head coach Tom Lacher to call a timout with 3:21 remaining.

Coming out of that timeout, however, two NCHS fouls – including a technical foul called on Foster – sent Kouri to the line to answer for the technical and Declan Dillon to answer for the game penalty. Combined, the pair went 2-for-3, and were followed by a basket by Connor Dillon to put PND up, 45-37. Connor Dillon squeezed a deuce in between two sets of Wilbourne free throws, Wilbourne going a combined 4-for-4, but PND owned a 47-41 lead with 1:59 left in the contest. Wilbourne fouled Declan Dillon, who went 1-for-2 at the line, putting PND up, 48-41 with 1:55 left. Boddie hit a deuce at the 1:45 mark to keep NCHS within five, 48-43. The margin and time remaining prompted Witzig to call timeout.

But coming out of timeout, NCHS fouls sent Gustafson, Declan Dillon, and Kouri to the free throw line where they went a combined 5-for-6 allowing the visitors to restore a 10-point lead, 53-43, with 56.7 seconds left. A Wilbourne put-back shot helped pull NCHS within eight, 53-45, but fouls called on Boddie and Foster sent Gustafson and Declan Dillon back to the free throw line where they went a combined 4-for-4 to help their team arrive at the final score.

Gustafson led PND in scoring with 14, followed by 12 from Connor Dillon, Kouri’s 11, and 10 each from Declan Dillon and Pudik. Wilbourne and Foster led the way for NCHS, scoring 13 points, and 12, respectfully, on the night.

PND’s Lacher complimented his coaching counterpart, Witzig, saying, “He’s a great coach. We figured we’d see some pressure, and we figured it would be Wilbourne at the top and get him where if he couldn’t score, he could at least facilitate some scores with the guys around him. They also had some guys who came off the bench and stepped up and knocked down some shots and made some plays. Wilbourne facilitating hurt us in the fourth quarter.”

“NCHS turned up turned up the defensive intensity on the parimeter,” Lacher said, adding his squad had not been exposed to that sort of defensive maneuvering during a Thanksgiving tourney the Irish played in.

“I’ve chosen for our team to play man-to-man whereas Notre Dame plays a 1-2-2 defense,” explained NCHS head coach Dave Witzig. “In the first half, we didn’t play very hard and that put us down, 20-11. We didn’t compete at a high level like we need to in the Big 12. You have to give Notre Dame credit. They came in here and they competed and got after it and it was a good win for them.”

By Steve Robinson | November 11, 2018 - 8:26 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

OAK LAWN – The quest for a first football championship in school history for Normal Community West High School came to an end Saturday at Korhonen Field here but the Wildcats did make their hosts in the Illinois High School Association Class 6A contest, Oak Lawn Richards High School, work for the victory.

Using a stingy defense and employing the running talents of senior wide receiver Armani Forrest to get past defenders, the Wildcats proved formidable during their road contest. Forrest’s return after being sidelined for a month due to an ankle injury appeared to be an encouraging sign to roughly dozens of Wildcats’ fans as they watched him race past defenders at key moments in the contest.

But for as well as this season had gone for the Wildcats, they couldn’t overcome the Bulldogs’ defense in the final quarter to achieve another victory, dropping a 22-17 decision before roughly 3,000 fans, finishing the season at 11-1.

Ranked second in the state in the Class, Oak Lawn Richards (12-0) scored first in the first quarter on a 1 yard run from junior running back Leshon Williams for the only score in the period, putting Oak Lawn Richards (12-0) in front first, 6-0, followed by a missed extra point by junior kicker Sabastian Lasak. A 35-yard field goal by Lasak early in second quarter advanced that lead, 9-0.

Sixth ranked Normal West pulled within two, 9-7, on a 35 yard pass from senior quarterback Carson Camp to Forrest with 6:06 left until halftime followed by an extra point by senior kicker Parker Theobald. The two sides would show defensive might to their opponents throughout the third quarter keeping the score in tact going into the fourth quarter.

But Bulldogs senior quarterback Sebastian Castro’s 3 yard run into the end zone with 7:32 left in the contest silenced the Wildcats faithful, who, up to that moment, had been cheering throughout. Lasak’s extra point followed pushing Oak Lawn Richards forward, 16-7.

West’s next drive was highlighted by Camp passes to senior wide receiver Davion McQuirter of 16 and 5 yards, aiding in getting the Wildcats to the Bulldogs’ 13 yard line where Oak Lawn Richards defenders forced the Wildcats to kick a field goal, successfully done by Theobald from 30 yards out. That helped Normal West trim Richards’ lead to 16-10 with 1:43 left.

West opted for an onside kick, but Richards recovered it at West’s 48 yard line. Two plays later, a 45 yard run by University of Iowa recruit Castro with 1:24 left pushed the Bulldogs in front, 22-10, following a failed 2-point attempt.

Camp and Forrest connected a second time from 14 yards out with 22.9 seconds left, followed by Theobald’s extra point, cutting Richards’ lead to five, 22-17. West tried another onside kick, which Richards players recovered allowing them to let time expire.

First season Wildcats head coach Nate Fincham said afterward his team “showed determination” all year, continuing to do that to the end of this contest. “Our team was like this all year. When they were down, they just never gave up. They showed that tonight. They pushed the limits of Oak Lawn tonight.”

Following a final postgame huddle with all his players, Fincham met with the 25 seniors on his roster. Of those players, he said, “That senior group is obviously a special group for me and the way they supported me in my first year here this year means a lot.

“Our guys believed from the beginning 100 percent they were in this game and from the very first play, they knew they could compete with Oak Lawn,” Fincham said. “That’s a pretty good football team here, and I think we are too, and I think we showed that tonight.”

Fincham said he knew from looking at Oak Lawn Richards team tape “running the ball would be extremely difficult, but I knew they were weak in the defensive backfield and I knew we could take advantage of that and we did that.”

“We don’t take anybody lightly and we knew Normal West could play,” stated Oak Lawn Richards head coach Tony Sheehan. “Camp is very good and we knew he’d do a good job. Their coach is obviously in his first year and he has their program going in the right direction. Normal’s kids played hard and they played hard the whole game.

“Being in a quarterfinal means there are no bad teams left,” Sheehan said in complimenting Normal West’s program. “Because of that, we knew we had to play to the last whistle. Armani Forrest was a difference maker tonight and we knew he would be. That was the only thing we wondered about but we figured he would play.”

By Steve Robinson | November 3, 2018 - 10:34 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

NORMAL – To explain what happened to Normal Community West High School in their second round Illinois High School Association Class 6A game against Palos Heights-based Alan J. Shepard High School, a school named after the late astronaut, verbiage used by NASA would seem appropriate: Normal West’s mission to get to the championship avoided being scrubbed. Normal West came from behind to beat the Astros, 26-17.

With the win, the 6th ranked in the Class Wildcats advanced to the quarterfinals of Illinois High School Association Class 6A playoffs for the first time in school history. The victory will have the Wildcats taking to the road to take on 11-1 Oak Lawn-based Richards High School this weekend, winners of a second round contest by the score of 35-21 over Yorkville.

Junior wide receiver Cole Hernandez scored two touchdowns, the second of which put West in front after trailing for most of the first half, aiding in the effort.

After winning the coin toss and accepting to receive, Shepard (8-4) scored first on an 8 yard touchdown run by senior wide receiver Jamail Hunt at 8:23 in the first quarter followed by senior kicker Michal Strama’s extra point, putting the Astros on the scoreboard first, 7-0.

A 43 yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Carson Camp to senior wide receiver Magnus Moeller helped Normal West (11-1) tie the game at 7-all following senior kicker Parker Theobald’s extra point..

Although Shepard started their next drive at their own 30, West defenders managed to see to it the Astros only got as far as West’s 16, prompting the decision for Strama to kick a 34 yard field goal. That gave the Astros a 10-7 lead with 11:15 in the second quarter. West ended their ensuing drive with a punt allowing Shepard to begin their next drive at their own 38. Eight plays later, right hand senior quarterback Kevin Graham was forced to throw across his body to senior wide receiver Chris Harrison to avoid defenders for the Astros next score, followed by Strama’s extra point, increasing Shepard’s lead, 17-7 with 5:56 until halftime.

West cut that lead to 17-13, as Camp connected with Hernandez for the first time on the night from 15 yards out followed by Theobald’s extra point cutting Shepard’s lead, 17-13, at the 3:44 mark, a score they would keep until halftime.

Neither team scored in the third quarter, each team seeing opportunities spoiled by the opponents defensive maneuvering. But it was a 9 yard pass to Hernandez from Camp that put West in front for the first time in the contest, 20-17, after Theobald’s extra point with 2:09 remaining.

A defensive maneuver by West junior linebacker Zack Marcotte helped the Wildcats’ effort on the Astros’ next series, as he stripped the ball from Graham and scrambled to pick up the ball in the end zone with 53.9 seconds remaining on the clock. But Theobald’s extra point was no good resulting in the final score after West defenders forced Shepard to rush through their plays until the final gun.

Of what was his first defensive score, Marcotte said, “That was the most exhilarating. I suddenly realized, ‘I got the football. It’s a touchdown. Game’s over. We win.’”

“I’m just excited to make it to the quarterfinals,” West head coach Nate Fincham said, explaining not getting that far into the playoffs in years the school has existed “has been like a black cloud hanging over these kids’ heads. I’m proud of the way they stuck with it. They just kept working throughout the season and offseason.”

“I knew they were athletic and I knew they would give us some issues,” Fincham added. “They kind of surprised us a little bit. I don’t think we expected them to be that physical up front. But we responded well and that’s what’s important.” Beating Shepard was the goal for the week, Fincham added. Having Oak Lawn Richards to beat is another goal, he explained.

“The main thing I can say is hats off to Normal West,” said Shepard head coach John Roan. “They made fewer mistakes than us so they deserved to win the ball game. We liked our chances coming in and we thought we played a pretty good first half. In the second half, the mistakes started to mount and we didn’t overcome them.”

BLOOMINGTON – With both Illinois Wesleyan University ’s Men’s and Women’s basketball teams getting into NCAA Div. III playoffs last year, Men’s head coach Ron Rose and Women’s head coach Mia Smith don’t foresee this season ending in either team staying home when NCAA bids come out this year. What’s more, they would like their individual teams to get further than they did at the end of last year.

But first, both must play tough non-conference and Collegiate Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin schedules to prove to opponents they will get back to compete for championships.

Both teams exited early in the NCAA tournament – the Men exiting after a round one loss to Wooster , the Women leaving after a second round loss to Trine. Women’s team head coach Mia Smith said her team was hampered by injuries as the season wound down last year, to forwards Raven Hughes and Sydney Shanks, both of whom watched the team’s post-season march from the bench.

Hughes, Shanks “Were Helping Coach” Team: But for the Women’s team, a curious thing got noticed by Smith about how Hughes and Shanks, now healthy and ready to take on opponents this year, contributed from the bench during the team’s tournament run. “They were helping me coach at the end of the season because they could pick up on things having been in the system, and watching from the bench at games, they picked up on a lot of things and for them to do that is very mature.”

Smith described Hughes, a sophomore and a University High grad, and Shanks, a junior and a Central Catholic grad, as “basketball-oriented kids who have basketball-oriented minds. What did surprise me is how they stayed in the game for their teammates.” She explained injured players on the bench have a tendency to show discouragement about the fact they are not on the hardwood because an injury has benched them. Smith said that didn’t occur with either Hughes or Shanks. “Their vision from the sideline was really good,” Smith said of the pair’s contributions.

A torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament on her left knee sidelined Hughes for the Conference playoffs and NCAAs. She received clearance from doctors to begin working with the team again at the beginning of this season. “It was difficult to be on the bench but at least I had Sydnee with me,” Hughes said. From the bench, Hughes said she learned that, even when a player gets hurt, “the team knows to keep going and that we shouldn’t give up.”

Shanks said being at NCAAs her sophomore season, although she didn’t get on the court due to a broken hand, was “amazing” and she loved cheering on her teammates as they made their way through the bracket. She added she “can’t wait to get back to NCAAs again next year.”

Downs Tri-Valley grad Maddie Merritt will be experiencing her final season on the court for IWU this year. She is one of four seniors expected to lead IWU back toward CCIW Tournament and an NCAA tourney bid. The team’s other seniors are guards Emily Farris and Nina Anderson, and forward Ashley Schneider.

Sophomore guard Kendall Sosa called what she had last season at IWU “a great experience for my freshman year.” Now a sophomore, she added she learned plenty from last year’s senior teammates which included El Paso Gridley High School alum Rebekah Ehresman. “That prepared me a lot for this year, I think, so that means we will have a lot of experience for this year.”

Last year’s seniors taught Sosa a number of things including “how to stay composed and the speed of the game,” she said, adding, “this level has a little more speed and having to learn about shot selection” from that group has prepared her for this season.

Rose Coaching A “Hungry” Men’s Team: Rose’s men’s team is again relying on senior depth to help get them through, and one of those seniors will be his son, Brady. “Brady had a great junior year,” his coach said, explaining his son “had a great junior year, having been named all-conference. He comes back with a world of experience.” The senior Rose said the 6 foot-3, 185 pound guard spent the summer doing workouts to improve. He said the same could be said of Jack Martin, the 6 foot-4, 180 pound guard and University High alum.

“Jack is bigger and stronger, was on the Junior Varsity team last year and learned a lot,” Rose added. “He has learned the system and really shown improvement this first week.”

The younger Rose, a guard, may be a senior but he’s going to be playing in his fifth season for his father because of a broken foot injury he sustained in his sophomore season. He was allowed to redshirt which gave him an extra season this year.

“It seems like a long time ago that I showed up on campus,” the younger Rose said. “Just looking back on the four seasons I had – three I played and this last one I’m getting a chance to. I’ve played with a lot of great players, a lot of great friends, a lot of great coaches. It’s brought us a lot of different experiences every single year. It has brought me a lot of different learning experiences I’ve been able to take some lessons from.”

Personally, Rose said, the ultimate goal of winning a national championship is front and center on his mind. That means going for a repeat of getting the CCIW championship since IWU won it last year. He called being at IWU collecting “some of the best memories of my life.”

Sophomore guard and University High alum Jack Martin was on IWU’s junior varsity team last year and admitted the up tempo pace of the game from high school to college didn’t intimidate him. “I just want to practice hard and do the best I can this season,” he explained.

“We’ve got some great senior leadership,” Coach Rose reminded. In addition to the younger Rose, that group includes guards Colin Bennett and Jason Gregoire, and forward Danny Baker. “We’ve got some great senior leadership,” explained the coach, who is entering his 13th season at the helm of the program. Of his players as this season dawns, Rose said, “This is a hungry group. We shared the CCIW title last year, made it to the NCAA, but we’re certainly not satisfied. We have the team that has the potential to have a special season.”

EPG Alum Ehresman Now A Grad Assistant: Sometimes, students find the career path they wanted gets changed simply by changing majors. That’s what happened to Rebekah Ehresman, the star basketball player at El Paso Gridley High School and an IWU graduate. She got her undergraduate degree in Accounting but is now a graduate student at Illinois State University in Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity, as well as serving as a graduate assistant coach for Smith’s IWU Women’s team.

As part of her job, Ehresman helps with logistics for the women’s team as well as recruiting, scouting, and helping at practices. “I’m very passionate about sports and basketball in general, and this school,” she said. She started out as a Business major and switched to Accounting, but even as she was getting her degree, the yearning to stay close to sports in some way never left Ehresman’s thoughts.

For me, accounting was sitting and looking at a computer, and not a whole lot of interaction,” Ehresman said. “I should have known that going into it. I switched my major late, in my junior year. So now, I’m changing career paths a little bit.”

Circle Your Calendars: IWU Men will play two exhibition games – at University of Illinois at Chicago on Thursday, Nov. 1 and at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana on Nov. 2, both starting at 7p.m. They open the regular season at Shirk Center on Sunday, Nov. 11 against University of Chicago at 4p.m. Their CCIW season starts at home against Carthage College on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 7p.m. IWU Women open with two road exhibitions, at Eastern Illinois on Nov. 1 at 6p.m. and at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on Monday, Nov. 5 at 7p.m. Their regular season opens also opens Nov. 11 at Shirk Center against UC starting at 2p.m. Their first CCIW contest is on Dec. 1 against Carthage College begins at 5p.m.