By Steve Robinson | August 29, 2010 - 10:22 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

BaseballOne has not been able to attend a Normal CornBelters game or read a write-up on our local Frontier League team these days without regularly running across the name Ryan Sheldon. In the latter weeks of the season, the 6 foot-6 pitcher has made his name known to both fans and his coaches.

First, Sheldon pitches a complete game shutout on the road against the Lake Erie Crushers on Aug. 19. Then, Aug. 25, he manages to extend the number of shutout innings to 32 in Normal’s 12-2 win over Western Division leading Southern Illinois.

It’s that kind of production that had Normal Manager Hal Lanier praising the Kearney, Neb. native. Lanier called Sheldon’s complete game against the Crushers “another quality outstanding start. He was very dominating against Lake Erie. He pitched nine innings. He didn’t give up any runs. He walked one guy, but that didn’t come ‘til the ninth inning.”

For five starts through the Lake Erie game, Lanier said Sheldon “has been on the top of his game.” Lanier said he has been fielding calls from teams with interest in the right hander, including scouts for the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox.

“Major league teams keep tabs on Independent League ballplayers to see who’s doing well and who isn’t doing well,” Lanier said. “Sheldon has had a lot of quality starts, and he’s on top of his game right now.” Lanier said an area scout representing the Phillies has gotten to see Sheldon (7 victories as of Sunday, tying him with teammate Brett Lester) in his last four outings.

“That scout has seen some good pitching along the way” as a result, Lanier said. With developments like that, I wish Sheldon luck trying to advance to the next level.

For those of you who might be curious about a breakdown of how the season has gone team-by-team for the CornBelters, I have gotten the breakdown for you, through Aug. 29. Against teams in their own Western Division, Normal is 25-26. Normal is 5-7 against Southern Illinois and 3-6 against division runner-up River City. Within the division, they have one three-game sweep (against Gateway), and been swept once (by River City).

Against Eastern Division foes, Normal is 17-19, as of Aug. 29. The Kalamazoo Kings were good for Normal in the CornBelters’ first year, as Lanier’s team owned a 5-1 edge over the Kings who had off-field issues before the season started. Those issues included having to find a new general manager and new field manager.

CornbeltersIn six games each against Washington and Traverse City, Normal could only squeeze out a 3-3 draw with both clubs. Oakland County, despite being a traveling team most of the season while a new stadium is built; and Windy City took advantage of Normal being new, each of them winning five of six meetings over Normal.

Normal’s inaugural season concludes by winding up a three-game road trip on Thursday at River City. Friday through Sunday, Normal hosts the Florence Freedom Friday through Sunday. Sunday is “Fan Appreciation Day.”

While on the field, Normal was in the middle of the pack in the standings, from the business side of things, CornBelters President Steve Malliet appears pleased with his team’s attendance numbers. He said Normal has sold “the equivalent of 800 full season tickets.” He said that includes counting folks buying either full season tickets or “mini-plans,”– ticket plans purchased for just portions of the season schedule. Malliet estimates the team will end up having sold 50,000 group tickets. Groups have ranged between 20 and 3,000 fans.

Malliet said the Southern Illinois Miners’ quick start had an appeal to fans, because that club had former Class Triple-A players on their roster – something fans enjoyed seeing.

Malliet said if there were two negatives he heard about all season that will be addressed before the 2011 season opens, they were the parking and the landscaping around The Corn Crib.

Malliet said the CornBelters plan to schedule a couple roundtable discussions with panels of fans to “find out what they liked, what they thought we could improve on, and, maybe, they will come up with a great new idea that we will want to incorporate, as well, for next year.” That is not a bad idea. It is creative, and I have to admit, teams care about what concerns fans, but this would be different and welcome, I am sure. Watch for details about those roundtables.

Frontier LeagueOne item Malliet thought was great was how understanding the fans were about “the challenges we had to get into the ball park by opening day.”

Malliet was referring to something we would all like to forget: Another tough snowy winter followed by yet another rainy spring. The combination caused some lost construction days for those building The Corn Crib.

“But you know what? People really understood that,” Malliet said. “They were great because they all lived through the bad weather. People who were building understood it was difficult to build last year. So, people were very understanding.

“I can’t wait to give the fans a ball park that is 100 percent next year,” Malliet said. “The reviews that people are giving me as they are leaving the park every night have been just nothing but positive.

“People are just excited about this,” he said. “They were surprised about how big The Corn Crib was, and how nice it was, and all the amenities.”

Malliet said fans should plan on attending some concerts next season. He said movie nights, both to be viewed on the big screen and in a drive-in format, are also being planned for next season. Something to look forward to as we all wait out the winter, right?

This is the last CornBelters column of 2010. The team, under Lanier, was eliminated mathematically from the Frontier League playoffs after losing to Southern Illinois Aug. 25. But Lanier announced his will return for the team’s second season in 2011 and I join the fans in being glad to hear that. From what I have seen, Hal has been a very good fit for Normal. Now that we all know what the Frontier League is like, and although fall is coming, can any of us hardly wait for May 2011, and the start of the CornBelters’ second season?

Well, let’s do this one step at a time. After all, the 2011 schedule will be out sometime in October.

My thanks to CornBelters President Steve Malliet, General Manager Kyle Kreger, Manager Hal Lanier, Community Relations Manager Jon Young, and the entire CornBelters staff for every assistance they provided me, and The Normalite in helping make this column a reality, as well as Editor Ed Pyne for giving me my first (and hopefully, continuing) opportunity to be a columnist. It has been an enjoyable experience. Hopefully, Corn Kernels will return next season to bring you readers the doings of our area’s newest sports team, the Normal CornBelters.

By Steve Robinson | August 27, 2010 - 10:20 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

Unit 5NORMAL – Two teachers from Normal Community High School found themselves in the spotlight during the “Good News” portion of the Aug. 25 regular meeting of Normal’s Unit 5 School Board.

Jeff Christopherson was recognized for having been named State of Illinois Chemistry Teacher of the Year for 2010 by the Chemistry Industry Council of Illinois (CICI).

Christopherson also received CICI’s Davidson Award, a $3,000 prize given to an educator through CICI’s education outreach activities, which are conducted through the Illinois Chemical Education Foundation.

Christopherson was nominated for the Davidson Award based on a written application, peer recommendations, student interviews, and an in-class visit by representatives of the award’s selection committee.

Dr. Jeanette Nuckolls, NCHS Principal, told Board members Christopherson’s receiving the honor reflects well on the district.

Nuckolls also introduced the second teacher to be honored with a “good news” report, NCHS social studies teacher Kevin Suess. Suess has been honored as a recipient of the fourth annual Grosvenor Teacher Fellowships, established by Lindblad Expeditions in 2006 to honor National Geographic Society Chairman Gilbert Grosvenor.]

Nuckolls said Suess is one of six teachers nationwide to receive this honor.

Suess traveled to Artic Svalbard aboard the ship, the National Geographic Explorer. The trip took Suess near the North Pole. His journey took him within 600 miles of the Artic Circle. He plans to hold video conferences with students in the Artic to teach his students about climate change.

“He is one teacher who will make sure his students benefit from his experiences,” Nuckolls said of Suess.

Unit 5 mapClass Size Comments: Unit 5 is anticipating registration of new students until after Labor Day, District Superintendent Dr. Gary Niehaus told Board members. He said two teachers were reassigned to respond to class sizes. One teacher was moved from Fox Creek Elementary to Benjamin Elementary, while a second teacher was reassigned from Pepper Ridge Elementary to Oakdale Elementary.

Three parents addressed Board members concerning what they perceived as unmanageable class sizes at their individual children’s schools.

Ron Spencer has a daughter enrolled in kindergarten at Cedar Ridge Elementary. He said his daughter’s class has 32 students in it. He asked Board members to make sure Unit 5 “does not shortchange Cedar Ridge students while trying to stay within a budget.”

Chet Egge, Hudson, addressed the subject over large class size, too, telling Board members his daughter is in a kindergarten class of 29 students. He requested the district consider either dividing up the class to make it more manageable, or adding a teacher’s aide to the class.

Angela Hitchens also has a daughter in a kindergarten section at Cedar Ridge with 31 students. “That has the potential for the teacher spending most of the time on classroom management,” Hitchens told Board members. She asked that an additional kindergarten teacher be added.

Board member Gail Ann Briggs said her two children, when they were starting kindergarten in the mid-1970s, were in classes that had 33 and 31 students in them, respectfully.

“The one parameter we value is class size,” Board member John Puzauskas said. “Yes, today, we are looking at class sizes we aren’t happy with. The administration is looking hard at our options.”

But Puzauskas added, “next year will be worse than this year. We truly understand the situation.”

Sept. 8 Meeting Starts Early: When Board members meet next, on Sept. 8, the meeting will begin at 6p.m. at District Headquarters, 1809 W. Hovey Ave.

By Steve Robinson | August 22, 2010 - 8:52 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

Jim BarnhartAlmost from the day earlier this summer that I got to the chance to write this column, I had been thinking about my friend and former boss, Jim Barnhart. I was saddened to learn of his death this past Saturday at age 85.

My first job in journalism was working for Jim at The Pantagraph from August 1982-April 1983 while in college, in the sports department, as an office stringer taking information about football and basketball games from coaches in the outlying area. My Fridays during football season, and Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday nights during basketball season were spent working the phones, taking notes and composing small write-ups on games. It gave this then-beginning writer an idea of what night work in this business can be like.

Barnhart was fair. And he was tough. But it was a rewarding experience. I only was able to do the job for one academic year, but it was an experience I still carry with me and have never forgotten. I graduated from ISU in 1984, found other work away from a daily newspaper grind, but always stayed close to journalism as a freelancer.

From my working an earlier turn at The Normalite from 1990-92, I got to see a different side of Jim when he came to work as a columnist for Normalite editor Ed Pyne. Jim had gone from being my boss, as he been in the 80s to becoming my coworker and friend.

Simultaneously, it seemed, Jim and I both attempted to bedevil Pyne when we weren’t hard at work getting a paper out. Understandably, Jim was much more adept at it than I was back then. I just hope I picked up a thing or two.

Back then, Jim still had sports stories to tell, more to write, and of course, he always let Normalite readers in on the further adventures of his grandson Alex, and granddaughter Katie. Jim’s daughter and son-in-law, Jamie, her husband, Joe Michaud; and their kids have my condolences.

In 1992, Fred Tannenbaum, a friend of mine who worked as a reporter for The Pekin Daily Times back then, told me The Times needed help in the Sports department covering high school basketball. Some teams from The Times’ coverage area, like Stanford Olympia, came here to play local teams during the season, Fred reminded me. Since I knew nothing at that time about how to track a basketball game I was about to write about, I asked Jim for a crash course on the subject. The lesson stuck.

In June 2001, I went to visit friends in Maine and made arrangements to stop and have lunch with Jim, who was living there at the time. We chatted about Normal, work, Maine, New Mexico (where he had lived before the Maine move), and general odds and ends concerning our lives. It was a relaxing time to just kick back and be with an old friend.

Needless to say, every time I get ready to prepare to cover a game, I have always remembered and will always be grateful to Jim for that lesson. It has served me well for the 18 years I have been writing sports.

His friendship shall not be forgotten.

By Steve Robinson | August 18, 2010 - 10:22 pm
Posted in Category: Pekin Daily Times, Washington HS

FootballWASHINGTON – For Washington Community High School’s football team, the goal at the beginning of the 2010 remains as it has since head coach Darrell Crouch took the program over in 2005: Win an IHSA championship. Under Crouch, the Panthers have made the playoffs three seasons running.

The Panthers went undefeated in the regular season, entering the 2009 playoffs at 9-0, advancing to beat Rich East and Sterling in the opening two rounds of the IHSA playoffs before being handed a third-round 42-7 upset by Joliet Catholic Academy. Going into his sixth season at Washington, Crouch has a 34-12 record and wants to see the Class of 2011 join the previous three senior classes in getting to State Finals in November.

In the last few seasons, the Panthers had been playing Springfield schools to round out a non-conference section in the schedule. But with the contract between Washington and Springfield completed at the end of last season, the Panthers will play a pair of Peoria schools to begin this season before diving into their Mid-Illini Conference schedule.

Washington visits Peoria High Aug. 27, and Richwoods Sept. 3. In fact, Washington plays three road games before their first home game in a brand new facility. The third away game is at East Peoria Sept. 10. Dunlap is the first guest at Washington’s new football complex on Sept. 17, for a 7:30p.m. contest.

And Crouch asks a very serious question, with what might be a seemingly obvious answer: “What (goal) do you think has been on Metamora’s blackboard since week two of the ’09 season?” The answer, of course, is beat Washington. But with the manpower Crouch has coming this season, the battle for supremacy in the M-I will remain a tough one.

Washington Panthers footballPosition-By-Position: Going through the positions, Crouch has upperclassmen on the squad who have been taught his system of play for all four of their high school years, now, and will graduate in the spring. Senior Isaac Fisher will take the controls under center when the season opens against the Lions. He became the Panthers’ starter after Drew Schlink was hurt, leaving Fisher to lead the team the remainder of the season. “He’s a running threat, he can run the option, (and) he can throw the ball,” Crouch said. Junior Zach Little will serve as Fisher’s backup, playing tight end, and defensive end.

As for the receiving corps Fisher will be throwing to, Crouch called them “a good group,” adding the thought that, “I think our skills are, at least, as good as if not better than they were last year.”

Fisher will be looking for senior Ryan Grebner, junior Dakota Bullard, Deshon Sinclair, and Cameron Johnson for completion help. Johnson is returning to the game after sitting out of football for a year, Crouch said.

Fisher will also have a selection of tight ends to throw to, keeping defenders busy, including Little, Brad Kuchenbecker, and Justin Klemm. Crouch said these three players can be “rotated between defense and offense” when need be, and if the Panthers opt to use four wideouts, he will pull the tight ends off the field.

Washington could audition some sophomore receivers for varsity games, too. Specifically, Crouch could rotate Jason McCoy and Brice Wright into game action, too.

Cameron Johnson will serve the Panthers’ punter/kicker. “It’s pretty tough to try to replace (2010 Washington grad) Toni Ramadani,” Crouch said. “But when you talk about making sure we can make extra points and field goals from 30 yards on in, Cameron Johnson looked capable. He is doing real well.”

At linebacker, Connor Underwood can play in any of the slots in the defensive backfield, Crouch said. Underwood will likely be joined by junior Charlie Ludolph, senior Eric Jaszarowski, Matt Friend, Sinclair, and Klemm.

As for playing the Pekin Dragons, Crouch said, “You never know what’s going to happen. It’s tough to tell what Pekin will be like from last year to this year. I think that our conference is going to be tougher this year.” Washington visits the Dragons Sept. 24 at 7:30p.m.

But Crouch admits two position categories concern him because they need shoring up: Offensive line, and defensive line, specifically at the end position.

Crouch said they are “the two most unproven areas” Washington has. On the offensive line, only Friend and Doug Schrock are the only seniors on the line. Juniors Kiel Dosset and Mike Ernst are on the offensive line this season, with Dosset serving as center. Jacob Cox is in competition for a tackle slot.

By Steve Robinson | August 16, 2010 - 10:55 pm
Posted in Category: Olympia HS, Pekin Daily Times

FootballSTANFORD – Although his Stanford Olympia Spartans ended 2009 with a 4-5 mark, head coach Matt Koeppel was still pleased with the effort his players put in despite losing outcomes of two games toward the end last season, instead of where Koeppel was sure his crew might have finished.

“We were 4-3 going into the last two weeks,” Koeppel said. “And with the luck of the draw, we end up getting Mahomet, who was ranked third or fourth in the state, and then we get Rochester the last week, who everybody knows was number one at the time.”

But Rochester will not be a problem anymore for the Spartans, because the Rockets have switched to the Sangamon Conference. So, that still leaves the Spartans to battle remaining familiar Corn Belt foes.

Hazzard At QB: Koeppel has tapped senior Matt Hazzard to be his starting quarterback when the season opens Aug. 27. Hazzard has been stand-in to 3 1/2 –year starter Brent Williams who graduated in the spring. But the last time Hazzard was regularly under center was as a sophomore. With taking no snaps his junior year, the 2010 Spartans passer will, in effect, know the team’s system of play, but have no experience commanding it.

“(Hazzard) has been around for some victories. He’s watched how Williams handled the huddle the last couple years, and the kids respect him,” the fifth-season head coach said of his incoming senior passer. “Granted, it’s going to be new to him. He might take a couple games to get his feet wet. But he’s been working hard all summer. He’s gotten better each week this summer, so, we’re hoping that continues (improving) each week through the season.”

Stanford-Olympia SpartansHallstein To Lead Receiving Corps: Having grown a few inches to 6 foot-7, Spartans senior Mike Hallstein will have reach and be menacing for defenders to bring down as Olympia’s leading receiver. “It really helps having his height,” Koeppel said. “Last year, he had six or seven touchdown receptions, and we’re hoping he can just build on that and continue getting better.

“With the average defensive back being about 5 foot-7 or 5 foot-8, Hallstein will present problems for some teams,” Koeppel said.

Koeppel has tabbed junior Alex Slinker as a leading figure among running backs, despite his sitting out of football his sophomore season. But while Olympia will have Slinker leading the receivers, they will be without running back-defensive back combo player Chase Hainline, who opted not to play senior ball, to focus more on baseball.

Two returning fullbacks, seniors Cole Lawson and Brian Behrens, will add to Oly’s offensive weaponry, Koeppel said.

On the offensive front line, seniors Bret Wiggington and Travis Stutzman, and junior Eric Sheppleman are returning for another season.

Soccer Player Litwiler To Kick: Having graduated kicker Zack Zindel in the spring, Oly has again returned to looking for a soccer player to handle kicking chores. This season, junior Noah Litwiler, a first-season football player, will assume that responsibility, Koeppel said. He said Litwiler being a junior means two straight years of the same person kicking. Oly has had seniors kicking every year Koeppel has coached in Stanford.

McVey Leads Oly’s D: Now a senior with all-conference credentials, Briley McVey will be looked upon to guide Oly’s defense, Koeppel said. At linebacker, Koeppel said he expects to see “big things out of” senior Cole Lawson, as well.

Message For The Fans: As 2010 opens, Koeppel is aware that fans could have a tendency to expect instant positive results considering how the Spartans finished 2009. His message to the fans: “We try to tell the fans we’re going to go out there and do the best we can every Friday, and let the chips fall where they may,” Koeppel concluded.

Squib Kicks: Corn Belt Conference officials voted last winter to move up the starting time of conference games from 7:45p.m. to 7p.m. Junior varsity games, which had been played just before the varsity matchups, have had to be moved by all Corn Belt Conference schools. Oly JV home games will now be played Mondays at 6p.m., and freshman football will be played Thursdays at 6p.m. ….Olympia starts the season on the road Aug. 27 in a non-conference game against Peoria High….While Olympia’s player numbers has bounced up and down during the Koeppel era, the Spartans start 2010 with a 68-man roster….The Spartans’ first home game is Sept. 17 against Dunlap….Going into his fifth season as Spartans’ head coach, Koeppel has a record of 7-29.