By Steve Robinson | December 31, 2017 - 10:11 pm

BasketballBLOOMINGTON – Like every team in the Small School Boys’ Bracket at the 39th annual State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Tournament, El Paso Gridley head coach Nathaniel Meiss’ boys’ team was looking for a title. But being seeded 8th proved a double-edge sword for the Titans: Lose your first game and immediately go into the loser’s bracket, or win your first game and find yourself facing top seed Winnebago in the second round. The Titans found themselves with the latter prospect, and finished the tourney in 7th place as a result.

Champaign St. Thomas More Hands EPG An Opening Loss: El Paso Gridley’s boys’ basketball team extended their winning streak to seven games after winning their opening contest against Champaign St. Thomas More to open the State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Tournament Dec. 27 at Shirk Center on Illinois Wesleyan University ’s campus. The Titans did that staying in front of the Sabres to earn a 63-55 victory. The victory marked EPG’s seventh straight victory moving their overall record to 9-1.

After a 4-4 tie to open the game, the Titans broke the game open thanks to one bucket from senior guard Hub Halvorsen and a pair of deuces from senior guard Aaron Steiner for a 10-6 advantage. The Titans continued the surge with Halvorsen adding another basket, upping the lead to 12-7 before a three-point play by St. Thomas More’s Alec Blomberg cut the score to 12-10. Halversen added one more basket to close out the scoring for the quarter for the Titans handing them a 14-10 lead.

Sophomore forward Jack Weber opened the second quarter with a bucket to extend the Titans’ lead, 16-10, but St. Thomas More replied thanks to junior Riley Morris’ deuce, 16-12. Weber made his team’s next basket, putting the Titans up, 18-12. Blomberg responded with a deuce for the Sabres, cutting EPG’s lead to four, 18-14. It was followed by a Halvorsen deuce putting EPG up, 20-14. A free throw by a fouled Bryson Lee and a jumper by junior Spencer Neitzel pulled the Sabres within three, 20-17. the quarter ended on a pair of unanswered Sabres treys, cutting EPG’s lead going into halftime, 28-24.

A deuce by Morris pulled the Sabres within two, 28-26, at the 7:33 mark in the third quarter, but EPG was able to get a four point lead thanks to a basket followed by two free throws by junior guard Teron Fairchild pushing the Titans’ lead to 32-28. from there, Weber hit three straight unanswered deuces which were answered by a trey from the Sabres’ Noah Herr. That gave EPG a 38-31 lead. Fairchild and Morris exchanged deuces giving EPG a 40-33 lead and Titans forward Aaron Steiner’s deuce put EPG up, 42-33 at the 1:52 mark in the quarter. Junior Dominic Magrini hit a jumper and two free throws that followed which nudged St. Thomas More within six, 42-36, to start the fourth quarter.

After Fairchild and Halvorson opened the last quarter with back-to-back unanswered deuces pushing EPG up, 46-36, St. Thomas More went on a 9-0 run with a pair of threes by Morris being featured. That reduced EPG’s lead to five, 46-41 with 4:48 left in the contest. Back-to-back unanswered deuces by Fairchild and Weber gave EPG a 50-44 lead which the Sabres reduced to four, 50-46, on a Blomberg deuce at the 3:37 mark, prompting the Sabres bench to call for a timeout.

After that, EPG outscored the Sabres 7-2 on buckets by Steiner, Weber, and Fairchild, giving EPG a 57-48 lead which prompted EPG to call a timeout with 1:43 left. Once out of that time out, Sabres fouls put Fairchild at the line twice and Weber and Smith once each sinking a combined 6-for-7 to close out the contest.

Halvorsen led EPG with 18 points followed in double-digits by 16 from Fairchild and 15 from Weber. Blomberg proved a one-man scoring machine in a losing cause for the Sabres sinking 21.

EPG head coach Nathaniel Meiss said he felt his team handled the pressure St. Thomas More brought during the contest well and that was despite his team having been off since Dec. 19. “The Sabres were scrappy but I’m pleased with how we finished the job. The contest began at 10:30a.m. On the tourney’s first day and the Titans had not practiced for nearly two weeks, partly because of the Christmas holiday. They recently practiced the day after Christmas as a result. “I knew it was going to be tricky,” Weiss said.

“We did a pretty good job on their big guys,” Sabres head coach Matt Kelley said. “They did a good job at the rim but we didn’t do a very good job stopping their drives. We shot a little better the second half. But we made a run but couldn’t really get over the hump. EPG answered every run we had and that’s something we have to get better at.”

State Farm Holiday ClassicTop Seed Winnebago Drops Titans In Second Round: But winning that first round contest put the Titans immediately in line to square off with the bracket’s top seed, Winnebago, in their second round contest at Shirk Center . EPG outscored Winnebago in the first and third quarters, but the Indians outpaced the contest in the second and last quarters. EPG led 19-14 after one quarter, trailed at the half, 33-30, before outscoring the Indians in the third quarter to take a 48-46 lead going into the last quarter. But the Titans could only account for 9 points in that last quarter while Winnebago scored 15 leading to the final score.

Halvorsen’s 14 points followed by 12 from Fairchild led the charge for the Titans. Senior forward Ty Waller and senior center Andrew Morrissey each pocketed 18 points in the victory that sent the Titans toward a third game bracket which would potentially lead to finishing 5th in the tournament depending on the outcome.

Annawan Win Sends Titans To 7th Place Game: On Friday, day three of the tourney at Shirk Center , the Titans found themselves having to stay within range of the 5th seeded Annawan Braves, trailing by four, 17-13 after one quarter, but outpacing their opponent 11-10 in the second quarter to stay within three, 27-24, at the half. Winning would give the Titans a shot at 5th place. But after outrunning the Braves 14-8 in the third quarter to take a 38-35 lead, the Braves offense combined with a tight defense, outscored the Titans in the last stanza, 23-6 en route to a 58-44 win.

That loss sent the Titans into a fourth game where a win would mean 7th place against Rock Falls . Senior guard Owen Landwehr led the Braves’ scoring with 18 points, followed by 15 points from senior forward Ben Buresh and 11 from senior guard Brendon Shaw. Fairchild’s 11 points accompanied by 10 from senior guard Dylan Smith helped the Titans keep pace.

Titans Outpace Rock Falls For 7th To End Day 3: What turned out to be the Titans’ third and last day at The Classic turned out to be a two-game day, as, once the Braves closed out the Titans morning effort, Meiss’ troops prepared to compete for 7th place at IWU against 3rd seed Rock Falls in the afternoon. Jumping out to 10-7 first quarter lead helped EPG as both sides scored 14 points in the second quarter allowing the Titans to hold on to a 24-21 halftime lead. EPG outpaced Rock Falls by a 13-12 margin in the fourth quarter to lead by four, 37-33, but both sides scored 20 points apiece leading to EPG’s 57-53 victory.

Fairchild’s team-high 15 points led the charge for the Titans. He was followed in double figures by Halvorsen and Weber who each pocketed 11 points, and Steiner who scored 10.

By Steve Robinson | December 30, 2017 - 10:08 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Steve RobinsonJohn Phifer said his second oldest child, son Nick, is almost getting to the point of being taller than he is. At 6 foot-1, and playing basketball for the Hawks team representing Special Opportunities Available in Recreation, or SOAR, that a good thing.

Nick Phifer is a senior at Normal Community High School and is the big man, literally, on the team besides in height if you’ve ever seen him play. I watched the Hawks play two games during day one of the Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout on Dec. 29, part of the State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Classic.

Knisley was director of competition for the organization now known as Special Olympics Illinois. He always believed Special Olympics athletes could have a role in The Classic and proposed a Special Olympics event which could take place within the larger event. The first one took place in 2002. After Knisley died in October 2005 after battling cancer, tournament organizers forever attached his name to the event, rechristening it The Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout. A few years ago, the Knisley event was expanded from one day to two days giving more Special Olympics teams an opportunity to get an extra game on their schedule toward district competition which leads toward being able to compete at the State Tournament held in March.

The Knisley event ran for two days on the last two days of The Classic tournament at Illinois Wesleyan University’s Shirk Center, giving Special Olympics teams from around central Illinois and around the region a chance to get in some games that would count toward their season record in preparation to participate in district competition Jan. 14 at Shirk Center.

Winning teams at district would advance to Special Olympics Illinois’ State Basketball Tournament in March held at Horton Field House on Illinois State University’s campus.

If you see the SOAR Hawks play, you find Nick leads by example, leading the team into position for defense, directing traffic on offense, and being unselfish about handling the ball passing it to teammates who are positioned in just the right spot to take good shots. He also becomes zealous about protecting rebounded balls against opponents in an effort to keep them from reaching in on him.

But to be able to talk to Nick, you get a chance to understand a work ethic he was brought up with by his parents, John and Amy Phifer. “I just want everybody to get a fair chance, their own chance to shoot the ball and help the team out,” Nick explains. Nick also looks forward to giving himself a fair chance after graduation from NCHS by taking classes at Heartland Community College.

Being part of Special Olympics has been a learning experience, too, Nick said. Having a disability, he said he didn’t really know what the concern society had for accepting people with disabilities was all about. He said being in SOAR has made him more aware of those issues.

In addition to basketball, Nick helps SOAR teams try to achieve victory in Soccer, Softball, and Volleyball. Since the Phifers moved back into the area 5 ½ years ago his father said, Nick has enjoyed being part of Special Olympics. In addition to his schoolwork, Nick is a member of the customer relations staff at Hy-Vee grocery in Bloomington.

“When Nick is on the court, even when he’s on the bench, he’s helping us all out with telling us where players need to go on the court and cheering the team on,” explained Jamie Wielgopolan, head coach of SOAR Hawks. “I think his attitude affects all the players. So, if he’s in a good mood, he helps lift us up.”

As for how the Hawks did at the Knisley event, SOAR, which is jointly funded by the parks and recreation departments of the Town of Normal and the City of Bloomington, won both of their games, squeaking past the Central Illinois Independent Saints, 23-22, in game one, and then following that up with a convincing 30-16 win over Decatur-based Dream Catchers.

As for being able to stage the Knisley Memorial Shootout at Shirk Center, “SOAR is pleased with the quality of the facilities and the support” the event receives at The Classic, explained Maggie Rutenback, program manager for SOAR.

“We’re so fortunate to be able to be adopted by the Holiday Classic and be a viable and legitimate basketball event alongside the Holiday Classic,” Rutenback added. “Our players are getting a quality experience on quality floors and that makes us better for the future, including getting us ready for district.”

But as we have all come to understand since Special Olympics was founded nearly 50 years ago (the program held their first event in Chicago in the summer of 1968), giving people who have mental and physical challenges a quality experience which will help them improve their lives – starting with using sports – is the whole point behind this program. That it has helped athletes like Nick Phifer and hundreds upon thousands of others like him proves that.

By Steve Robinson | December 28, 2017 - 10:14 pm

BasketballBLOOMINGTON – For both the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams from Normal Community High School, the road to take a championship wasn’t easy, and their endings turned out to have differing results. The 5th seeded boys’ Ironmen cruised to a victory over second seed Chicago North Lawndale while the 5th seeded Lady Iron faced, chased, and lost to 2nd seed Morton.

NCHS Boys 58, Chicago North Lawndale 46: Head coach Dave Witzig’s boys’ team advanced to 12-2 following the victory Saturday, having outpaced 12th Springfield, 4th seed Rock Island, and top seed Wheaton Warrenville South to be able to square off against 2nd seed Chicago North Lawndale for the The Classic’s Large School Boys’ title. The Ironmen (12-2 following the championship game) sped out to a 21-5 first quarter advantage on the strength of threes each contributed by senior guard Trey Heffner, junior guard Blake Foster, and senior forward C. J. Christian. Senior guard London Stamps’ trey and a deuce by junior guard Demetrius Douglas were the only offense the Phoenix could muster in the opening quarter.

Chicago North Lawndale (10-2 after this game) seemed to find their collective footing in the second quarter on threes by senior guard David Forrest, junior guard Daquan Tucker, senior guard Rayjon Williams, and junior guard Isiah Thomas. Their efforts helped Chicago North Lawndale outscore NCHS 25-11 in the second quarter, but the Ironmen still led 32-30 at the half. A basket by junior guard Daylen Boddie and a pair of deuces by junior center C. J. Wilbourne helped NCHS keep their lead at halftime, 32-30.

Boddie led his team in scoring with 15 points. He was followed by Wilbourn’s 14 and 12 from Christian. Tucker was the lone player in double figures for the Rocks with 19 points.

A pair of treys from Boddie and one from Chicago North Lawndale junior guard Marquese Earskines help both sides keep pace, although the Ironmen led, 45-35, going into the fourth quarter.

NCHS’ defense held the Phoenix to just 10 points in the fourth quarter while the offense behind a pair of baskets each by Christian and Wilbourne led the charge to the finish.

Christian led the Ironmen’s charge with 14 points, followed by 12 from Wilbourne, and 10 from Boddie. Forrest was the sole player for the Phoenix in double-digits with 12.

Witzig said after the game that he forgot to caution his players after the first quarter that “this game wouldn’t be that easy.” He said he wished he had issued that caveat because Chicago North Lawndale “went on to play a great second quarter. They scored 25 points in the second quarter and that’s a lot for a high school game. Our defense really came through for us in the second half.”

Chicago North Lawndale head coach Lewis Thorpe said he didn’t believe there was any in particular about NCHS’ play in the first quarter that caused his team’s lack of scoring. During that quarter, he said, “We just weren’t playing good basketball. We just weren’t making shots.” He added the coaching staff will study game tape and start their next game with five players who show him “consistent energy.” He said he didn’t believe his players played with that ingredient during the contest.

Thorpe said he thought NCHS’ toughness “was the key to the game. They wanted it more than we did.”

State Farm Holiday ClassicMorton 61, NCHS Girls 56: A pair of treys – one from Morton sophomore guard Lindsay Dullard and one from junior guard Tenley Dowell started the Large School Girls Championship game for 2nd seed Morton against NCHS’ Lady Iron. Morton owned 19-11 lead going into the second quarter. That set the tone for the contest with NCHS (13-4) spending the bulk of the contest chasing the Lady Potters who increased their record to 14-1. To get to the championship, head coach Marcus Mann’s team beat 12th seed Geneseo in the opener, 4th seed Wheaton Warrenville South in the second round, and top seed Peoria Richwoods to get to the championship.

Morton (14-1) stretched their lead further with two treys by senior guard Kassidy Shurman while Lady Iron baskets by senior guards Caelyn Steffens and Summer Stoewer, junior forward Abby Feit, and senior forward Hannah Johnson tried to keep pace to try catching them. But at the half, the Lady Potters held command with a 38-23 lead.

A trey by Morton sophomore guard Lindsey Dullard gave added push to the Lady Potters efforts to in front in the third quarter, but baskets by Steffens, Feit, sophomore guard Maya Wong, and Stoewer help NCHS maintain a pace that gave Morton a 49-35 lead going into the fourth quarter.

Back-to-back baskets to open the fourth quarter for NCHS by Feit and a free throw by Steffens cut Morton’s lead to 49-40 with 5:49 left. from there, the pace of the last leg of the chase accelerated with baskets by sophomore guard Kylee Schneringer, Wong, and Steffens, capped by a Stoewer trey with 36.5 seconds left to allow NCHS to come within five, 58-53, before Lady Iron fouls sent senior guard Josi Becker and senior forward Caylie Jones to help Morton go a combined 3-for-4 on the line. Wong hit NCHS’ last shot of the night – a trey – for the eventual final score.

Dullard let Morton in scoring with 18 points, followed by Jones’ 13, Dowell’s 12, and Becker’s 10. Feit and Wong led NCHS’ charge scoring 18 and 11 points, respectfully.

By Steve Robinson | December 22, 2017 - 5:10 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Steve RobinsonLast week, I promised you a preview of the annual Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout – the tourney style event within a tournament that’s part of the State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Tournament, better known to some as The Classic.

Knisley was director of competition for the organization now known as Special Olympics Illinois. He always believed Special Olympics athletes could have a role in The Classic and proposed a Special Olympics event which could take place within the larger event. The first one took place in 2002. After Knisley died in October 2005 after battling cancer, tournament organizers forever attached his name to the event, rechristening it The Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout. A few years ago, the Knisley event was expanded from one day to two days giving more Special Olympics teams an opportunity to get an extra game on their schedule toward district competition which leads toward being able to compete at the State Tournament held in March.
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“Our committee is trying really hard to get new interest in the Knisley Shootout, bringing in some new teams,” explained Dave Oloffson, vice president of The Classic’s organizing group. But he added that, just like the high school teams who come here for the experience, Special Olympics teams also face expense issues involved with being part of the tournament. He said reaching out to new teams who might be interested was done to see if that wouldn’t help matters.

“Bringing in new teams is always exciting to me,” Oloffson said. “They bring a new flavor to it. It allows teams that may not play each other throughout the year or at the State Tournament in March a chance to play somebody new.”

On each day of the Knisley event, Dec. 29 and 30, two entirely different sets of teams will compete. On Friday, Dec. 29, the teams participating will be: The Special Opportunities Available in Recreation (SOAR) Phoenix; SOAR Hawks; Jacksonville Special Olympics Golden Saints; Chillicothe IVC High School Grey Ghosts; Pekin-based Illinois River Valley Special Recreation Association Blue Rhinos; Milestone Tigers; Dreamcatchers Wildcats; and Central Illinois Independent Saints.

Teams participating on Saturday, Dec. 30 include: SOAR Eagles; SOAR Falcons; St. Louis-based Neuwoehner High School; Central Illinois Independent Angels; IRVSRA Pink Panthers; Champaign-Urbana Special Olympics Mustangs; Jacksonville Special Olympics Wolverines; and South Holland Thornwood Thunderbirds.

In addition to the play against other teams, four pairs of Special Olympics teams will square off at halftime of each of The Classic’s championship games. Thornwood Thunderbirds will face Central Illinois Independents at approximately 4:00p.m. (Halftime of 3:15p.m. championship game); Neuwoehner Tigers will face Jacksonville Wolverines at approximately 5:45p.m. (Halftime of 5pm championship game); SOAR Eagles will face SOAR Falcons at approximately 7:30p.m. (Halftime of 6:45p.m. championship game); and SOAR Phoenix will face SOAR Hawks at approximately 9:15p.m. (Halftime of 8:30p.m. championship game).

“This is a great experience being coupled with the Holiday Classic,” explained Maggie Rutenback, program manager for SOAR. Special Opportunities Available in Recreation, or SOAR, is jointly funded by the parks and recreation departments of the Town of Normal and the City of Bloomington. “Our players get to see other teams taking basketball seriously as well as being recognized for their basketball skills.”

Rutenback said doing the demos at halftime of each of The Classic’s championship games and having officiating “that’s at a high level” means a lot to Special Olympics players, coaches, and fans.

Being part of the Knisley event is “a guaranteed two games for teams and mimics our tournament a lot more closely,” Rutenback said. Each team is required to have played three games to qualify toward playing in district tournaments which are playoffs for teams trying to qualify to make Special Olympics State Basketball Tournament in Normal in March.

“Every team is getting a two-game experience and that’s the important piece of this,” Rutenback said.

Doing the Knisley event “is our way of honoring Ron Knisley – what he meant to the tournament, what he meant to the Bloomington-Normal community, and more importantly, what he meant as a friend on this committee,” Oloffson said. “From our standpoint, it’s pretty emotional and it’s the best ending to the tournament every year to be able to offer.”

“We’re ever grateful to the Holiday Classic for including us and for the exposure our players get to play on a quality basketball court,” Rutenback added.

I can tell you from covering championship games at The Classic, fans stay in their seats for the halftime exhibitions and their applause and cheering during the exhibitions serves as validation this aspect of the tournament is popular and helps to spread the word about the work Special Olympics does for their athletes. In short, we all benefit from the experience.   

By Steve Robinson | December 20, 2017 - 10:53 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

ISU Redbird HelmetNORMAL – Two local recruits are among the 18 players Illinois State University head football coach Brock Spack has signed 20 players in the early recruiting period, two of them local – one from Normal Community High School and one from Central Catholic High School. Among the National Letter of Intent signees are NCHS’ Peter Bussone and BCC’s Joey Malinowski.

Peter Bussone: Bussone is a 6 foot-1, 285 pound defensive lineman for the Ironmen who Spack said “is very, very physical and tough. He has the size right now needed to play. He is one of the rare guys that I’ve seen come through who could handle our game as a freshman, physically and mentally.”

“He’s been an offensive lineman but I kind of viewed him as a defensive lineman,” Spack said of Bussone. “I think we’re in need of a young, big-bodied guy who can move inside on defense. We’ll see how he does. I hope he gets an opportunity to play this year.” Spack said there is the potential that Bussone could “fill an immediate need” on the team once he arrives, but the coach added, “We’ll have to see though.”

Joey Malinowski: The 6 foot-1, 250 pound Malinowski is listed as a long snapper on the Redbirds roster and that’s the primary reason and assignment he will fulfill for Spack’s team once he arrives on campus. “We recruited him specifically for the position of long snapper,” Spack noted. “What we like about him is that he was an offensive lineman, used for protection and be able to move and block. So when we do ask him to do those things, his playing on the offensive line will help.” Because of his specialty, Spack said, it’s unlikely Malinowski will be put in any other game situations that don’t involve his position.”

Missouri Valley Football ConferenceJim Malinowski, Joey’s father, is an assistant coach at BCC who played pro playing career in Germany as a long snapper. BCC seems to make producing long snappers a specialty or sorts considering Nick Buchanan, Nathan Rebholz and Chris Highland also suited up for the Redbirds after graduating from BCC.

Spack said he could envision players he signed during this month playing in 2018 as well as the ones the team is looking at signing during the February recruiting period. Spack said it just depends on “how much they can learn” in the short time they are with the team once they join it. He said NCAA rules have changed so that teams can meet with players during the summer which will help with orientating players, Spack said.

“Blueprint Has Been Staying Closer To Home”: On the subject of recruiting, Spack said, “Our blueprint has been staying closer to home and taking care of home first and spreading out from there. The heart and soul of our team will always come from this part of the country…from central Illinois and spread out from there.” From there, Spack said, the hunt for future Redbird players will go up to Chicago , Indianapolis , St. Louis , and points outward.

“I think you need to take care of home first,” said Spack, who will be entering his 10th season as Redbirds head coach next year touting a career record of 68-39 which includes a Missouri Valley Football Conference record of 45-26. That record also includes four appearances in the FCS Playoffs including one trip to the FCS Championship at the end of the 2014 season against MVFC rival and FCS reigning champ North Dakota State .

Of the 20 signees, only two were not from states that bordered Illinois – one from Kansas , the other from Texas .