By Steve Robinson | September 28, 2014 - 10:24 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

Steve RobinsonPost-game interviews following football games are usually fairly quick consisting of questions such as, “Coach, give us your review of how your team did,” and “Did you expect the contest to go the way it did?,” and in the case of a loss, “What problem are you likely to address first as a priority before next week’s game?” There is always a question or two about a player who has had a good game, either for a number of touchdowns or yards run, or number of tackles on the night. Pretty standard stuff regardless of whether the team being covered won or lost. And the coaches have an idea to expect those questions afterward.

When I finished with the “pretty standard stuff” as I did my postgame interview with Normal Community West High interim head coach Duane Thoennes, I had a notion to see how the players and coaching staff were fairing after two weeks since Wildcats head coach Darren Hess was suspended by the school while Illinois High School Association is conducting an investigation.

I will not get into the specifics or circumstances of the investigation here. About the only explanation being doled out is that Hess is being suspended for “violating an administrative directive,” according to WJBC Radio’s website. Not much else has or is being said publicly. And when something does break on the matter, the timing of any announcement most likely will be seen in the local daily paper first. Those are just the facts when you work for the Town weekly.

Since Hess’ suspension, Duane Thoennes, the Wildcats’ assistant coach responsible for supervising the front lines of both the offensive and defensive squads, was appointed interim head coach. With the game staff shuffle, Thoennes said, assistant coaches Marc DeLaere and Jeff Porter are teaming up to handle defensive coordinator’s duties, something Hess regularly handles in addition to being head coach.

Against Danville last week, the coaching staff made changes at halftime, and some more tweaks during the second half, Thoennes explained, “And the kids listened and responded, and reacted really well and did what they were coached to do.”

Thoennes said Hess visited briefly with the team on the Wednesday before the Danville game, adding the players were not and have not been told much about the circumstances surrounding their head coach’s suspension. Thoennes added Hess is allowed to come to games and sit in the bleachers, as would any fan, during this time.

As for the coaching staff, “We have no comment as far as to the details of the situation go,” Thoennes said. “As a coaching staff, we’re fairly tight, and we fill in where we can. Our focus is on the kids. I mean, it can’t be on Coach Hess. He needs to deal with what he needs to deal with. The staff is on the same page. We’re here for the kids. We’re going to focus on them to get them through the season.”

As I left Thoennes and headed off the field to catch Danville head coach B. J. Luke to get his postgame comments in their locker room, I spotted Hess on the tarp just off the entryway to the field. The notion of doing a quick interview with Hess crossed my mind as I saw a few players also spotted him and gave him either a high-five or a quick celebratory hug.

As I went to where Hess was, I mentally gave myself some quick rules for this potential conversation: 1) Don’t ask anything about IHSA’s investigation; 2) Ask how the period off the field has been for him; 3) Check to see if he has ever been in a situation where all he was allowed to do was watch, not coach. His suspension began with West’s road game at Grayslake North on Sept. 19 and continues.

“This period has been difficult because I want to be out there for my guys,” Hess said. “It’s been very humbling, but a very difficult couple of weeks. I’ve been coaching for 23 years and the last two weeks have been very difficult.”

Danville head coach B. J. Luke, said the way the Wildcats played against his team with Hess absent “seemed to be the same to me,” regardless of who was in charge on the sidelines. Considering the 48-28 Wildcats victory, West’s fans probably felt the same way.

On another subject, I attended a reunion of my graduating class from University High School last Saturday. It has been 35 years since we were let loose to make our way in the world complete with diplomas. There were about 25 of us and some brought significant others to the event. We had a wonderful time and will probably get together for the 40th year reunion (as soon as we can find someone as brave as Kris Albert-Burke, who did a wonderful job in a short amount of time in putting this milestone reunion together).

By Steve Robinson | September 27, 2014 - 10:01 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

FootballNORMAL – Despite another week when a controversy surrounding their head coach made headlines, including Darren Hess’ suspension and an Illinois High School Association investigation, Normal Community West High School’s football team took the situation in stride as another game day approached. Add the fact that it was homecoming week, too, and the Wildcats were looking forward to taking to the gridiron as their big game versus Danville came up at Wildcat Field on Sept. 26.

Under interim head coach Duane Thoennes, the Wildcats managed to do just that, marching to a 48-28 Big 12 Conference victory over the Vikings in front of roughly 1,900 fans. Junior running back Dajour Forrest put West (3-2, 3-0 Big 12) on the scoreboard first with a 6-yard scoring dash at 10:38 in the first quarter, capping a 5-play, 80 yard drive, putting the Wildcats up, 7-0, following junior kicker Tim O’Brien’s extra point.

On Danville’s first possession which immediately followed, sophomore quarterback Quentin Smith connected with senior received Tavion Boyd on a 25-yard pass for Danville’s first score. Freshman kicker Caleb Griffin tacked on the extra point, tying the game at 7-all, putting the Vikings (0-5, 0-3 Big 12) on the scoreboard.

Normal West FootballWorthman connected with junior tight end Mace Julian on a single scoring play — a 44 yard scoring pass – to put West up 14-7, following O’Brien’s next point after. Danville returned fire marching 80 yards on eight plays, concluding with Smith’s 2-yard keeper play into the end zone with 45.1 seconds left in the quarter. That score tied the game again, 14-all, following Griffin’s point after, going into the second quarter.

Forrest opened the second quarter on a 43-yard scoring sprint for West, part of a three-play, 73 yard drive with 11:27 left in the second quarter. Despite Danville’s defense managing to block O’Brien’s extra point, the Wildcats went in front, 20-14.

Danville’s next possession ended in a failed field goal, giving West the ball at their own 20. Two plays later, Worthman blazed across the field 70 yards before Vikings defenders stopped him. On the next play, senior wide receiver Genia Fuss scored from 5 yards out with 6:23 remaining in the quarter, followed by O’Brien’s next extra point, giving West a 27-14 lead.

Danville responded on their next series of downs, ending in Boyd taking the ball and running a 44-yard reverse play into the end zone with 4:16 left, capping a 6 play, 63 yard drive for the Vikings, followed by Griffin’s extra point, cutting West’s lead, 27-21.

But on the Wildcats’ ensuing series, Worthman and Forrest took charge running on alternating downs during an 8 play, 86 yard drive concluding in Worthman’s 13 yard touchdown run at 1:26 until halftime, giving West a 34-21 lead following O’Brien’s extra point.

Danville would get what turned out to be their last score of the night on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Smith to junior wide receiver Antius Collier-Wilson with 21.4 seconds left until halftime. That cut West’s lead going into the break, 34-28, following another successful Griffin extra point.

Following a defense-centered, scoreless third quarter, Worthman scored on an 8-yard run, capping a 14 play, 80 drive, which was punctuated by another O’Brien extra point, giving the Wildcats a 41-28 advantage with 5:19 left in the contest.

Fuss helped West seal the victory by spoiling a needed Danville 4th down-and-10 play, intercepting Smith’s pass and returning it 64 yards for the Wildcats’ last touchdown of the night, followed by another O’Brien extra point, leading to the eventual final score.

Danville football“I thought our offense was capable of scoring as many points as they did in the first half,” Thoennes said. “I knew this game was going to be a shootout, and I also knew this wasn’t going to be a blowout. Danville’s well-coached, their kids are physical, even if they are a young team. I knew this game would be tight the whole time.

“At halftime, we needed to confuse their schemes,” Thoennes said of how the Wildcats’ coaching staff rethought the defense they needed to contain Boyd, in part. “We had to take Boyd away because he was killing us. We tried some different defenses to avoid him getting away from us.”

Danville head coach B. J. Luke said his team, almost from game-to-game “really doesn’t know what to expect because we start six sophomores and a freshman on offense and five sophomores and a freshman on defense. We know they are good football players, and we know they are young players. And against a veteran team, sometimes veteran teams are a handful for those kids.”

By Steve Robinson | September 25, 2014 - 10:20 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

Unit 5NORMAL – Members of Normal-based Unit 5 School Board unanimously approved a budget for the 2014-15 school year totaling $145,993,515. District Business Manager Marty Hickman told Board members at the Board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Sept. 24 the budget they were going to approve at this meeting was the same budget that had been proposed to them at a Board meeting in August.

By State regulation, a public hearing was held prior to the Board’s vote, held at district headquarters. No members of the public spoke at the hearing regarding the budget. Although the public had no comments, some of the Board members did express their feelings about the process involved. Board Member Mike Trask expressed appreciation for the guidance Board members received from District Superintendent Dr. Mark Daniel when discussing the budget.

“Doing this is not easy, and with Dr. Daniel’s guidance, I appreciate everything that was done to help us through the process,” Trask said.

Board Member Meta Mickens-Baker added, “We’re trying to meet students’ needs and that requires some creativity. We are being responsible.” Then, Mickens-Baker added there are school districts in the state that look at programs within their schools that they can cut in an effort to trim their budgets.

Raises Approved For Staff Classifications: Board members also unanimously approved 2 percent wage increases for staff members in a number of job classifications including Occupational and Physical Therapists, medical personnel and educational support staff.

In a memo to Board members, Curt Richardson, director for human resources and attorney for the district; and Marty Hickman, the district’s business manager and treasurer, informed Board members that retirements of or additions of personnel within these groups can increase the level of pay increases given to the employees within the group.

Richardson reminded Board members they voted to approve two percent pay increases for district employees working in food service and certified personnel at their last meeting earlier in the month. Certified personnel includes school principals and district administrators including director of elementary education and director of secondary education.

Unit 5 mapTowanda Elementary’s “Good News”: During the lone “Good News” update of positive happening within the district presented to Board members, Towanda Elementary School Custodians Kaine Hilt and Norm Hicks were recognized for their hard work and dedication in building the new playground at the school.

Board members learned Hilt and Hicks spent several hours tearing out old playground materials and putting in new ones, and that spring weather did not always cooperate at times, as there were several days of wet weather which started the summer. In a memo to District Superintendent Dr. Mark Daniel and Board members, Towanda Elementary Principal Scott Vogel wrote, adding a mention of the school’s mascot, “We are thankful for Mr. Hilt’s and Mr. Hicks’ commitment to the completion of this playground project. Bulldogs are very appreciative for a new playground.”

District’s “Good News”: Also during the “good news” portion of the meeting, Board President John Puzauskas announced that Board Member Wendy Maulson had completed the requirements set by Illinois State Board of Education for obtaining the designation of Master Board Member. Among ISBE’s requirements for attaining the designation are: Board self-evaluations; and attending In-district customized workshops and policy editing sessions.

Board Members Receive “English Learners” Program Update: It is probably a second thought to many of us that there are students within Unit 5 who do not have English as a primary language. Board members received a brief update on the district’s English Learners Program from its coordinator, Leslie Romanelli. Romanelli explained that Unit 5 has 1,605 students, or roughly 12 percent of the district’s 13,639 students, who speak another language, in addition to English, at home. Of those 1,605 students, there are roughly 48 different languages spoken, including French, Telugu, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Romanelli said 494 students were served by the English Language Learners (ELL) Program as of the end of 2013-14 school year, with that number to increase to 501 students as the current school year opened.

Romanelli said English as a second language class, or ESL classes, are conducted in small groups. She explained Benjamin Elementary has 36 ESL students; Northpoint Elementary has 40 ESL students; Glenn Elementary has 12 ESL students; and Oakdale has 54 ESL students in kindergarten through fifth grade receiving ESL instruction. There are secondary programs for junior high students at Kingsley Junior High and Normal Community High School, she explained, with KJHS aiding 44 students and NCHS aiding 39 students.

By Steve Robinson | September 22, 2014 - 10:16 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Steve RobinsonTaking a week’s vacation in the middle of the high school football season has its advantages and its disadvantages. The advantages include getting away before the really cold weather sets in. Disadvantages include being in the middle of a sports season and having that sinking feeling you will miss something really big and Earth-shattering while you are recharging. The advantages outweighed the disadvantages again this time, except for the scheduled departure time of my flight home (7:20a.m.!). But other than that, it was nice to get away and now I am ready to get back at it for another school year.

First, I got home just in time to wrap up homecoming season. With an occasional exception, normally, the Town’s high school homecomings land on the calendar on three separate dates, giving each of Normal’s schools – Unit 5’s Normal Community High School and Normal Community West High School, and Illinois State University lab school, University High School, — a weekend each to themselves to let graduates reminisce and enjoy the homecoming game while the current students anxiously await the game and the big homecoming dance Saturday.

But like I said, that’s under normal circumstances most years. This year turns out to be one where two of the three — Normal West and U-High — will share the homecoming spotlight. That presented an interesting dilemma when I saw this in terms of which game do I cover. I sought counsel from the ol’ editor, Mr. Pyne, who reminded me I had already given my alma mater, U-High, some attention before I went off on vacation, and that I probably should go cover the Wildcats homecoming game against Danville.

I then mentioned I had received a flier in the mail from my alma mater pointing out the Pioneers will be using this year’s celebration to recognize that it has been 50 years since ISU moved the lab school from Moulton Hall on campus to its current location on Gregory Street. I was hoping to go to their celebration and find some graduates from that period who could relay what it was like to be among the first students to break the place in.

Mr. Pyne thought it was a good idea provided I ended the evening covering the West-Danville tilt. It’s a compromise I can live with (I just hope my body and traffic lights will help me live with the decision so that I can get to the press box at Wildcat Field in time for the kickoff). In case you see me moving at a pace quicker than you might think I’m capable of, you now know the reason. And if you know me and do see me, forgive me this once if I do not stop to chat.

Sticking with the homecoming theme, it’s also a time when milestone reunions are held by certain graduating classes. My mother and father will need to sit down and take a breath for this next sentence: It will have been 35 years since I graduated from U-High. Our class will hold a reunion dinner, and some folks who I don’t think have come before have said they will this time. It ought to be an interesting night of celebration for us all.

On another slightly belated subject, congratulations to Steve Paxson for being named U-High’s new baseball coach succeeding Jim Collins who resigned at the end of last season. Paxson has been the Pioneers’ pitching coach for 14 years.

Finally, NCHS’ commanding 32-0 win over West put the Ironmen up 14-5 in the Unit 5 rivalry dubbed the “Chili Bowl.”

By Steve Robinson | September 6, 2014 - 10:07 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Steve RobinsonThe events of last Friday, Sept. 5, were a first for me after a number of years of covering high school football. I arrived at Bill Hundman Memorial Field, home of the Central Catholic High Saints, anticipating covering their Illinois High School Association Week 2 game against the University High Pioneers. I had gotten to the press box, gone through my pre-game preparations, and was ready to go, despite the rain that arrived before a scheduled 7p.m. game start.

But even though the rain stopped after going through the area after 20-30 minutes, there was still lightning to deal with and wait on to move through. That was a different matter, as those of us from two radio stations and this weekly found out soon enough.

Illinois High School Association has a rule about what must occur first before a game can, depending on when the lightning arrives, either start or resume. IHSA uses a rule established by National Severe Storms Laboratory which recommends waiting at least 30 minutes after the last flash of lightning or sound of thunder before returning to the field. And since there had been no activity up to the point of the storm’s arrival, the teams needed 15 minutes on top of that for warm-ups.

Just when we thought we had seen our last flash of lightning and began resetting our collective mental clocks to a possible start time, there would be another flash and we would reset those mental clocks again….and again… and again.

The whole episode was a new experience in covering sports as far as I was concerned. I had been through downpours before (in 2012 and the rains that came from the tropical storm that had once been Hurricane Isaac came immediately to mind and, as a result of last weekend, would now take second place in my list of most unique of situations where weather was concerned when covering sports). But I’ve never just sat in the press box and waited, and waited, and waited, for a game to start or to be called off.

Never until last Friday, that is.

While the adults were waiting things out in the stands, the kids I’m told were having a blast in Central Catholic’s big gym, passing the time by playing games, sometimes sending one friend or another outside to scout the situation and report back. Meanwhile, back in the press box we chatted, watched the weather, and reset our mental clocks every time the sky got relit.

BCC’s game against U-High wasn’t the only one having issues, but it was, literally, the only game in town. That’s because Normal Community High School and Normal Community West High School were both on the road, in the same town, taking on different schools (NCHS was at Belleville West while Normal West was at Belleville East). The storms apparently didn’t just extend across Central Illinois but also to down around the St. Louis area causing problems for those local teams, too. By 10:40 p.m., officials decided to suspend both Belleville games until Saturday. That meant both Normal schools bused their kids down for the game, back home for the night, and then back down for the conclusion of the games Saturday.

But the NCHS-Belleville West game not only had to make sure a new start time worked for both teams, but that a different location would not be a problem, as a local college in the area was scheduled to play on Saturday night where the Ironmen needed to finish the game. As a result, the conclusion of that contest took place at O’Fallon High School. LeRoy High School’s game at Fisher also needed to be rescheduled to the next day as a result of the weather situation.

We weren’t the only ones finding the evening problematic: WJBC Radio sent a play-by-play announcer to Pekin to cover Bloomington High School’s game against the hometown Dragons in a non-conference tilt. But I’m given to understand communications between the station and their play-by-play man in Pekin were poor, so transmitting that game over the air was difficult.

Meanwhile, by around 8:30 back at BCC, Saints Athletic Director Doug Atkins had made the decision to postpone the game until the next day, Saturday, at 2p.m. But that, as it turns out presents a different problem – not for the schools involved but, rather, for the students who could make Friday’s scheduled contest, but due to other commitments on Saturday, couldn’t be present on the make-up date.

“I was kind of upset about this,” said Grace Bryant, a University High sophomore who came for the originally scheduled game but couldn’t make it Saturday. “I don’t like things like this getting postponed,” the 16-year-old said. As it turns out, Bryant couldn’t make it to Saturday’s game because of ballet lessons.

“I was really disappointed,” said Callie Slater, a 15-year-old BCC sophomore who is on her school’s Volleyball team, and was part of the large impromptu group of around 40 kids from both schools who were chatting and catching up afterward. “I was really looking forward to this game. I can’t come Saturday because I have a Volleyball tournament.”

The situation “kind of stunk because we didn’t play, but it was kind of fun because I got to meet up with all my friends from Central,” added U-High sophomore Sam Allen, the only boy from both schools who wanted to talk, it seemed, among the group when I approached them. “They say high school last four years but rivals last forever.” Allen said he might be able to stay for “about an hour” of Saturday’s rescheduled contest. He was supposed to go camping that day.

Despite not seeing the game, as Slater sees things, there was a positive in the situation: “I mean, I still get to hang out with all my friends. So, it could have been worse.”

That’s a point I don’t think I want to argue with – rain or shine.