Steve RobinsonTo say El Paso Gridley High School’s Special Olympics basketball team got off to a rocky start while still seeking their first win on the court is an understatement. In the middle of their inaugural season in 2015, the team got into last year’s district tournament due to another team’s forfeit. But the Titans lost their only State Tournament game – in fact the only game they had last year.

This basketball season had been a bit of a rocky matter for head coach Cindy Martorana’s troops, too, as they entered the Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout, part of the State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Tournament. Knisley was on the Holiday Tournament’s organizing committee starting in 2002 and brought the idea of incorporating a Special Olympics tournament into the larger event, known to many as The Classic.

After Knisley died from cancer in 2005, The Classic’s organizing committee renamed the Special Olympics event The Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout. A few years ago, they added a second day to it. Doing that helped the number of teams participating double from eight to 16.

The 2016 Knisley Memorial Tournament is the first one EPG has been a part of. And they were doing it to try to get out from under a losing record, a discouraging 0-5. They entered the Knisley Shootout knowing they would play against two more-established teams. “We’re very good kids and we play hard,” said EPG player Jordan Preacher.

“They’re learning about competition and that we can’t win all the time,” said Martorana, who coaches the team with an assistant who was, at one time, also an EPG alum who played on the school’s boys’ basketball team, Carter Tria. “We’ve had to show our players that improving is our win.”

The players on the team range in age from sixth grade to a high school junior. They are: Zoey Slightom, Andrew Hartman, Caleb Turner, Brady Neill, Geneva Powell, Courtney Adkins, and Preacher.

Martorana said she wants the community to know that “my athletes play and practice as hard as all other athletes. They are just as dedicated to their sport as well. They are truly wonderful athletes and I’m very lucky that I have these athletes and their families to work with because they are all so wonderful.”

Some of the additional support the team has received has come from a place one might not think of immediately, and in an unusual form, too. EPG Freshman/Sophomore team coach Justin Kissinger said he sends a few of his players to Martorana’s team practices “to help out and work with her team and help my team get involved in the community.”

Doing that, Kissinger said, “allows my players to get a chance to give back and realize that life isn’t all about basketball, but it’s about helping others and making a difference in the community they’re involved in. Once they’ve done that, my players have gone back to help out there again.”

Before pitching in to help EPG’s team, Kissinger’s team members did the same volunteering to help teams from Special Opportunities Available in Recreation, or SOAR, co-funded by the parks and recreation departments from both the Town of Normal and the City of Bloomington.

Special Olympics Illinois had managed the Knisley Shootout before his death up until 2012, but handed it over to Bloomington Parks and Recreation in 2013, the result of time constraints faced by Special Olympics Illinois’ home office in Normal. Maggie Rutenbeck, who oversees competitive events for SOAR, now manages the Knisley Tourney.

Rutenbeck said getting in two games on a regulation college basketball court on the ground floor of Illinois Wesleyan University’s Shirk Center, complete with officials refereeing games and giving the players the feel of a tournament “is a great experience” for all concerned.

Lori Slightom’s daughter, Zoey, plays on EPG’s Special Olympics team. Zoey has been involved with Special Olympics since she was a 4-year-old who became active with Special Olympics’ “Young Athletes” program. “In addition to basketball, Zoey has done bowling, and track and field,” Slightom said of her daughter’s activities.

“For my daughter to be able to participate and succeed in something is amazing,” Slightom added.

And as wonderful as the team’s support is appreciated, EPG was still looking for a win as the tourney opened. In their first game, the Titans found themselves facing the Blue Rhinos from Pekin Park District-supported Illinois River Valley Special Recreation Association.. The Titans still found themselves in search of a victory, however, after that game, due to a 37-23 loss. But I can tell you there was no giving up on the part of Martorana’s players.

In EPG’s second “Knisley” game, Martorana’s charges had a bit of luck come their way against a team known as the SOAR Unicorns. After beginning the game trailing the Unicorns, 10-8 after one quarter, EPG exploded, outscoring their opponents in the second half, 26-0, on the way to a 34-10 first victory.

EPG celebrated the win at lunch following the game and now looks forward to a district playoff game Jan. 22 at Shirk Center. If EPG wins a gold medal at district, they would advance to the Special Olympics Illinois State Basketball Tournament held March 17-19 at both Shirk Center and Horton Field House on Illinois State University’s campus.

EPG’s patience for a win paid off and now, in about three weeks, Martorana’s team will try to conquer their next challenge: To win again so they can get back to the State Tourney. Here’s hoping that their luck continues.

BasketballBLOOMINGTON – University High School’s girls’ basketball team went from a semifinal double overtime loss to Morton Dec. 29 into a chance at third place within the Large School Girls bracket Dec. 30 at the State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Tournament. In their final game of the tourney, the 6th seed Pioneers faced 5th seed Rochester.

Beating Rochester in this final game of the tourney would put the Pioneers back on a winning course after starting the season going 11-0 before falling to the tourney Large School Girls bracket’s number two seed, Morton, in double overtime, 42-39.

But the Pioneers were only able to keep pace with the Rockets in the third place game for a little more than half of the contest before dropping a 47-40 decision as a crowd of roughly 300 watched at Shirk Center. The loss left the Pioneers facing a two-game skid while claiming fourth place for the bracket.

U-High PioneersAfter a deuce by Madison Faulkner to give Rochester a 2-0 lead, U-High (11-2) went up 4-2 on a deuce and two free throws from forward Raven Hughes with 4:48 to go in the opening quarter. But a quick trey by Nicole Robinson followed by a deuce by Faulkner put Rochester up, 7-4. Hughes responded with a deuce at 2:08 to cut that lead, 7-6. Jessica Baker’s deuce with 53.7 seconds left put the Pioneers up, 8-7. But Faulkner’s next basket allowed the Rockets to blast into the second quarter with a 9-8 lead.

A basket by Jasmayne Lawrence followed by two free throws by Hughes to start the second quarter pushed U-High up, 12-9 at the 5:56 mark. But Rochester’s Angela Perry sank a trey at 4:06 which tied the game, 12-all. A deuce by Pioneers’ Addy Loeffler and a trey by Hughes sandwiched a basket by Perry helping U-High go up, 17-14 at 3:06 in the quarter. Faulkner hit two free throws to put Rochester up, 18-17 at the 2:07 mark. It was followed by a trey by Hughes which put U-High up, 20-18, and Rochester’s Aubrey Magro hit 1-of-2 free throws to slice the Pioneers’ halftime lead to 20-19.

Two free throws by Lawrence were sandwiched between a deuce and a trey from the Rockets which allowed Rochester (12-3) to take a 24-22 lead with 5:26 left in the third quarter. Lawrence’s jumper at 5:14 tied the game at 24-all. Rochester’s Lyric Boone and U-High’s Loeffler exchanged deuces after that tying the game at 26-26..Perry and Boone hit back-to-back unanswered deuces after that, giving Rochester a 30-26 lead with 3:15 left in the quarter.

A Hughes jumper pushed the Pioneers within two, 30-28, before back-to-back deuces by Faulkner and Havilyn Dulin pushed Rochester ahead 34-28 with 14 seconds to go. Four seconds later, Hughes hit one of a pair of free throws to cut the Rockets’ lead, 34-29.

Back-to-back unanswered baskets by Boone gave Rochester a fast fourth quarter start and Rochester its biggest lead to that point, prompting U-High head coach Laura Sellers to call a timeout with 6:40 to go in the contest.

From there, a three-point play that included one free throw by Hughes pushed the Pioneers within four, 38-34, with 5:17 remaining.

statefarmholidayclassic.gifPerry’s basket at 3:51 stopped U-High’s surge, keeping the Rockets in front, 40-34. Back-to-back buckets by Amber Nanni and Loeffler sliced that lead to two, 40-38 at the 2:25 mark before Dulin’s next deuce 10 seconds later gave the Rockets a 42-38 lead, where Rochester head coach J. R. Boudouris took a timeout.

Following that timeout, Pioneers fouls sent three separate Rockets players to the free throw line, including Dulin. Those free throws finished out the winning effort for Rochester, but U-High got a late second basket from Nanni for the final score.

Perry and Faulkner led Rochester’s scoring effort with 16 and 10 points, respectfully. Hughes was U-High’s lone player who achieved double-digits, with 22.

“I thought they played more zone coverage against us today than they have in the past,” said Boudouris, referring to the Pioneers’ effort. “We expected that though.”

Sellers said her squad played four really good teams in this year’s tournament, but that against the Rockets, “We hit a wall.”

“I thought they were going to bury us in the fourth quarter, but we cut it to two points once. We just ran out of energy,” Sellers concluded.

BasketballUniversity High’s girls’ basketball team’s winning streak entered double digits Tuesday at The State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Tournament. The Pioneers, despite a fourth quarter push from Chicago St. Ignatius, held off the Wolfpack for a first round Head coach Laura Sellers’ team is seeded seeded 6th in the tournament’s Large School Girls bracket. Chicago St. Ignatius was seeded 11th.

The Pioneers’ victory will had them squaring off against 3rd seed Springfield High School Wednesday at 8:30p.m. at Normal Community High School. Springfield High disposed of Bloomington High in their first round game, 73-59 Tuesday morning at BCC.

U-High’s Raven Hughes and Jasmyne Lawrence each hit baskets to jump out to a fast 4-0 lead to open the first quarter for the Pioneers before the Wolfpack’s Aleah Spurell hit a deuce at 6:42 in the opening quarter to cut the lead, 4-2. Lawrence and Hughes hit unanswered deuces back-to-back increasing the Pioneers’ score, 8-2 at 5:03 in the quarter before early fouls by U-High put Spurell and Nicolette McDonald on the free throw line to help St. Ignatius come within two, 8-6, at the 3:01 mark.

State Farm Holiday ClassicKimmy Sendelbach and Hughes hit back-to-back unanswered deuces helping double the Pioneers’ lead, 12-6, with 1:31 remaining in the quarter. That was followed by a deuce by St. Ignatius’ Hayley Cange who cut the Pioneers ‘lead to 12-8. U-High was able to open the second quarter with a 14-8 lead.

After Cange opened the second quarter with a deuce to cut U-High’s lead to 14-10, Hughes hit two back-to-back deuces, followed by a jumper from Addy Loeffler to put the Pioneers on a 6-0 run which doubled their score, 20-10 with 3:11 until halftime, prompting St. Ignatius head coach Cara Doyle to call a timeout.

Following the timeout, U-High’s Jessica Baker hit a three, pushing the Pioneers up, 23-10, with 2:28 left in the quarter. Fouls late in the quarter helped U-High add to their lead, sending Hughes to the free throw line twice, where she sank 3-of-4 shots, giving the Pioneers a 26-10 advantage.

After Lawrence hit two free throws to open the third quarter, giving U-High a 28-10 lead, and the teams exchanged layups to give U-High a 30-12 lead, Chicago St. Ignatius (4-7) went on a 6-0 run thanks to a pair of unanswered layups by McDonald and two free throws by Molly Gannon to cut the Pioneers’ lead, 30-18, with 4:17 in the period.

Lawrence scored a three-point play after being fouled five seconds later to give U-High a 33-18 lead, but St. Ignatius responded a trey from Gannon to bring the Wolfpack within 12, 33-21. Jessica Huber hit a deuce for U-High and McDonald responded, moving the Pioneers’ lead, 35-23. Hughes was fouled shortly afterward, and sank two free throws to give the Pioneers a 37-23 lead at 2:46 in the quarter. But a second trey from Gannon pulled the Wolfpack within 11, 37-26. A deuce from Loeffler with 52.5 seconds pushed U-High up, 39-26 and prompted St. Ignatius to call for timeout. Following the timeout, Hughes contributed one more basket, giving U-High a 41-26 lead with which to open the fourth quarter.

U-High PioneersHughes opened the fourth quarter with a pair of free throws after being fouled by the Wolfpack’s Cange. She was followed by a basket by Lawrence and added one more after that herself to give U-High a 47-26 lead with 4:43 left in the game. But St. Ignatius responded with an 8-0 run highlighted by two threes – to pull within 11, 47-36, prompting them to take a timeout with 1:54 remaining. A layup by Spurell nine seconds later prompted the Wolfpack to huddle for a second timeout. Following that, Grace Barclay hit a deuce to increase the Pioneers’ lead, 49-38, with 1:28 remaining. A deuce by Logan Daly with 54.8 seconds left and two free throws by Gannon 21 seconds later were as close as the Wolfpack would come thanks to the Pioneers defense in the closing moments of the contest.

Hughes’ 21 points, followed by 13 from Lawrence helped power U-High to the tenth consecutive victory. Gannon was Chicago St. Ignatius’ lone scorer in double-figures with 12. Spurell and McDonald came close, nearly touching double figures with 9 points, and 8 points, respectfully.

“The score showed that we had them for three and a half quarters and we made sure we got some players in to get some game experience in the fourth quarter,” U-High head coach Laura Sellers said. From this point on in the tournament, Sellers added, “The competition gets better every game. We need to take care of the basketball and play as a team to get it done.”

“Basketball is a game of moments, and we just need to put our good moments together,” said Chicago St. Ignatius head coach Cara Doyle. “U-High is a very nice team. They run their system very well. Their kids are well-coached and their kids are good rebounders. Their offensive rebounds and put-backs were hard for us.”

Steve RobinsonI suppose we all, at some point in our careers, have wondered what it would be like if our professions each had their own “Hall Of Fame” – a location where the top members became forever recognized for their accomplishments in their respective fields.

As far as coaching high school baseball is concerned, our area can now boast about one of its own being added to such a hall. Normal Community West High School head coach Chris Hawkins will be inducted into the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association’s Hall Of Fame at a dinner at the Westin Lombard Center on Jan. 21.

Hawkins said he found out about the honor he is receiving from Lombard High School head coach Jim Hall, an IHSBCA Board member. “It was definitely a surprise…kind of shocking,” said Hawkins, who will be entering his 20th season with the Wildcats this spring.

“I’ve been to a few of these dinners, and you always have the honor in the back of your mind, that’s for sure,” Hawkins said. “I definitely did not expect it. In the past, I’ve gone to that dinner to support one of my colleagues.” One of these colleagues is Ron Smith, head coach at Stanford Olympia High School, where Hawkins was an assistant for three years.

From Lexington To Coaching Future Pro Players:

A 1987 graduate of Lexington High School, Hawkins started his coaching career as an assistant to Smith at Stanford Olympia High School before he took the reins at Normal West.

Growing up in Lexington, Hawkins said, meant the town “was the center of the universe to those of us who grew up there and I’m sure anyone who lived there in the 1980s and beyond probably felt the same way.”

Not many people know this, but, Hawkins pointed out, Lexington had five locals who went on to play professional baseball during a 13-year span between 1975 and 1988.

“Neither Bloomington High School or Normal Community High School can say that in a 35 year span,” Hawkins said.

Those include the Freed brothers, Mick and Dan, and the Moore brothers, Ed and Rick. Rick Moore played in the Seattle Mariners organization, while Ed Moore played in the Chicago Cubs system. Hawkins said one of his teammates at Lexington , Mike Brown, played in Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

“Our high school coach was Ed Heineman and Ed Moore was the assistant,” Hawkins said, during his years at LHS. “Ed Heineman was a great coach. Heineman and Moore taught me a lot about the game.” Hawkins said Heineman was a disciplinarian and very structured, adding Heineman knew how to win games. That disciplinary style helped the Minutemen win league titles for 11 years straight. It was a structure Hawkins tried to duplicate once he became head coach at West.

“Our coaches were the key to the luck we had,” Hawkins said of Lexington’s streak. “I was very blessed to be around that group.”

One of biggest lessons Hawkins said he still carries with him from his days in a Minutemen uniform that he passes along to his players now is the importance of coming prepared for practice and games. That lesson got impressed upon him by Heineman from his very first practice his sophomore season in 1985. That first practice was held indoors on a winter day with snow on the ground, Hawkins recalled. Hawkins said he came to practice with everything except his team cap. Heineman sent him home from practice as a result. From that point on, Hawkins said, he made sure he had all his equipment with him when he arrived for practices.

“That was the beginning of my realizing I’d better have my gear, otherwise, I’d be leaving the hard way,” Hawkins said. That small lesson taught him responsibility, he added. He always remembered his cap and all his equipment from that day on. It was a lesson he has tried to instill upon his players at West now.

Hawkins’ Program Has Produced Big Leaguers, Too

Hawkins can also claim bragging rights to a number of players who went from being coached by him at West to moving through the big leagues. Those players (and the teams they entered the big leagues with) include: Andrew Jefferson (San Francisco); Nate Whitney (San Diego); Luke Stewart (San Diego); Harold Riggins (Chicago White Sox); Jordan Comadena (Houston); Blake Brown (Pittsburgh); and most recently Blake Stewart, who was drafted by the New York Mets in 2010, but most recently found himself on the mound this past season for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Conference, Regional Championships

Hawkins can also, since becoming West’s head coach in 2001, lay claim to a 418-171 record, giving him a .709 percentage. That record includes six Big 12 Conference Championship in 2001, 2008 through 2011, and most recently in 2013. That record also includes coaching his team to Regional championships in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2011, 2012, and 2015.

Hawkins said the three things about his program that make him proudest are the team’s strength and conditioning staff; His players; and their parents.

Last Season Was “Stepping Stone” For ‘17

Hawkins said West’s 2016 season “was a heck of a grind,” getting as far as they did, losing to Minooka in the Regional. It was such a grind, he said, that the Wildcats’ 18 wins last season were the fewest the Wildcats have had going back to 1998.

The good news, Hawkins said, was that the team will start 2017 with its entire outfield, two infielders, and a strong pitching staff. He added that four seniors he will have this season have already committed to play college baseball.

“That means last year was a bit of a stepping stone,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins operates an intramural program at West, as well, open to any of the school’s athletes not involved in a winter sport. It involves lifting weights and cardio activities. Currently, he said, there are 40 students in the program. Hawkins has been operating that for 17 years.

The cold weather we still face makes anybody yearn for a soft spring breeze. What’s more, it most likely gives Hawkins and his charges an itch to take to the field to see if they can add to the legacy being built by players being guided by this coach from his local center of the universe where he learned so well.

By Steve Robinson | December 22, 2016 - 10:01 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Steve RobinsonAt the time of his death from cancer in Oct. 2005, Ron Knisley was able to help oversee a small basketball tournament within a tournament. The tournament – the annual Bloomington-Normal State Farm Holiday Classic – has been going strong since 1975. But when Knisley came on board the tourney’s organizing committee in 2002, he was looking to do what Special Olympics does best: Make everyday events and activities available to those persons who have developmental disabilities.

In that year, with Knisley leading the way, “The Classic,” as the tournament is known to many locals as, added a one-day Special Olympics Shootout to the four-day event. Special Olympics Illinois brought in regional teams from Peoria, Champaign, and Pekin to square off with a few of the teams from the group known as Special Opportunities Available in Recreation, or SOAR. SOAR is jointly funded by the Parks and Recreation Departments of the Town of Normal and the City of Bloomington.

Since its inception, the games in the Special Olympics Shootout have been played on championship day of The Classic, and have featured basketball teams demonstrating their skills, playing the game before fans who love the game and who rarely, if ever leave their seats during these exhibitions. In its first year, the Shootout started with just four local teams took to the court.

In those first couple years, the exhibitions the teams did were before small crowds – the folks who opted to wait to stretch their legs or go to the concession stand. But as the event progressed, those who stayed to see the exhibitions invited their friends to stay and watch with them so see something truly remarkable in how these players show their skill and conduct themselves both on and off the court.

This year’s “Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout” – the tourney inside a tourney — will take place on Thursday, Dec. 29 and Friday, Dec. 30. “Knisley Memorial” games begin at 9:30a.m. on the practice courts on the ground floor of Illinois Wesleyan University’s Shirk Center.

Teams slated to play on Dec. 29 are: SOAR Unicorns; SOAR Warriors; El Paso Gridley Titans; Pekin-based Illinois River Valley Special Recreation Association (IRVSRA) Blue Rhinos; IRVSRA Pink Panthers; Eastern Illinois Special Olympics; Jacksonville, Ill. Special Olympics; and Milestone Tigers.

Teams slated to play on Dec. 30 are: SOAR Avengers; SOAR Thunder; IRVSRA Honey Badgers; Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation Blue Mustangs; Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation Yellow Mustangs; Springfield Special Olympics Blue Devils; Springfield Special Olympics Green Devils; and Tri-Valley Vikings.

Now, and I can attest to this having covered championship day at The Classic, when the Special Olympics exhibition begins at each of the championship games, nobody – I mean, nobody – leaves the arena. They stay and cheer on these athletes and relish what they are being witness to. It is quite a sight if you have been there for it.

Special Olympics has helped these people learn other skills besides sports. They have learned discipline and job skills, and many of these players hold down jobs within their communities. That sometimes meant trying to find enough players who aren’t working on Tournament Day to field teams. The coaches always manage to, though. And the fans are appreciative of that.

Knisley would probably love knowing that end result, too. At the time of his death, he was the director of sports and competition for Special Olympics Illinois. So he would probably have been surprised to find out the tournament, a couple years ago was expanded to add one more day, and rechristened “The Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout.”

I plan on covering at least one day of the Knisley Memorial so I can bring you a column on it. I look forward to seeing these athletes in action not to mention seeing their faces as they compete. As it turns out, while they get joy from the thrill of competition, we get some, too, from just watching them and knowing how far they have come.