By Steve Robinson | August 29, 2016 - 10:43 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

BaseballThere were hopes – high hopes one has to imagine – that the Normal CornBelters would find a way into the Frontier League playoffs. But the team’s last road trip proved difficult to make that a reality as they lost 2-out of-3 at Evansville, who clinched a playoff spot, and followed that with losing two more at River City before returning home for their final home series of the season.

Before the season ends, the CornBelters got three last games hosting Evansville. The Otters will pay their last visit of the season to The Corn Crib for a three-game series Tuesday through Thursday, Aug. 30, 31, and Sept. 1. Normal will wrap up their season at home against the Florence Freedom Friday through Sunday. Friday’s game will start at 6:35p.m. Sunday’s Fan Appreciation Day game will start at 4:35p.m.

Because Illinois State University Redbirds will play their first home game of the season against non-conference foe Valparaiso on Saturday at Hancock Stadium at 6p.m., the CornBelters have moved their game that day to 1p.m. ISU Football tickets will also be available for purchase during the CornBelters home stand.

CornbeltersWhen I interviewed CornBelters shortstop Santiago Chirino after it was announced he would be part of July’s Frontier League All-Star Game at Florence, Ky., representing Normal on the league’s West Division team, I also took time to get an assessment from him of how the 4th season CornBelters veteran was feeling as the second half of the season was about to start.

What he said then would, I believe, indicate how the team was assessing things as the season has begun to wind down. “Brooks was putting things together and I think we’re going to be pretty good,” the 25-year-old native of Punto Fijo, Venezuela told me, explaining how he thought things would go for the team the second half of the season.

That assembly to get the players Carey wanted took a couple of reboots in terms of pitching. I got the impression from my conversations with him that Carey thought he would only have to reboot the team once after they got off on a start which included a 7-game losing streak at the beginning of the season.

That rebooting process includes bringing in new pitchers who must adjust to the ‘Belters’ playing system. As a result of doing that, Chirino explained, established infielders and outfielders must, in turn, adjust to the new pitcher’s style so they can work as a group when playing defense. “That takes work,” Chirino said of what results when it goes well as the fans watch it in action, coming across looking almost effortless.

Frontier League“We all have to be on the same page, the pitchers and the infielders and outfielders, to win,” Chirino said.

Fans could probably tell the ‘Belters have been on the same page throughout the second half of the season as they took their shot toward making the playoffs.

Saying “wait ‘til next year” leaves a sour taste in the mouths of players on teams who have come as close as Normal has. But they were facing improving foes like Evansville and always strong contenders like River City.

Carey will be back next year, as will many of the players he had this season when spring training rolls around. I am sure Carey has some off-season trips to tryouts to scout new talent as well. He has done that in the past. We will happily welcome the CornBelters back to The Corn Crib to entertain and thrill us again then. But for now, they deserve our appreciation and our thanks for the season we had.

By Steve Robinson | - 8:09 am
Posted in Category: Normal West HS

FootballNORMAL – Season opening football contests aren’t always like this: A total of 19 touchdowns, a 30-minute lightning delay, and a near-record for rushing from an opponent were all part of the ingredients of Normal Community West High School’s opening game at Wildcat Field on Aug. 28. But it was Peoria High who came away victorious from the Big 12 Conference battle with a 70-63 victory before roughly 1,000 fans.

Junior running back Geno Hess got scoring started at 2:13 in the first quarter, with the first touchdown from 2 yards out to put Peoria High (1-0) on the scoreboard first, but the point after by senior kicker Bryan Quinterro was no good, giving the Lions a 6-0 start.

Normal West (0-1) answered on their next series of downs thanks to a 10 yard pass from senior quarterback Peyton Dillingham to junior running back Genesis Forrest with 15.3 seconds left in the quarter to put the Wildcats up, 7-6, following a successful extra point by junior kicker Matt Lage.

A 29 yard touchdown run by Hess at 10:52 opened second quarter scoring, putting Peoria up, 13-7, following Quinterro’s point after. Following that touchdown, the game’s scoring fireworks were halted for 40 minutes as a result of officials halting the game as a result of spotting lightning in the area.

Illinois High School Association has a protocol in place requiring that when lightning is spotted in the area of a game, a waiting period of 30 minutes from the time of the last flash of lightning or sound of thunder must occur before play can be resumed. Once that period ends, players receive a brief period to warm up again before the contest is restarted. This game was delayed roughly 40 minutes before resuming.

Following the unscheduled intermission, Normal West was forced to punt on the next series of downs before Hess and the Lions went to work again, finishing an 11 play, 80 yard drive with Hess running in from 4 yards out to put Peoria up, 20-7, with 5:38 remaining, following Quinterro’s extra point.

West’s next possession ended in a punt and Peoria High and Hess capitalized again, scoring from five yards out to give Peoria a 28-7 lead following a successful two-point conversion, with 2:41 left until halftime.

West pulled within 14, 28-14, on a 40 yard pass from Dillingham to junior wide receiver Malik Tucker, followed by Lage’s next extra point, with 2:26 remaining in the half. When the second half began, Genesis Forest opened the third quarter for West by braking open past defenders to score from 52 yards out, pulling the Wildcats within a touchdown, 28-21 following Lage’s next point after.

On the very next possession, Peoria junior quarterback Coran Taylor connected with senior wide receiver Aaron Jowers on a 46 yard pass play for the Lions’ next score, capping a 6 play, 90 yard drive. But although Wildcat defenders managed to block the extra point, Peoria led, 34-21.

Normal West FootballA 35 yard touchdown pass from Dillingham to junior wide receiver Genesis Forrest at 9:21 in the third quarter would pull the Wildcats within six, 34-28, following Lage’s next extra point. Peoria responded on their next possession as Hess raced 80 yards in a one-play drive for Peoria’s next touchdown, but the Lions’ 2-point attempt that followed failed, giving Peoria a 40-28 lead with 9:10 in the third quarter.

A Dillingham 40 yard touchdown pass to Tucker at 8:53 in the quarter would put the Wildcats the closest they would come all evening – 40-35 by the end of the third quarter – following Lage’s next extra point. It also was the fifth touchdown scored by the two sides in a three minute and seven minute span, thrilling the crowd.

A drive Peoria High began with two minutes left in the third quarter ended after marching 80 yards in 10 plays with Hess scoring from a yard out with 11:26 left in the contest. That was followed by a two point conversion pass from Taylor to senior wide receiver Jalen Blake, giving Peoria a 48-35 lead.

After West’s next possession resulted in a turnover on downs, Hess turned on the speed again for Peoria for a 10 yard touchdown run with 6:48 remaining, but another try at a two-point conversion failed. Despite that, Peoria upped its lead, 54-35.

Dillingham connected with Genesis Forrest on a 48 yard pass play, followed by Lage’s next extra point allowing West to reduce Peoria’s lead, 54-42. Hess went to work for Peoria right after that on the Lions’ next possession, scoring on a 45 yard run, followed by a successful 2-point conversion play, increasing Peoria’s advantage, 62-42, with 5:53 left.

West pulled within 13 when Dillingham connected with senior tight end Nick Filosa on a 33 yard pass play, followed by Lage’s next extra point, reducing Peoria’s lead, 62-49. West reduced that lead further when Dillingham connected with sophomore wide receiver Armani Forest on a 35 yard score, followed by another Lage extra point. That sliced Peoria’s lead by six, 62-56.

peoria lions football helmetPeoria’s last score of the night came with 2:36 left in the quarter as Hess scored his last touchdown of the night on a 52 yard run, followed by a successful 2-point conversion, giving Peoria a 70-56 lead. On the night, Hess became the second highest rusher in Illinois High School Association history carrying the ball 64 times amassing 574 yards on the night.

Dillingham scored the Wildcats’ last touchdown on the night, a 1 yard run, followed by Lage’s last extra point on the night for the eventual final score.

Hess finished the night with 64 carries for 574 yards, pushing toward an IHSA record. His coach, Peoria High head coach Tim Thornton, admitted to reporters his team’s game plan didn’t include Hess carrying that big a workload for the night. “We had Geno and Jalen Blake both in there and when Jalen went down with a minor ankle injury, Geno stepped up and our fullbacks stepped and did a great job.

The other man named Hess at this contest, Normal West head coach Darren Hess, said he and his coaches didn’t quite know what this year’s team would bring onto the field in their first effort. “Hopefully, we proved to ourselves, number one, and to everybody else in the league that we can play with them.”

“From a defensive perspective, we’ve got to get better at tackling,” Hess said was one criticism he had about his team’s effort on the night. I thought our seniors did a great job, and I know we gave the fans an enjoyable show. We came up a little short tonight.”

By Steve Robinson | August 24, 2016 - 10:57 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

Unit 5NORMAL – Reports of overcrowded buses, students temporarily misplaced, or arriving home late from their first day of school prompted officials from Normal-based Unit 5 School District to move the location of their regularly-scheduled meeting Aug. 24 from district headquarters to Normal Community West High School’s cafeteria to accommodate what the district thought would be a high number of concerned parents wanting to address issues.

That proactive action turned out to be correct as 325 people crowded into the school’s cafeteria for the session. There, Dr. Mark Daniel, district superintendent, began the session with an apology. “We have had transportation challenges to say the least, and I want to apologize to the entire community for the service we have provided our students, and these problems are unacceptable.

“Things didn’t materialize as we had hoped,” Daniel added. “In fact, we were very far from it.”

Daniel’s comments were followed by comments from parents during the three-hour session, two-thirds of which was used by frustrated and angered parents who used allotted time during the meeting’s Public Comments section to voice their frustration at how the first day of activity had gone.

Josh Smith was the second of 23 parents to have their say concerning how the end of the first day of school on Aug. 18 went for his daughter, a 9-year-old fifth grader at Parkside Elementary. He told Board members he was likely to be emotional as he told his story about having to call Normal Police when his daughter was missing for two hours following the conclusion of a band practice. The district had arranged for fifth grade band students to get home directly from band without having to go back to their grade school, but NPD found his daughter two hours later on a bus going in a direction opposite from where she should have been to get home.

“She was with five other kids in a bus across town,” Smith detailed. “You just can’t have students missing. That’s completely unacceptable.”

Jonathan and Elysia Amaya told Board members they moved into the district because of what they felt were positives for their non-verbal 4-year-old son, one of their two children. In trying to finding out what had happened to cause their son’s ride to be more than an hour, Jonathan Amaya said his wife called the district office seven times to get some kind of explanation. She never got a return phone call he told Board members.

Jonathan Amaya concluded his statement to Board members with, “Our trust is really vanishing.”

Loretta Palmer relayed to Board members that 30 kids who attend Kingsley Junior High School opted to walk to their homes in the North Meadow Village area from school – a site that bothered her. She said this situation wasn’t just a problem alone for Unit 5 parents. “This isn’t just my children,” she said. “And it’s not just other people’s children. It’s our children. We are a community and as a community, we have to make it right.”

Tom Sennett, the father of a sixth grader, told Board members, “The lack of respect for parents on the part of the district is unbelievable.”

Steven Dean, an employee of First Student Bus Co., the transportation provider for the district, told Board members the district’s busing plan has failed. “You changed things too much, too fast,” he said. He said Unit 5 provided the bus company with information that couldn’t be double-checked quickly enough for the start of the school year. “I agree with these parents,” Dean said. “They should know where their children are.”

From their seats, a couple of people in the audience openly called for Daniel to resign as a result of the circumstances.

Unit 5 mapFollowing the public comments, Board members gave their assessment. “I, personally, was embarrassed, extremely disappointed, appalled on how the busing situation was handled,” said Board Member Mike Trask. “I accept minor hiccups at the beginning of the year, but what happened last week and this week is unacceptable.” He added changing school start times so that elementary, junior high, and high school students start their day at school in that order. That comment brought jeering from some audience members.

He reminded the audience that the total numbers of bus routes were reduced by Unit 5 to help reduce a deficit in the district’s transportation budget of $1.4 million. The district hoped different start and dismissal times, along with decreasing the number of buses and reworking bus routes would help Unit 5 save the district $1.2 million.

“We, as a district, were assured by our contracted vendor, First Student, that with the new changes and the reduction of routes, this would all be manageable. I am extremely disappointed in the lack of service Unit 5 has received from First Student.” That admission prompted some in the audience to applaud.

“I never want to see these extreme situations ever occur again,” Trask added. He offered an apology to anyone who had been affected by the issues involved with the situation.

Board Member Jim Hayek, Jr. said he believes the district owes an explanation to those parents who contacted Unit 5 with concerns but who have not yet been contacted by the district.

“We need a recovery plan that can identify problems that can be addressed quickly,” added Board Member John Puzauskas. “Unit 5 and First Student need to work on restructuring and reworking our current plan.”

State Rep. Dan Brady (R-105th Dist.) was present at the meeting and spoke having heard the parents’ stories, told Board members he fully agreed “the State of Illinois unfortunately put you in this situation to some degree” as a result of the district receiving tardy state aid payments.

First Student Manager Resigns: As a result of the circumstances surrounding the bus issues, media reports out of Peoria indicated Jim Stonecipher, location manager for First Student, resigned on Aug. 22.

Board Votes To Return $3.5 Million To Transportation Fund: Board members unanimously voted to abate a $3.5 million working cash fund for the purchase of new buses and also unanimously returned that cash to the district’s transportation fund. Board members had agreed in April to apply $7 million toward new bus purchases.

A hearing on the district’s budget is scheduled for the Board’s Sept. 28 meeting at district headquarters.

Opening Population Up Slightly: Unit 5 schools had an opening day population of 13,478 students which was an increase of 36 students compared to opening day of school last year, explained Curt Richardson, the district’s director of human resources and its attorney, in his report to Board members.

By Steve Robinson | August 22, 2016 - 7:30 am
Posted in Category: Illinois Wesleyan, The Normalite

FootballBLOOMINGTON – When Illinois Wesleyan University’s football team takes the field for the 2016 season, opposing defenses will find a comparatively young offensive line trying to keep them from getting through to their quarterback and running backs. Opponents will also find that IWU’s squad has “Just One Thing” on their collective mind, as well.

Three specific words could be heard from every Titans player on media day Friday, Aug. 19 at Tucci Stadium: Just one thing. That one thing is to win the Collegiate Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title.

Last season, IWU looked to be well on their way to doing that with a 7-0 mark until coming up short against their last few foes on the schedule last season, North Central, Wheaton College, and North Park.

But with a leg injury sidelining junior first string quarterback Jack Warner, this season could start with his backup, junior Jack Donegan, to get IWU’s potential positive start underway.

As the season opens up, a preseason poll by has Wheaton College and North Central ranked in the Top 25. Wheaton College is ranked 8th in the poll, with North Central sliding into 13th. The CCIW preseason poll has IWU ranked third behind these two foes in that order.

Illinois Wesleyan FootballLexington’s Laible Now Full-Time Linebacker: At Lexington High School, Donavan Laible was at the controls of a team as its quarterback. He also served as a defensive back in the Minutemen’s two-way system. Now a senior at IWU, he will stay on the defensive side of the ball as an outside linebacker.

“I played a good deal of linebacker in high school,” the 6 foot-1, 195 pound Laible said. “To do it in college is new territory than it was in high school. I’m getting used to play the position with the instincts needed. I’m used to reading defenses. Now, I’ve got to read offenses.

Being a former quarterback will help Laible read potential routes opposing quarterbacks call for in the passing game, but when it comes to run patterns, he admits those will be trickier for him. His goal this season is to “find time on the field.” When he is not on the field, he will be in the classroom finishing up to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He said he wants to study for his CPA exam.

Donavan appeared under center for IWU in two games, completing 36 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns. He has 31 rushes to his credit for 108 yards, with his longest being 23 yards

CCIWBut with Wagner and Donegan poised to be IWU’s chosen quarterbacks for the foreseeable future, Eash worked with Laible to find a position where his skills could be used. “Donovan is a great kid and we wanted to find a place for him on the field,” Eash said, adding, “I think you’ll see him on the field.”

BHS Alum Stephon Rudicil Shifting Positions, Too: Bloomington High alum Stephon Rudicil, a fifth year senior, is moving in Eash’s defensive scheme, as well, from linebacker to defensive end. In 2015, he appeared in one game making three total tackles, two of them solo.

Circle Your Calendars: IWU will have nine starters on offense and 10 on defense as the season opens at Nebraska Wesleyan on Sept. 10. IWU’s 2016 home part of the schedule begins by hosting North Central Sept. 10 at 6p.m., and Wheaton College visits for IWU Homecoming Oct. 1 at 1p.m. Elmhurst College will visit on IWU Senior Day Oct. 29 for a 1p.m. game.

By Steve Robinson | August 20, 2016 - 10:42 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

BaseballJustin Fletcher admits that, as far as finding an unaffiliated team to play for with proximity to his native Pekin, he feels very lucky. He’s been playing second base for the Normal CornBelters since signing with the club about a month ago.

Being able to play pro ball this close to home “is awesome,” Fletcher said, because he is able to do it in front of so many people he knows. The situation to join the CornBelters “wasn’t expected but I got an opportunity at a tryout and I had a good day in front of Coach Carey and he decided to sign me.” “Coach Carey” would be Normal CornBelters Manager Brooks Carey.

Fletcher’s folks, Jake and Tammy Fletcher, live in Pekin and have made it to some games as have some of his friends from his hometown. Normal is 22-year-old Fletcher’s first pro assignment straight out of graduation from Northern Illinois University. When it came to adjusting to Frontier League play, Fletcher said the first thing you notice “is that everything at this level is just a little bit better.”

“All the pitching’s a little bit better, all the hitting’s a little bit better, team defenses are a little bit better,” Fletcher said. He said that with the knowledge he came into Normal with – that of a Division I player.

Getting used to the changes a player of his experience needs to “means you have to fine tune your game a little bit,” Fletcher admitted, a process that is in progress at this very early stage of his career.

Cornbelters“I’ve played second base my whole life,” Fletcher said, and he said he is grateful for advice and knowledge about this level of the game he has been getting from ‘Belters shortstop Santiago Chirino, who had been playing some at second base before Fletcher arrived. Fletcher said Chirino has been giving him quick details on opposing hitters to help him tune his defensive play.

Advice like that at this level can be invaluable for rookies, so said Fletcher, “and I listened to Santiago because he’s been here, he’s played pro ball for seven or eight years now. It’s important to listen to those guys.” Fletcher said listening to the veteran players on the team is something he does often.

One of the biggest adjustments Fletcher said he had to make was getting used to playing a longer season than he had been as a college player. The Frontier League season of 90 games is roughly one-third longer than a college baseball season. Another thing he had to adjust to once he got to the Frontier League was faster pitching. Frontier League pitchers throw around 92 miles per hour versus roughly 85 miles per hour in the collegiate ranks.

Frontier League“He’s as good as any second baseman in the league,” CornBelters Manager Brooks Carey said of Fletcher. “I had to move Chirino to shortstop after some injuries this season, and I needed someone who could turn double plays. Wherever he hits is just a bonus. He’s done a good job. He’s going to be a good player down the road.”

‘Belters Present At Top Of Most Categories: If you look at the stat page for the Frontier League, you will find CornBelters players at the top of almost all of the key stats. The only one where CornBelters players aren’t immediately listed is in Earned Run Average. In fact, you can find Normal outfielder Nolan Meadows at the top of two categories. As of Monday, he was leading the league in home runs with 26, putting him nine in front of second place contender Alexi Colon of River City. As a result, he and Normal first baseman Aaron Dudley were tied at the top in runs batted in with 72.

‘Belters Visit Florence Mid-Week, Host West Division Leading Miners: Before the season ends, the CornBelters will get six chances to overtake Evansville, which is in second place in the West Division. Starting with a three-game road trip Tuesday through Thursday, Aug. 23-25, Normal will try to overtake the Otters. The Otters will pay their last visit of the season to The Corn Crib for a three-game series Tuesday through Thursday, Aug. 30, 31, and Sept. 1. All of those games begin at 6:35p.m.