By Steve Robinson | May 29, 2012 - 10:25 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

NORMAL – The Normal CornBelters will go from starting the 2012 season at home for the first time in their three-year existence to ending the month of May and starting June amidst the longest road trip of the year.

The CornBelters are 3-8 at the end of their first homestand of the year and started a three-game road trip at Rockford Tuesday, which ran through Thursday. Manager Chad Parker started his assessment of the team’s performance thus far by saying, “We’re pitching very well, and we’re playing good defense. So, that should keep us in the game most nights.

“Our starting pitching has been really good; our bullpen’s been even better,” Parker added.

But while the pitching has shown flourishes, run production has not come through as yet. “On the other end, it’s been a case of either our opponents’ pitching doing an equally as good a job, or we aren’t doing as good a job of hitting,” Parker said.

With a .417 batting average, CornBelters infielder Yasel Gomez is leading the league in that category. Right-hander Tyler Lavigne is in the middle of a five-man tie for lowest Earned Run Average, all five with 0.00 ERAs early on.

Despite those bright spots, “We’re striking out way too much and we’re just not moving runners along,” Parker explained. “We’re just not doing the things – the little things – that it takes to play winning baseball, offensively.”

Parker defines “little things” as accomplishing a sacrifice fly successfully, and getting two-strike hits, among the tactics he wants to see his batters use to bring runners home. He said his batters need to get better at making contact with the ball when the count is in their favor.

“Pretty much, our overall offensive game has to get better,” the first-season ‘Belters skipper said.

The first leg of the road trip was a three-day trip to face the Rockford RiverHawks who, before the three-game set with the CornBelters started Tuesday, were in the basement of the Frontier League’s Western Division at 2-7, with Normal in next-to-last place before the series started.

But while the games are being played at the RiverHawks’ home, Road Ranger Stadium in the Rockford suburb of Loves Park, the CornBelters are driving up and back from there for the entire series, — 2 ½ hours each way – something the two teams’ front offices agreed to prior to the start of the season.

Under Frontier League rules, home teams are responsible for booking accommodations for visiting teams.

“Rockford is an extremely tough place to play,” Parker said.

As for the rest of the itinerary, it almost sounds like it belongs to a foreign dignitary: Florence, London, and Washington. In this case, we are speaking of the Florence (Ky.) Freedom (June 1-3); the London (Ontario, Canada) Rippers, an expansion team (June 5-7); and the Washington (Pa.) Wild Things (June 8-10). After this trip, the team returns for a six-game home stand at The Corn Crib, which begins on June 11.

Parker said he has concerns about the Canadian leg of the trip even before his team takes the field against the expansion Rippers – mainly getting through Canadian customs. “The challenge here is that, among other things, everybody’s got to have a passport,” Parker began. The law requiring the need for a passport to be used to get into Canada took effect in 2009.

“Then, if any of our players have any kind of criminal background, as far as misdemeanors or anything like that, Canada charges a fine,” Parker explained, elaborating that when he was with the Joliet Jackhammers of the Northern League a few years ago, en route to games in Winnipeg, players’ various infractions cost the group roughly $2,500.

“That creates a challenge,” Parker said. “It is just another hindrance.”

All that hassle to play games in tough venues against tough teams. “Florence is just as tough and they’ve got a good team,” Parker said. “Washington, Pa. is one of the toughest places to play because their crowd really supports them and they play well at home.”

On another subject, the team has reported some transactions prior to the road trip starting. The team released outfielder Ruben Sierra, Jr. and catcher Michael Thomas. A shoulder injury has shortstop Robert Brooks is in the middle of a stint on the 14-day disabled list. The team has also signed right-handed pitcher Rich Mascheri.

Finally, a quick welcome to the newest member of the CornBelters staff whose job it will be, in part, to deal with the media. Andi Grindley began her new job working in public relations for the team a couple weeks ago.

By Steve Robinson | May 26, 2012 - 10:22 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

NORMAL – Comfort preceded irony concerning the Illinois High School Association Class 3A Baseball Regional played at Normal Community West High School. The comfort was the top-seed Wildcats handily defeated Mahomet-Seymour, 7-1, to win their own regional.

Normal West junior Alex Jefferson got the win. Tyler Fransico, a sophomore, took the loss.

Now the irony: Having just defeated the Bulldogs to advance, head coach Chris Hawkins’ team will play Danville at a sectional hosted by Mahomet-Seymour High School. The Vikings outlasted Champaign Centennial, 9-8. That game was scheduled for May 30 at 4p.m.

Normal West (30-7) grabbed a quick 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning as senior shortstop Wes Sery doubled home junior center fielder Jacob Evans, who earlier in the inning had singled with two outs. West increased the lead, 2-0, in the bottom of the third inning, when Jefferson first by singling then later scored from second, thanks to a steal of second by junior Matt Hunsaker, running for catcher Adam McGinnis.

Wildcats first baseman Turner Reid blasted a solo home run over the left field wall in the bottom of the fourth inning, with one man out, to increase West’s lead, 3-0. “I was hoping just to hit a line drive, but it ends up climbing a little bit and goes over the fence,” Reid said. “I was real excited about that.” It was Reid’s second homer of the season.

Reid said his goal every time he takes an at bat is to “get on base so that my teammates can get me around for a score,” and that he was merely trying to do that very thing when he hit the solo shot.

Mahomet-Seymour (24-12) cut that lead, 3-1, as a double by sophomore catcher Josh Hubbs drove home junior third baseman Clay Diliks. But that would be the only run the Bulldogs would score on the day.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, McGinnis would single, Sery would be walked, and sophomore designated hitter Reed Rogers would single, generating scoring as Rogers’ hit would drive in McGinnis’ pinch-runner, Hunsaker. That would increase the score to 4-1. A single by senior shortstop Garrett Cook would send Sery home, 5-1, while a double by Reid scored Rogers, 6-1. There would have been additional scoring but Cook was put out running the basepaths and Reid was tagged out at the plate on a relay throw from senior relief pitcher Cody Hennigh.

West’s final run came from Evans, who reached first on an error, stole second, and was doubled home by McGinnis, 7-1.

“We knew this was going to be a dogfight,” Hawkins said. “They’ve got a scrappy, young ball club, but so do we.”

Hawkins complimented the opposition, explaining Mahomet won nearly 25 games this year, “so they go into every game believing they can win.”

“They beat Bloomington High and Normal Community High – two teams that split with us, so, we knew they beat those two teams, so we have a lot of respect for Mahomet and what they’ve done this year,” he added.

Neither Mahomet-Seymour head coach Nic DiFilippo nor any of his players were available for comment following the game.

NORMAL – Anticipating being able to speak about outsourcing of bus drivers, about 16 Unit 5 drivers showed up to District headquarters for the regularly scheduled School Board meeting at District headquarters on May 23. But School Board President John Puzauskas announced to those in attendance at the meeting that that transportation matter would be discussed again during a specially-scheduled meeting slated for Tuesday, June 5.

At that time, Board members will meet to discuss the possibility of outsourcing drivers to help with issues the district has been having with running routes.

Puzauskas’ announcement came on the heels of recent legal action taken by the union that represents the drivers, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31. On May 22, AFSCME filed a complaint against Unit 5 with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, citing unfair labor practices. The complaint alleges Unit 5’s leadership has not bargained in good faith while they determine whether to outsource student transportation.

At the Board’s regular meeting on April 11, Board members voted unanimously to start negotiations with Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student School Bus Transportation Co. for outsourced help in transporting students. That action was preceded by a 70-minute public hearing during which Unit 5 drivers and their supporters, numbering nearly 200 people, attended. About 20 of those 200 people publicly spoke directly to the Board against the need for outsourcing.

Puzauskas added there will be no School Board meeting on June 27.

Board Approves Contract With Springfield-Based Photography Service: Board members voted unanimously to award a contract for photographic services to LifeTouch, Inc., based in Springfield. The district solicited bids from 10 firms located both locally and nationally. Of the 10, five submitted bids, explained Erik Bush, Unit 5 Business Manager. Of those five, four were invited to be interviewed by a committee paneled by elementary and junior high school principals; Dayna Brown, assistant to the superintendent; and Bush.

Normal West Teacher Wins $10,000 “Beyond The Box” Grant: The winner of the “Beyond The Box” Grant, worth $10,000 was announced at the meeting as well. The Grant is awarded by the Beyond The Books Educational Foundation. It will go to Lisa Tomlin, a science teacher at Normal Community West High School for her project titled, “Crosscutting The Common Core.”

The $9,974 Grant money will be used to purchase equipment that will help students to meet new standards in science education set by the State. In assembling and writing the grant proposal for this project, Tomlin had co-workers who were significant contributors. Those fellow Normal West teachers are: April Schermann, Dave Weber, Angie Codron, Jessica King, and MaryJo Douglass.

Lunch Prices To Increase: What seems an ever-growing increase in food prices will be felt by district schools beginning next fall. Beginning next school year, the price of an elementary school lunch will go up from $1.80 to $1.85. High school students will begin paying $1.90, up from $1.85, in the fall as well. Adults will also spend an extra nickel on lunches, too, with elementary school lunches going up to $2.35, while the price for those lunches will jump to $2.40 at the junior high and high schools. Students who qualify for reduced cost meals will continue to pay 40 cents for their lunches.

Kingsley Junior High’s “Good News”: Dr. Lynette Mehall, principal of Kingsley Junior High School, publicly introduced Board members to her school’s seventh grade girls’ track team who recently won the state championship in the 2012 Illinois Elementary School Association 7AA Girls’ State Track Meet on May 18 and 19 in East Peoria. Ashley Klinzing won the 400 meter dash, and the 4 x 200 meter relay and the 4 x 400 meter relay teams also won their events. Nia Gilbert placed 3rd in the long jump and 3rd in the 200 meter dash. Rachel Zimmerman received seventh place in the 800 meter run. Amber Nanni received seventh place in the high jump.

In addition to Klinzing, Gilbert, Zimmerman, and Nanni, other members of the track team are: Jamie Eaganhouse, Alyssa Kreps, Hannah Johnson, Raven Hughes, Hayley Metz, Sydney Smith, Hope Metz, Ayanna Gilbert, and Advika Kamatar. The girls were successfully coached by Vincent Allen, Corey Ostling, and Meg Brewer.

Oakdale Elementary’s “Good News”: Darrin Cooper, Principal Oakdale publicly recognized and thanked the Oakdale Promise Council for their time, work and dedication throughout this past school year. Promise Councils came to Unit 5 through a partnership of State Farm Insurance and America’s Promise Alliance. The mission of these two entities, as stated, is to support the development of children, and “to ensure the personal and educational success of America’s youth through the delivery of five promises: Caring Adults, Safe Places, A Healthy Start, An Effective Education and Opportunities to Help Others.”

Five area residents were recognized for their efforts in assisting the Promise Council: Tom Laxton from State Farm Insurance; Linda Healy and Hank Campbell from the Normal Rotary Club; Janet Short from Grace Church; and Leanna Bordner from Illinois State University Athletics.

Laxton has been instrumental in starting Promise Councils at Unit 5 schools with needs. Beyond his work as a loaned executive through State Farm, Laxton has given freely of his personal time to start and lead a new Promise Council at Oakdale Elementary School this year.

The council’s mission is to “help schools to help kids”. Laxton established a group of community leaders to serve on the Oakdale Promise Council. Connections through the council provide mentoring and tutoring for students as well as volunteers for events which aim to increase family connections.

Laxton worked to distribute fliers regarding registration so that Oakdale families received necessary information needed to be prepared to meet the needs of the school’s students. Teachers are able to use an electronic form to submit needs for their students and the Promise Council works to fulfill those needs and remove barriers to education.

Through the assistance of Healy, Campbell and the Normal Rotary over the past three years, Oakdale’s relationship with the service organization laid a foundation for what has become the school’s current Promise Council and has provided coats, hats, and gloves to all of Unit 5 students needing such items. In addition, they have provided a monetary donation for the past two years which has been used to provide Study Island for Oakdale’s third through fifth grade students.

The Study Island program helps students prepare for ISAT testing and monitor their progress toward meeting State goals. This year, Campbell wrote and received a Rotary District Grant on Oakdale’s behalf which will enable the school to purchase books that will be loaned out to students this summer. The school will see to it students that otherwise might not have access to appropriate books at their level receive them so that they may continue to read and hopefully show less regression over the summer.

Normal Rotary’s gift of time and presence at Oakdale has included everything from sitting on the Promise Council, to volunteering with after school tutoring, to volunteering in classrooms, and consistently being here to read with students.

Janet Short’s work has been done in conjunction with Grace Church through Operation Backpack. Every month, Short picks up a supply of food from Midwest Food Bank. Each Thursday evening, she brings almost 100 bags of food to Oakdale and places them in bins for each teacher. Teachers distribute the bags to identified students on Friday.

In addition, having the extra bags on standby enable Oakdale’s staff to provide food and possibly some extra to Oakdale Elementary’s families that are facing situations of homelessness or extremely difficult times, Cooper wrote in his report to District Superintendent Dr. Gary Niehaus and Board members.

Bordner is the Senior Associate Athletics Director at Illinois State University.

Oakdale and ISU Athletics have had a relationship through the Recess Buddies and the Just Read Programs. In addition, Bordner has helped provide ISU athletes to volunteer at all major events Oakdale has hosted this year including Back to School Night, 100 Caring Adults, the ISAT reward celebration, Family Reading Night and the school’s Fun Fair. In addition, ISU athletes, specifically members of the Volleyball team, have volunteered for Oakdale’s after- school tutoring, and volunteered in classrooms to work with small groups and individual students to help them with literacy lessons.

NORMAL – Normal Town Council members discussed and then authorized City Manager Mark Peterson to implement parking policies related to the new parking deck at Uptown Station, as well as to the lot on Parkinson St. and the College Ave. Parking Deck.

The new parking garage at Uptown Station is set to open for business June 18. Once Uptown Station is open, the lot on Parkinson St. will only be available to patrons to park for three hours at a time.

All long term parking for Amtrak, currently being done in the Parkinson St. lot, will only be available at the garage adjacent to Uptown Station. Council members approved an $8 per day parking fee for Amtrak users, but Peterson added that a free option would be available.

In addition, Peterson said, the Town will, for a short period, provide the top level of the College Avenue Parking Deck free for long term parking.

There will be a 30-day grace period for drivers who park in the Parkinson St. lot once Uptown Station is open. During that time, the Town will be making drivers aware of the changes using educational materials and other ways of informing the public to the changes concerning parking. Peterson said the Town could use various marketing strategies and the Town’s website to make people aware of the changes.

“It will take time for people to change their habits,” Peterson told Council members. He said it may be necessary for the Town to alter some of its policies regarding parking once the parking deck at Uptown Station is in operation.

Concerning the issue of permit parking, a discounted rate was set to expire once Uptown Station Parking Deck opened. But Uptown Partners, the business association comprised of businesses in the Uptown district, has submitted a request to the Council asking for an extension of the discount until such time as the parking decks are working at capacity, or barring that, extending the discount for 12-18 months. That time frame would allow for a renegotiating of tenant leases or other arrangements affected by the change in fees.

Andrew Huhn, the Town’s Finance Director, informed Council members there were between 300-350 parking permits currently in use.

Council member Adam Nielsen said he would like to see consideration of a discount connected to the Children’s Discovery Museum, which is located next to Uptown Station.

Peterson also announced Council members will hold their very first regular meeting in their new chambers on the fourth floor of Uptown Station on Monday, July 2.

Agreement With Nussbaum Properties Approved: Council members approved an amended and restated pre-annexation agreement between the Town and Nussbaum Properties, Inc. concerning land at 1425 East Rd. in Hudson. Nussbaum is looking to construct its headquarters and a truck and trailer maintenance facilities on the property.

The Town had twice before heard proposals for use of the land – by City Beverage Co. in 2005; and by Birkey’s Equipment Co. in 2008.

A public hearing on the Nussbaum matter was held prior to the Council meeting. No one addressed the Council concerning the issue.

Appointment And Reappointment Announced: A. J. Zimmerman, currently a member of the Uptown Design Review Committee, has been appointed to fill a vacancy on the Normal Planning Commission. Zimmerman will be completing the term on the Commission of Jill Hutchinson, who recently resigned from that governing body. Zimmerman will serve out the remainder of Hutchinson’s term, which expires on March 31, 2015. Zimmerman has lived in Normal since 2008 and is assistant general counsel for the Illinois Agricultural Association.

Council members also unanimously approved the reappointment of Larry Nolan to the Children’s Discovery Museum Board of Directors. Nolan’s current term is set to expire on June 30. His renewal will keep him as a member of the Board until June 30, 2015.

Omnibus Agenda Items Approved: Omnibus agenda items approved by the Council included:.

• Approval of the minutes of the public hearing of May 7, 2012 pertaining to a proposed amended annexation agreement.

• Approval of the minutes of the public hearing of May 7, 2012 pertaining to Comcast Cable rates.

• Approval of minutes of the Council’s regular meeting held May 7, 2012.

• Approval of Town of Normal expenditures for payment as of May 16, 2012

• A motion to award the bid for a single axle dump truck for the Town Water Department to McLean Co. Truck Co. at a net cost of $74,502.

• A motion to award the bid for concrete to the low bidder, Stark Materials Company, Inc. of Bloomington, IL at a price per cubic yard of $84.75 for High Early Mix and $82.75 for S.I. Mix.

• A motion to award a bid to Diamond Vogel Paints of Bloomington, IL, for purchase of pavement paint and beads for an estimated total of $53,103.50.

• A motion to waive the formal bidding process and to accept a proposal from Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Landscape Forms, Inc. to supply exterior benches and trash receptacles for the Uptown Station and existing City Hall building in the amount of $52,990 and appropriating an associated amount from Project Contingency Funds.

• A Resolution authorizing the execution of a five-year contract with Pepsi Beverages Company of Morton, IL for the exclusive pouring rights at all Parks & Recreation Concession Facilities..

• A resolution approving the selection of and authorizing Town Staff to execute a contract with Four Winds Interactive, Inc. for an electronic directory kiosk system in the Uptown Station in the amount of $34,324.50 and approving an associated amount from Project Contingency Funds.

• A resolution authorizing the execution of a contract with Bloomington-based Stark Excavating, Inc. for the Constitution Trail Relocation Project in the amount of $213,461.50.

• A resolution authorizing the execution of an agreement with Frontier for lease lines and Long Distance Services.

• A resolution authorizing the execution of an agreement with Heartland Community College (HCC) for the Town to provide supervised clinical ride time with Normal Fire Department Paramedics for HCC EMT-Basic/EMT-Paramedic Students.

• A resolution approving a waiver from the Uptown Design Review Code, Chapter 15, Division 17 for signs above the first floor and internally lit signs at 11 Uptown Circle(Uptown Station).

• A resolution approving a waiver from the Uptown Design Review Code, Chapter 15, Division 17 for the use of EIFS at 200 S. Linden (Budget Liquor).

• A resolution vacating utility and sewer easements in Lot 1 of the Bradford – Raab Subdivision.

• An ordinance amending Division 6 of Chapter 17 of the Municipal Code – Uptown Station Code of Conduct.

• An ordinance amending the Sign Code (Chapter 15, Division 13).

By Steve Robinson | May 20, 2012 - 10:05 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

NORMAL – There is a new attitude at The Corn Crib these days, and with new excitement for the Normal CornBelters of the Frontier League this season for a number of reasons.

And from the first night, you just had a feeling things would be different. The CornBelters opened their third season with a 5-1 victory over the Windy City Thunderbolts on Friday, May 18 in the first of a three-game series. By the time the weekend was over, the CornBelters were 1-1, with the outcome of the weekend’s third game to be determined in July, no thanks to a rain out in mid-game.

Friday, the CornBelters beat Windy City, 5-1 on Opening Night. A four-run second inning was the key as, with one out, designated hitter Sam Judah was hit by a pitch. Next, Windy City pitcher Dustin Williams walked Normal shortstop Robert Brooks. That was followed by left fielder Bobby Rinard loading the bases on a fielding error. ‘Belters lead-off hitter, center fielder Alvaro Ramirez, singled scoring Brooks and Judah, 2-0. A wild pitch pushed Ramirez to second and scored Rinard, 3-0. With two out, right fielder Steven Felix singled and scored Ramirez, 4-0.

Windy City shortshop Chris Wade scored the Thunderbolts’ lone run of the game, getting a single and then advancing as the next two batters were put out, scoring his team’s only run, 4-1. Ramirez scored the fifth run for Normal in the seventh inning, giving the CornBelters the eventual final score.

Tyler Lavigne got the win for the CornBelters while Matt Jernstad, in relief, got the loss for Windy City.

“This was a good first impression,” new CornBelters Manager Chad Parker said of his team’s effort toward their first win. “We played great defense, pitched really good, and so it was a good first impression. We took advantage of some things on the bases and let our team speed show up. It was a good win for us.”

“Lavigne did a super job,” Parker said. “He did what I thought he would. He was battling and competing. To throw a shutout was on the first night was an excellent job by him.”

Lavigne had an 80-pitch limit on him set by Parker. He threw 77 pitches. Early on, Parker wants his pitchers to work up to high pitch counts. In the early weeks, 80 pitches will be the norm. As the weeks progress, Parker said, so will the number of pitches he will allow his pitchers to throw.

“We didn’t do a very good job when we had two strikes against us,” Parker said. “We had too many strikeouts.” By my count, the CornBelters struck out 12 times in the first game.

As for Lavigne, he said the first start is always fun. “It just felt good to get out there after a long off-season. Everything from stealing to bunting to hitting and runs, it looks like we have a pretty good offensive team.”

Saturday night, the Thunderbolts struck back, winning 7-2. On Sunday, the rubber game between the pair was suspended in the fourth inning due to rain. At that point, Normal was ahead 1-0. As a result of the extended rain delay and suspension of that game, the CornBelters front office is offering complimentary exchanges of tickets from the May 20 game to any future CornBelters regular season game.

As for Parker himself, he was introduced as the new manager of the CornBelters last October, replacing Hal Lanier who posted a 90-102 mark in the team’s first two years before being firing by the team at the end of last season.

Parker’s career has included working as an associate scout for the Atlanta Braves in 2008 and joining the Frontier League’s River City Rascals in 2009. The Rascals clinched a division title with a 56-38 record and finished runner-up in the championship series that year. He was named “Manager of the Year” for the effort. In 2010, he joined the Joliet Jackhammers of the now defunct Northern League. He led the Jackhammers to a 53-47 record, a playoff appearance and for a second straight season was named “Manager of the Year”.

“The idea from here is to get better as the season goes on,” Parker said of what should be the team’s mindset at the beginning. The team played a total of five exhibition games prior to this season starting. Of those five, only one was played in front of an audience. The team played home and away exhibitions with the River City Rascals, and home and away with the Gary (Ind.) Railcats of the American Association. The CornBelters finished the exhibition schedule with a 3-2 record.

Of the players he has now in uniform as the season begins, Parker said “This group is extremely hard-working and extremely dedicated to their profession. I told these players in the off-season that you have to take on the essence of your community. This is an extremely hard-working community.”

“It is very easy to relate that to our players,” Parker said. “We have really good guys who go after it every single day. We’re here for a purpose. That should encourage the fans to know they will have somebody they can really root for.”

After wrapping up their series with Windy City, the Lake Erie Crushers will have visited the Corn Crib on May 22-24, and the nine game opening homestand ends May 25-27 by hosting the Southern Illinois Miners.

“I’ll tell you this,” Parker started, “Windy City, Lake Erie, and Southern Illinois – all three teams – all expect to win the league every year. I can tell you that. They’re going to be good, they expect to win it. They try to put a team out there that’s gonna win it every year, and it’s shown. Those three have been highly successful in this league.

“The first nine games are going to be tough sledding,” he concluded.

As it has always been explained to me, baseball seasons are marathons, not sprints. I get the feeling Parker and his men are ready for that marathon. I know the fans are. Here’s hoping to see a lot of victories at The Corn Crib and away from it this season.

Rinard was put on the 14-day disabled list by the team Saturday. Brantley Meier, who was one of the last players cut by Normal before spring trained ended, has been re-signed to replace him.

Finally, I offer a public “so long and thanks” to Ashlynne Solvie who has been doing public relations with the media for the CornBelters for all or part of her time with the team. She was on staff when the team began in 2010 and helped all of us media types whenever we sought it. She is headed down another career path and I wish her well with it.