By Steve Robinson | August 30, 2011 - 10:10 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

NORMAL – The players who made up Normal Community West High School’s 2009 freshmen and 2010 junior varsity football teams managed to rack up an impressive, combined 18-0 record leading up to joining the varsity team as juniors this season.

With help from a number of juniors, the Wildcats entered the varsity season 1-0, while those juniors can say, with some confidence, that they are, now anyway, 19-0, as Normal West opened their season with a convincing 56-14 Big 12 Conference win over Champaign Centennial High at Wildcat Field on Aug. 26.

Wildcats senior running back Braxton Moore scored the first touchdown of the season on a 22 yard run, topping a 9 play, 80 yard drive, with 6:42 left in the first quarter, giving West a

6-0 lead following a failed extra point try by senior kicker Geoffrey Kohlhase.

West (1-0) upped their lead to 12-0 as junior quarterback Alex Jefferson connected on a 32-yard pass to senior wide receiver Johnathon Maebane at 5:50 in the first quarter. The point-after try following this touchdown was no good.

Jefferson connected with junior wide receiver Jacob Evans for a 48-yard score with 3:49 left in the opening quarter. The Wildcats followed that score with a two-point conversion try, with Jefferson connecting successfully with Maebane, increasing West’s lead to 20-0 going into the second quarter.

West increased the score to 28-0 on a 16 yard pass from Jefferson to senior receiver Javonta Simon with 5:43 left until halftime. The score was followed by a successful two-point conversion from Jefferson to junior running back Brady Boitnott.

Champaign Centennial (0-1) got on the scoreboard in dramatic fashion, with a 50 yard pass from senior quarterback Taylen Alexander to junior wide receiver Justin Walls with 5:43 left in the third quarter. The touchdown, topped off by senior kicker Nate Gibson’s extra point, cut West’s lead, 28-7, with four minutes left in the first half.

West went into halftime with a 35-7 lead, thanks to a 3-yard run by senior running back Corey Ortiz, with 40.5 second left in the opening half. West got that close because of an unsportsmanlike conduct call against the Chargers, which put West at Champaign’s 3-yard line. The score capped a 3 play, 67 yard march. Sophomore kicker Zach Breen’s extra point gave West a 35-7 halftime lead.

West added to that lead by receiving the second half, marching it 70 yards in 5 plays for their next score: A 15 yard jaunt by Jefferson at 10:22 in the third quarter, which gave West a 42-7 lead following an extra point try by Kohlhase.

A nine yard pass from Jefferson to Moore for their second connection of the night at 8:28 in the third quarter, put West up 48-7, but the extra point was missed. This touchdown resulted in a 40-point margin between the teams and game officials using the Illinois High School Association’s “Mercy Rule.”

The IHSA’s “mercy rule” in effect, only stopping the clock for injuries or officials’ or team timeouts.

IHSA mercy rule calls for a continuously running clock once one team hits a 40-point margin of difference against their opponent.

Sophomore running back Dominique Stevenson ran for an 8-yard touchdown with 5:20 left in the third quarter, which was followed by another Kohlhase extra point, giving West a 55-7 lead.

Centennial’s last score of the night came in the last minutes of the contest, as junior quarterback Mitch Hauser ran into the end zone for a one yard score. The extra point by Gibson resulted in the final score.

West defenders held Alexander to 5-for-13 passing for 70 yards and three interceptions.

“It’s nice to be able to control the pace a little bit, especially in the first game of the season,” Wildcats head coach Darren Hess said. “I thought our offensive and defensive lines really set the tone.

“I thought Alex Jefferson had a great, balanced game,” Hess said of his junior year quarterback, who was 19-for-24 for 289 yards passing and added another 53 yards rushing on five carries.

“We are pleased, but there is always a lot more work that we could do,” Hess added. He credited his defensive backs with contributing to Centennial senior quarterback Taylen Alexander’s tossing three interceptions on the night.

Hess said that kind of defensive play will become important for his team as the season continues. He said forcing opponents to turn over the ball “is a big part of our game, and hopefully, our offense can put a lot of pressure on the other team.”

Concerning the juniors as a unit, Hess said, “I think they’re excellent athletes and they played very well. They are great to add to our nucleus.” He added that the team has 22 seniors who also understand what it takes to win games.

Hess credited Champaign Centennial by saying the Chargers “are a playoff caliber team. Before this game, we had a lot of unknowns, and obviously, our guys stepped up tonight.”

The last full week of the Frontier League season has just been completed by the Normal CornBelters. Manager Hal Lanier’s ball club was recently mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They spent Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at Evansville. Beginning Friday, the CornBelters will play their last three games of the season against the visiting Florence Freedom. Friday and Saturday’s games will start at 7p.m. Sunday’s contest will begin at 6p.m. Friday night, legendary country singer Larry Gatlin will perform a pre-game concert. On Friday night, the gates will open at 5:30p.m.

This season began with such promise: A nucleus of returning players who, for the first full month of the season, at least, went on a tear, winning 18 games, giving fans hope of contending for a chance to play in the Western Division finals by season’s end.

But then things turned on the CornBelters, as they were only able to win 10 of 28 games played in July. Prior to last Sunday’s game against Southern Illinois, the CornBelters were 8-16 in August.

The final outcome of the 2011 season has been disappointing for the CornBelters as far as Lanier is concerned. “The team did not achieve the team goals that we set forth during spring training,” the veteran manager said. “We started off really well, especially in June, and were 10 games over .500, and then July came around and it turned on us, and we never could quite get back on our feet after that.

As Lanier sees it: “Whether it was timely hitting, defense, starting pitching, relievers, everyone has to take the blame for it because they go out there and are on the field. The coaching staff can only talk to them. We don’t catch the ball, throw the ball, or hit the ball for them.”

Lanier singled out players who have reached individual goals: Right fielder Asif Shah (7th highest average in the league, 322); Second Baseman Frank Martinez; First baseman Steve Alexander (in a three-way tie for second most homers in the league with 20, as of Sunday); outfielder Mike Mobbs; and center fielder Alvaro Ramirez (fourth-best batting average in league .333).

At this point, one should not forget a pitching staff that has three members who are in the middle of the pack for strikeouts across the league: Prior to Sunday’s action, Ryan Sheldon has 108, Tyler Lavigne has 105, and Bobby Pritchett has 104. Sheldon is also, as of Sunday, a 10-game winner putting him in a five-way tie.

Individual stats and goal aside, Lanier is quick to say, and rightly so, that “team goals have to come before individual goals, and we just haven’t played the way I thought they could play.

“Whatever moves that a manager makes or a pitching coach teaches, it all come down to execution from the players,” Lanier said. “The players have to look themselves in the mirror and they’ve all got to be disappointed.

“Our team goals were to get into the playoffs or play a lot better than we did last year,” Lanier said. “From that standpoint, at times we did, but a lot of times, we didn’t.”

Prior to last Saturday’s game against Southern Illinois, the CornBelters had played 87 games. In those 87 games, the team has racked up 111 errors. “That’s not very good at all,” their manager said candidly.

“We’ve given too many extra outs, extra runs, and given away a lot of games,” Lanier added. “We’ve lost 27 games by two runs or less, so our issues come from either defense, pitching maybe, and, maybe, not timely hitting.”

Once the season is over, Lanier will sit down with Team Owner Steve Malliet to discuss his future with the club. “Hopefully, they will bring (pitching coach) Brooks Carey, (batting coach) Boots Day, and myself back for next season because we really want to accomplish what we came here to, and that was to bring a championship,” Lanier said.

Lanier said he would like to see a third year at the helm to try to get the right mix of players so that he and his coaching staff can finish what they started when they got here last season: Working toward bringing a team into the playoffs and, eventually, to the league championship.

“The three of us played for a long time, and we take our losses very, very hard,” Lanier admits. “After a loss, we go over why we lost and what we could have done better. The last month hasn’t been very much fun because we just haven’t played very solid baseball at all.

“That’s what’s disappointing,” Lanier said. “Because you have enough talent out there, but they make a lot of mistakes, and you’re not going to win a lot of ball games when you make physical and mental mistakes.”

It seems almost trite to say “wait ‘til next year,” but unfortunately, that is the position the CornBelters and their fans now find themselves having to do as a result of how this season has turned out.

On another subject, former Chicago Cubs pitching great Ferguson Jenkins visited The Corn Crib Saturday. I asked him about a couple of recent events concerning his former team: The firing of general manager Jim Hendry, and the Cubs season thus far.

Concerning changing general managers, Jenkins, who played for the Cubs from 1966-1973, and again when he retired from the game in 1982, said the current Cubs owners, the Ricketts family, is looking to make some changes. “For the past few years, you have seen them have the same results with the ball club,” Jenkins said. “They have finished in either fourth or fifth place, and I think the owners are trying to make a change.

“Change starts from the top of the organization down,” Jenkins reminded. “The axe has to fall somewhere, either on the general manager or the manager. As a result, they put new players on the field.”

Jenkins has seen what change does when a ball club changes managers. And the managers he saw get fired were two guys who were legends, almost for the act of being fired itself sometimes. Those two managers were Leo Durocher, fired by the Cubs; and Billy Martin, fired by the Texas Rangers when Jenkins played there for part of his Hall-Of-Fame career.

“I thought the Cubs could have brought in some different players,” Jenkins said in a quick diagnosis. “They have had some problems with free agents.

“I’m a bystander,” Jenkins said. “A lot of times, I will read the paper and see what’s going on with a player and say to myself, ‘this guy’s done. He can’t play anymore. He can’t pitch anymore.’ They then sign him for X-amount of dollars, which is probably way too much, and the end result is they don’t get any production from those guys.”

Jenkins said he does not see Cubs Manager Mike Quade being the next person sent packing by Ricketts at the end of the season. “I think he’s a great manager,” Jenkins said of Quade, who took over for Lou Pinella toward the end of the season last year when Pinella retired. “I’ve seen Quade manage in the minor leagues. He does an excellent job.”

On another subject, the CornBelters clubhouse manager, Dan Huling seems to have made a career of working with wood that becomes associated with sports. His work life has revolved around either baseball bats or hockey sticks. Last hockey season, he helped maintain equipment for the now-defunct Bloomington PrairieThunder of the Central Hockey League. He does not know if he will be doing the same for the new CHL team that will debut in October, the Bloomington Blaze. But Huling is hoping to return to U. S. Cellular Coliseum again this season.

Huling said the recent and quick departure of newly hired Blaze head coach Jason Christie for the Ontario Reign of ECHL, just days after being hired to coach the Blaze, was a shock.

A shock, yes, but from his point of view, not a surprise. “Jason basically did what is expected because the purpose of being in the minors is to move up,” Huling said. Christie was moving from Class AA with Bloomington to Class AAA with Ontario, which is located in suburban Los Angeles.

My thanks to CornBelters President Steve Malliet, General Manager Kyle Kreger, Manager Hal Lanier and his coaching staff, Public/Media Relations Manager Ashlynne Solvie, and the entire CornBelters staff for every assistance they provided me again this season.

By Steve Robinson | August 25, 2011 - 10:04 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – A number of financial matters received attention during Aug. 24’s meeting of the Normal-based Unit 5 School District. The meeting started with Board members voting unanimously to approve the terms of a two-year contract with members of the Unit Five Support Professionals Association (UFSPA), the union that represents teaching assistants and office personnel.

The contract will run for the next two school years, 2011-12 and 2012-13.

“I appreciate the effort put in, getting a two-year contract, and thanks to all concerned,” said District Superintendent Dr. Gary Niehaus, addressing about 10 UFSPA members who attended the meeting to see the vote take place.

Proposed Budget Update: District Business Manager Erik Bush presented Board members with a proposed budget for the 2011-2012 school year. Under the proposed budget, the district has $87 million in its Education fund; $10.9 million in its Operations and Maintenance fund; $7.7 million in its Transportation fund.

While it is a positive that the district has the funds to spend, Bush urged Board members to consider establishing reserves in order to avoid having to borrow money in order to meet cash flow needs by springtime.

Bush said the State of Illinois, which made its Transportation and Special Education payments to the district just in time to meet a end-of-fiscal year 2011 deadline on June 30, still owes the district $1.8 million for special education payments and $1 million for transportation funding.

A public hearing on the district’s proposed budget will be held in September.

Raise For Superintendent Approved: As part of the meeting’s consent agenda, having met academic and financial objectives asked of him by the district, Board members unanimously approved a 2.75 percent raise for Niehaus, an increase of $5,177. As a result, his salary will go up from $188,260 to $193,437. Niehaus has been District Superintendent since July 1, 2007.

Last week, I told you about Normal CornBelters center fielder Alvaro Ramirez and what he has learned about how to improve his game while under the guidance of CornBelters coaches.

While Ramirez has managed to stay in the game since entering through rookie league in 2006, his CornBelters teammate, second baseman Frank Martinez, actually sat out of baseball for one year because he could not find a team to latch on with.

That does happen. A player at the minor or independent league level winds up sitting out of the game for a year, hoping somehow, that he finds a manager and team who will see his skills and think of him as the perfect fit to help improve their ball club which plays in Independent ball.

“Martinez didn’t play ball last year,” CornBelters Manager Hal Lanier said. “He was with the Oakland A’s organization for a while.” Lanier added he does not know what criteria the A’s organization used to decide on cutting Martinez loose.

His earlier stints with the A’s were spent in the minors playing for Arizona Athletics (Arizona League); Vancouver Canadians (Northwest League); Kane County Cougars (Midwest League); Midland RockHounds (Texas League); and Stockton Ports (California League). He became a free agent in 2009.

Since he came to Normal this season, Martinez has wasted no time racking up numbers. Before Tuesday’s games began, Martinez was second on the team in home runs with 13, and also second in RBIs on the team, with 57. In both categories, Martinez is standing right behind the same teammate: First baseman Steve Alexander, who leads Normal in both categories.

“I came here in the hopes of getting back to the majors, and I hope that by what I do here, I can be more consistent in how I play the game,” the Spanish-speaking Martinez said, through interpreter Nicky Silva.

Martinez said his friends still playing in baseball’s class system do not look down on his being in Independent ball. I asked that because when the idea of Normal having a club in independent ball was being floated, Mike Veeck, son of the late former Chicago White Sox owner, Bill Veeck, mentioned that there is a bit of a divide as to how teams in the Class system and teams in the Independent system see the other.

“Players see it as the game of baseball,” Martinez said about how his friends in the Class system look at where Martinez is now. That divide, apparently, does not seem to matter to the players.

Martinez said CornBelters fans are treating him well, with plenty of kids asking for autographs, which he enjoys signing.

The CornBelters will have been home at The Corn Crib since Tuesday, beginning a three-game series with the River City Rascals. Friday through Sunday, the Southern Illinois Miners will be in town for three games, Friday and Saturday at 7p.m., and Sunday at 6p.m. Among the promotions for this homestand on Friday are: “CEFCU Fireworks Night,” “Illinois State University Night,” and “Illinois Wesleyan University Night.”

Saturday is another “Star-Struck Saturday” event, with an appearance by former Chicago Cubs and Hall of Fame Pitcher Ferguson Jenkins. He will be signing autographs before the game, as well as throwing out the first pitch.

Saturday is also the inaugural “Taste of Central Illinois,” which will be held at The Corn Crib, starting at 4p.m. Sunday will also be “’90’s Night” at the ballpark.

The CornBelters will take their last road trip of the 2011 season to Evansville Aug. 30 and 31, and Sept. 1. The CornBelters’ last homestand will be Friday through Sunday, Sept. 2-4, facing the Florence Freedom.

By Steve Robinson | August 20, 2011 - 10:57 pm
Posted in Category: Pekin Daily Times, Pekin HS

WASHINGTON – Washington Community High head football coach DarrellCrouch knows his team must hurdle over its competitors in the Mid-IlliniConference to win its championship outright.

Last year, Crouch’s team finished7-3, including a regular season loss to Morton and ending the season in afirst-round playoff shelling by Joliet Catholic.

Crouch and his team, obviously,look to better that record and make it back to the IHSA playoffs. But first,the Panthers need to get past the teams in their conference, and especiallypast teams Crouch sees as sitting atop the conference – Morton, Metamora, andDunlap.

“Our goal is to win the conference,”Crouch said. “The last four years, we’ve either been first or second. We wantto be first.”

Position-By-Position: Senior Isaac Fisher has the controls asquarterback this season, going into his third year as a starter. That gives Fisheranother opportunity to hand off to four guys who have spend as their strongpoint: Senior running back Kyle Zimmerman; Juniors Austin Harrell, Austin Reel,and Brent Brown.

Of those players, Crouch explained,“they will be our four frontrunners at that position.”

At wide receiver, Crouch is lookingfor contributions from senior Justin Robinson and sophomore Chris Friend.Robinson and Friend will be joined by a player who is new to the Panthersprogram this year, junior Anthony DiMito. DiMito transferred to WCHS fromSpring Valley Hall High School.

On the offensive line, seniors JoshHack and Mike Ernst; juniors West Pyle, Evan Cooper, Kyle Clark, and BradKuchenbecker; and sophomore Cole Stark will become responsible for holding backopposing oncoming defenses.

Sophomore Friend and junior runningback J. D. Eddy will serve as the kicking unit for the Panthers this season,with Fisher doing some kicking as well.

“We’re, right now, trying to workthings out to see who’s the most consistent,” Crouch said, explaining his team’spreparation for its kicking game.

On defense, holding the front linewill be Kuchenbecker, with juniors Chris Sexton and Kyle Clark rotatingfrequently at defensive tackle. Also on the line at defensive end is seniorJustin Robinson. Also part of the defensive line are junior Jake Moline, juniorJosh Fager, and senior Mason Wright.

Junior Louis Favre will serve asmiddle linebacker, joined by senior weak-side linebacker Charlie Ludolph, andFriend at strong-side linebacker.

Squib Kicks: Washington hosts Pekin Community High for itshomecoming game Sept. 23….Junior defensive back Dominic Carrol is sidelined forthe next 4-6 weeks with a strained knee…..WCHS has 12 seniors on its roster aswell as five players who play the game on both sides of the ball.