U-High PioneersIn recent years, as a result of economics, changes in school population size, and other factors, some high schools have found it necessary to exit the sports conferences they have been associated with for long periods of time.

Rochester, Mahomet-Seymour, and Eureka are among those schools which have left the Corn Belt Conference previously. Decatur’s two high schools exited the Big 12 Conference for the Central State Eight a couple years back.

Now we can add University High to that roster of school teams seeking another league to play in. After being part of the Corn Belt Conference for decades (they were members during my high school years 35 years ago), the Pioneers recently announced they were accepting an offer to join the Central State Eight Conference, headlined by four Springfield schools, Jacksonville, Chatham Glenwood, and Decatur’s two high schools, Eisenhower and MacArthur.

Central State Eight issued an invite to U-High in January. The vacancy came about as a result of Lincoln High School announcing in December it would be moving to the Apollo Conference in 2017-18.

What exactly prompted U-High to make the move include “multiple factors that have evolved over time,” explained Dr. Jeff Hill, superintendent of Illinois State University’s Lab School system, which includes U-High and Thomas Metcalf Elementary School. “With the State sports multiplier provided by Illinois High School Association, we found ourselves playing bigger schools in the State Playoffs, and they were bigger schools than we were seeing in the regular season.”

Because IHSA uses a multiplier on schools like U-High – schools that don’t have designated boundaries in the same way, say, Normal-based Unit 5 School District does, because it stands alone – that allows IHSA to place them in one of the group’s sport-specific Classes. For example, U-High has been in Class 3A in football. IHSA’s multiplier allows U-High, which has an actual student population of 620, to be place in a category of being shown as a school with a population of 1,000 students, allowing them to play school which actually do have 1,000 students.

Hill added that schools with smaller populations than U-High were losing actual numbers of their student populations, causing decreasing enrollment numbers. “Not knowing what the future would be for the Corn Belt, the opportunity to join Central State Eight came up,” Hill said. “It was a perfect storm of what was going on in the conference, and the invitation to join which forced us to take a look.”

The Central State Eight Conference’s governing body, known as Board Of Control, made up of the principals of the member schools, will vote Feb. 10 to approve U-High’s membership. The invitation to join came in January, Hill said.

“With things trending the way they were, we felt this would be best from a stability standpoint, and a healthy move for finding a competitive atmosphere for our students,” Hill added.

“We were founding members of the Corn Belt Conference,” Hill reminded. That relationship began in 1950. At that time, other member schools included Central Catholic, then known as Trinity High School; Clinton, Normal Community High School, and Pontiac. The conference was absorbed into the former Heart of Illinois Conference in 1972, and became reborn as the Corn Belt Conference six years later, in 1978.

That history, Hill said, “was one of the things that made this decision so tough. It was one of the reasons why you have to leave.” And yet, the circumstances and the opportunity that came U-High’s way were not to be ignored, and U-High didn’t. Hill said the school’s decision, made public Jan. 27, “has gotten immediate positive feedback and that’s always nice to hear.”

As both an alum and a reporter who has seen many a U-High game, it will take a little getting used to associating a new conference name with the Pioneers. But the players, students, coaches, parents, and fans will roll with it just fine and we’ll all look forward to the excitement the new opportunity will bring us in coming sports seasons.

Finally, I really must learn not to make promises technology will not allow me to keep. I mentioned last week I would bring you a story that I thought bridges the County Tourney and Valentine’s Day. I need to apologize, not just to you, but to the two young people I interviewed for it because the tape I used gave out on me earlier this week. It’s no excuse, but still, I am sorry I will have to wait perhaps, for another Valentine’s Day, to tell this young couple’s story.

By Steve Robinson | January 28, 2016 - 10:20 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

Unit 5NORMAL – At the Jan. 27 regularly scheduled meeting of Normal-based Unit 5 School Board, Board members heard from members of the district’s strategic planning committee on six items of importance to the district: Special Education; Curriculum and Instruction; Community Partnerships; Co-curricular matters; Transportation; and Facilities.

The individual panels have been meeting since October, using facilitators to help their conversations along in the sessions. Although progress updates on those six subjects were presented to Board members, it was Transportation – a subject where the district could be facing tight budgeting due to the State not having a budget yet for fiscal year 2016 – that drew the most conversation.

Dr. Mark Daniel, district superintendent, and Kevin Woods, owner of The Woods Consulting Group and the facilitator for the discussions on the Transportation issue, told Board members that particular committee numbering 28 members has been working since their formation to seek ideas for saving the district money. That could mean the possibility of start and stop times for elementary schools getting looked at to see if they need to be changed. The subject came up, Daniel explained, as part of trying to continue the district’s goal to provide “safe transportation within budget in a timely manner. We want to provide a tactical approach to transportation issues.”

Daniel said that means the district could need to make changes in how transportation is done within the district. To assess community opinion on the subject, the district will have already distributed a survey by Jan. 29 to parents, Unit 5 staff, high school students, and members of district strategic committees to seek input. From there, ideas targeted to solve the problem will be presented to Board members on Feb. 19 followed by a review session on Feb. 24. Daniel said he hopes a solution will receive a final vote at the Board’s March 9 meeting

The district currently has a spending deficit in its Transportation fund of $1 million, Daniel told Board members. “That can’t happen next year,” he added.

In response to Daniel’s and Woods’ presentation, Board Member John Puzauskas responded, “First Student is our vendor,” referring to the Cincinnati, Ohio-based firm that took over operations of district school buses since first signing a contract with Unit 5 in 2012. Unit 5’s governing board unanimously approved renewing the contract last year for three years. Puzauskas said First Student needs to participate in the process to help the district reduce costs. Of the busing company, Puzauskas said, “They need to make some decisions.”

Unit 5 mapBoard Member Denise Schuster said she was concerned changes made as a result of budget trimming might cause longer bus rides for some students. She said students should not have to see time in the classroom reduced as a result of any changes made to trim the Transportation budget. “We’ve been running a deficit in Transportation, and using Education fund money” to make up for it, she explained. “But we’re running out of money.”

“Transportation is bleeding us as a district,” Daniel said. He said the one thing Unit 5 can’t do to correct the situation is take money intended for classes.”

Board Member Barry Hitchins proposed the idea the district should host a Town Hall-style meeting to get input from community members on the transportation issue.

While addressing reporters following the meeting, Daniel addressed Puzauskas’ point about what the district expects of First Student to help with reducing costs. “What we have asked them to do is find a configuration for delivery of service that would still transport students on a timely basis and still provide safe transportation, and do so with the budget in mind,” he said.

Daniel said the district is trying to work to provide transportation services using 70 percent of the money the State should be reimbursing the district for transportation costs rather than a full reimbursement.

Daniel said the district has had conversations with First Student, adding representatives from the bus line “have been very cooperative and trying to work hand in hand with us in finding ways to reduce buses and reduce routes. We’ve been very appreciative of that.”

Board Approves Selling Bonds To Pay For Life Safety Projects: Board members unanimously approved a measure to allow the district to sell a figure not to exceed $18 million School Fire Prevention and Safety Bonds as a way of raising money for carrying out necessary life safety projects throughout the district. State law required a public hearing take place before Board members could take action. No members of the public addressed the issue.

During discussion prior to a vote on the measure, Board Member Denise Schuster told Board members voting to approve the bond sale to get the funds for completing the projects helps for there to be “

By Steve Robinson | January 25, 2016 - 10:07 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

BasketballIf you read this column last week, you read predictions from L. A. Decker, the public address announcer for all of the games for the annual McLean County/Heart Of Illinois Conference Basketball Tournament. The 105th edition of the tourney is in the books and when I checked in with Decker before covering both championship contests last Saturday, he looked at me and said, “Didn’t I tell you Ridgeview boys would be in the final?”

Sure enough, head coach Rodney Kellar’s Ridgeview troops proved Decker right about getting to the boys’ final. Decker said he wouldn’t give me his prediction for the ultimate winner in the championship games. That’s fine considering how close he turned out to be in wondering about the finalists.

In the girls’ tourney, Decker was half-right about his guesses as he did say LeRoy would make the finals. The Lady Panthers faced Tremont for the title and the Lady Turks took the crown, with head coach Danielle Cooley’s crew finishing second. In the boys’ finale, Decker was on the mark saying Ridgeview would face LeRoy.

trophy-mctourn.jpgThat kind of skill in being able to size up teams can’t be left up to guesswork. And after just completing his 16th year as the public address announcer for the Illinois Wesleyan University Shirk Center portion of the week-long tourney, it would be safe to say Decker, a former announcer with WJBC AM 1230, is not just a student of the tourney’s ins and outs. No, rather, at this point, having been associated with the tourney since 2001, he might want to tell people he has a Master’s Degree or a Doctorate in Bracketology.

Decker’s association with the tournament began back then, essentially as a volunteer. As Decker explains it, IWU head football coach Norm Eash told Decker the announcing gig was “yours for as long as you want it.” Over time, the position went from being a volunteer effort to a paying gig that’s a labor of love for Decker.

The courtside public address announcer job is as close to broadcasting as Decker has been since regular listeners last heard him call a game for WJBC seven years ago. He has not been mic-side for any station since 2009. But before that, he was in radio in Watseka, Bloomington, and two stints with one station in Atlanta, Ill. in Logan County.

For Decker, the best part of being associated with the tourney “is seeing the generations that come through,” he explained. “I umpire baseball and see kids at this tournament during their high school years whose baseball games I called when they were younger.” He said they all spot him, call out to him and say hello. He said even if the kids do not remember his name, it’s still nice to be recognized and remembered.

During the tournament, one thing folks might not realize about one of the duties Decker takes on at the tournament, in addition to announcing, is scorekeeping every game. That’s every game at Shirk. He does that to serve as a back-up to the official scorekeeper. “If there’s a question about a score or who scored what, I keep my own score sheet,” Decker said.

With such uncanny accuracy like his to predict finalists, I will definitely have to call on Decker again next year for his predictions for 2017. Next week, I have a story that I think bridges the County Tourney and Valentine’s Day.

By Steve Robinson | January 24, 2016 - 10:49 pm
Posted in Category: LeRoy, Ridgeview, The Normalite

BasketballBLOOMINGTON – A second half comeback became necessary for Ridgeview to emerge the boys’ champion of the 105th Annual McLean County/Heart Of Illinois Conference Tournament, as the Mustangs came from behind to beat LeRoy, 54-46, at Shirk Center on Illinois Wesleyan University’s campus on Jan. 23. The Mustangs’ victory goes into the record books for being the first team to win back-to-back championships since Fieldcrest did it in 2009 and 2010.

Ridgeview (18-2), seeded 2nd in the tournament, and ranked first in Illinois High School Association Class 1A, found themselves in a three-point shootout early, as junior guard Tyler McCormick, senior guard Drew Jones, and senior guard Luke Ford combined for a trio of threes, trying to stave off threes from LeRoy senior Noah Perry, junior guard Brett Egan, and senior center Matt Chastain. But LeRoy had the stronger supporting cast as the game began, with a deuce from freshman guard Nick Perry, helping the Panthers start out with a 22-15 lead edging into the second quarter.

The pace of the second quarter slowed down slightly from there as 4th seed LeRoy (14-4) employed three-pointers from Chastain, Egan and Perry in the second quarter to increase the Panthers’ lead, 26-21, going into halftime.

trophy-mctourn.jpg LeRoy extended its lead on a three-point play by senior forward Teddy Harms, having been fouled by Ridgeview’s senior forward Austin Zielsdorf, increasing the Panthers’ lead, 29-21. But Ridgeview roared back on a 11-0 run spurred by senior guard Drew Jones, Zielsdorf, and Ford who each hit threes, and a Zielsdorf deuce, thrusting Ridgeview in front, 32-29, and prompting LeRoy head coach Mark Edmundson to call for a timeout.

When play resumed, Chastain scored a deuce with a slam, pulling the Panthers within one, 32-31, but a pair of threes from Ford and a three-point play McCormick after being fouled gave Ridgeview a 38-31 lead going into the fourth quarter.

Jones hit a three which thrilled the crowd as the ball swirled around the rim at least twice before dropping into the basket, giving the Mustangs a 41-31 lead with 7:38 left in the game. Harms responded with back-to-back deuces, closing LeRoy’s gap, 41-35, prompting Ridgeview head coach Rodney Kellar to call not just a timeout, but two of them within 20 seconds of each other to plot out strategy further. Free throws from Zielsdorf, junior guard Noah Young, and Ford offset a three from LeRoy’s Perry en route to victory.

Zielsdorf led the Mustangs’ scoring with 13 points. Jones followed scoring with 12 points. He was followed in double figures by 11 each from Ford and McCormick. Chastain led all scorers, pocketing 17 for LeRoy. He was followed by 11 from Perry.

Kellar said afterward he thought LeRoy’s decision to go to man-to-man on his team was a good move on his opponent’s part considering these teams see each other regularly during the season. LeRoy head coach Mark Edmundson was not available immediately after the game for comment.

BasketballBLOOMINGTON – Regular fans of LeRoy High School’s girls’ basketball team who attended the Lady Panthers’ game for the championship of the 105th Annual McLean County/Heart Of Illinois Conference Tournament probably, at times, must have felt their favorite team could have had two things going against them: A college court which added 10 feet to the basket than high school players are accustomed to; and missing senior forward clutch player Sammie Spencer who suffered a high ankle sprain against Flanagan-Cornell earlier in the tournament.

But fans were not disappointed by how the Tournament top seed performed despite finishing second after dropping a 40-31 decision to 3rd seed Tremont before 2,000 fans at Shirk Center on the Illinois Wesleyan University campus on Jan. 23.

Panthers senior guard Alyssa Aupperle thrilled her team’s fans opening scoring with a trey, putting LeRoy (17-8) up, 3-2. Sophomore guard Vanessa Ehnle countered for the Lady Turks with a deuce putting Tremont up, 4-3, at 3:46 in the first quarter. LeRoy senior center Courtney Monier responded with a deuce of her own at the 3:27 mark, putting LeRoy up, 5-4. Back-to-back Lady Panthers fouls committed against Tremont senior Lauren Hartman gave the 6 foot-3 forward the chance to go 2-for-4 at the line, putting Tremont up, 6-5 before a trey by Aupperle with two seconds left put LeRoy up, 8-6, going into the second quarter.

A deuce by Monier opened the second quarter, pushing the Lady Panthers up, 10-6, prompting Tremont head coach Justin Wahls to call an early timeout at 5:44 in the quarter. Monier was fouled while making that shot and converted it into a three-point play following the timeout to give LeRoy an 11-6 lead. Tremont was able to scrounge for a bucket from Ehnle to cut LeRoy’s lead, which was cut again as the quarter ended when Hartman hit a layup. As a result, LeRoy owned an 11-10 lead going into the half.

trophy-mctourn.jpgTremont opened the third quarter with a 7-0 run which began with a three-point play from Enhle after she was fouled by Monier, getting a deuce and free throw, putting the Lady Turks up by two, 13-11. That was followed by a deuce from junior forward Baylee Rhoades, extending Tremont’s advantage, 15-11, and prompting LeRoy head coach Danielle Cooley to call for a timeout at 5:57 in the quarter. Following the timeout, Rhoades would hit another jumper, extending Tremont to a 17-11 lead. But a free throw by LeRoy’s Monier cut off the Lady Turks’ 7-0 run, bringing the Lady Panthers within five, 17-12 with 4:04 left in the quarter.

A pair of treys from junior guard Stephanie Williams, combined with Lady Panthers’ fouls that sent junior guard Joelle Ulrich to the free throw line, where she went 3-for-4, shot Tremont up, 26-12, with 31 seconds left in the quarter. A trey by sophomore guard Megan Woltkamp closed out the quarter and pulled LeRoy within 11, 26-15, to start the fourth quarter.

Threes from Aupperle and junior guard Skielyr Trenkle, accompanied by a deuce from Monier, gave LeRoy an 8-0 run bringing the Lady Panthers within five, 28-23, with 6:12 left in the contest. But a basket by Rhoades and visits to the free throw line from Hartman and Ulrich for a combined 8-for-9 shots allowed the Lady Turks to pull away toward earning their traveling trophy.

Hartman led all scorers with 15 points. She was followed in double figures for the Lady Turks by Rhoades’ 11. Aupperle was the only Lady Panthers player to land double digits with 13.

“This game took all of them contributing,” Wahls said afterward about the effort his team put in, singling out how close the game was after one quarter. “Both teams were playing great defense. We knew it was going to be a grind to the end in a championship game. We didn’t expect it to be easy. LeRoy gave us a run for our money. We were just glad we could knock down free throws and everybody stepped up.”

Cooley reported after the game her team shot just 26 percent from the field, but quickly added her team “thought the game was going to be about runs. Tremont would go on theirs. We would go on ours. There was a lot of that.” But, coming down to the end, Cooley concluded, “We needed to hit big shots and we fell a little bit short. Kudos to Tremont for making shots. They were killer on making free throws. They were the better team tonight.”

Cooley said the team is hoping Spencer is recovered from her injury in time to resume playing once regionals begin.