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High School Highlights

Steve Robinson Photo
Steve Robinson

Odds & Ends at End of School Year

The 2013-14 School Year has closed out, with Unit 5 students being granted the summer off as of this past Monday. At Parkside Junior High School, the message board in the school’s monument sign encourages students to “have a groovy summer.” Yes, I have no doubt some of the kids had to ask Grandma & Grandpa, rather than Mom & Dad, about what it meant by “groovy.” Still it made me smile.
Something I had to make note of in one fell swoop was that, on Saturday, the three teams that had high hopes for either winning or advancing toward a state title in their respective sports all fell short of their quest.
Normal Community High School’s Softball Team, under head coach Bob Grimes, had fans riding high with hopes of making it to State this coming weekend, but Edwardsville derailed those plans with a 12-0 victory over the Iron in the Illinois High School Association Class 4A O’Fallon Sectional championship contest. Despite that setback, they are to be congratulated for all the thrills their season provided.
Another team that had fans hoping for a state title was the Normal Community West High School Soccer Team, coached by Val Walker. By defeating Hinsdale South High School, 1-0, Walker’s charges made it to the state championship game to face Lake Forest High School for the IHSA Class 2A title, and the chance to possibly earn Normal West its very first state title.
I checked in on this game while doing some writing just in time to find out it was going into overtime tied 1-1. Coming in second in State is something the players, their coaches, fans and families will long remember.
University High’s Baseball Team lost the Class 3A Sectional Championship game to Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin, 6-3,  Saturday. The team faced a tough, difficult season as Assistant Coach Michael Collins, son of U-High head coach Jim Collins, died on April 2 from injuries sustained in a March 29 accident in which the car he and three others were riding in was hit by a drunk driver. Michael was an organ donor and helped others as a result of that unselfish last act. His death also set off a campaign of kindness, of “paying it forward” as it’s now known these days. 
These three teams kept our hopes alive and our spirits up for the times they took the field. One hates to “wait ‘til next year,” and all of these losses were disappointing for anybody involved with or following the schools and the sport – that would include, obviously, the team; their fans, and local sports fans generally, seeing as we would have liked to see local teams do well and make State before the year ends.
Something else that caught my eye was the list of Unit 5 teachers’ projects that received grant money from the Beyond The Books Foundation. The list of teachers awarded was presented at the School Board’s May 28 meeting, held at Sugar Creek Elementary School. A total of 16 projects from the district’s schools earned grants.
The first one that caught my eye came from Normal Community High School’s team of Jeff Christopherson, John Bergmann, and Mike Roller and their project called, “Science Palooza – Hands On Science.” This team received a $400 grant from Beyond The Books Foundation for this, and sounds like it would be a lot of fun.
The next one came from another NCHS team – Barbara Koski, Julie Trimpe, Claire Rybaraczyk, Caroline Fox, Trish Warner, Jenny Sokulski, and Nicole Maurer entitled, “Hi/Lo Library – Literacy Library.” I am really curious about the goals of this one because this team received a $3,000 grant from Beyond The Books Foundation for this, and sounds like, because it has library in its title – twice – could possibly mean a hint that it will show kids some things about what they can learn and do in a library that they hadn’t yet considered. We will definitely want to find out more about that.
 Being a sportswriter, I will be real curious to see how Unit 5 Librarians Rixie Lanier and Remy Garard mix education and the sports device of team brackets to help students learn, after receiving a $400 grant from Beyond The Books Foundation for their project called “Book Bracket Battle.”
Before getting back out onto the softball diamond next season, Normal West’s April Schermann will be instructing her students, with the help of a $3,500 Beyond The Books Foundation grant for a project titled, “Using Robots To Teach Math And Science.” I’m sure her students would be interested to see what that project involves.
Another project I would like to find out more about comes from a team of teachers including Schermann, along with fellow Normal West teachers Jeritt Williams, Barb Bush, Dave Weber, and Beth Smith called “Beam Me Up, Scotty! Star Trek STEM.” STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. I would be curious to see the results of this project.
All of these projects sound like a lot of fun, and I can’t wait for the details. I have them bookmarked for now, but will need to wait until next fall to cover them. But as we all tend to say and believe, the summer will be here – and gone – before we know it, and another school year will be upon us.
The Foundation awarded its largest grant – its $10,000 “Beyond The Box” Grant – to five Colene Hoose Elementary School teachers who, undoubtedly, could inspire a future junior high or high school student to go on to study science and possibly be inspired to create or invent something that could help the rest of us in this world. Hoose teachers Kathie Brown, Rylee Long, Christa Hoder, Maggie Nelson and Karen Mercer will use the largest grant awarded for purchasing Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading and Great Explorations in Math and Science its, also known as GEMS kits, to introduce students to learn through conducting experiments, as well as provides materials students would need for performing experiments. Magnifying lenses and microscopes are among the tools provided in a GEMS kit.       
 A tip of the hat to Brown, Long, Hoder, Nelson, and Mercer, and here is hoping GEMS encourages students learn more about the scientific aspects of our world.
As I close out this column, I should note one of the first things on my High School Highlights “to do” list for next year is a sit-down interview with Unit 5’s new superintendent, Dr. Mark Daniel. He formally takes his position on July 1 but has been active in learning about the district, attending meetings and getting to know its people.

Corn Kernels
News about the Normal CornBelters

Steve Robinson Photo
Steve Robinson

More Ways Than One, CornBelters Pitcher Mike Devine Wants To Stay In The Hunt

Right-handed pitcher Mike Devine sat down with me with just over an hour to go before he was scheduled to pitch the first game of a doubleheader for the Normal CornBelters against Gateway Grizzlies at The Corn Crib. Although he only had roughly 60 minutes before he needed to put himself in game mode, he was calm and measured in how he answered my questions.
From that, I gathered that was how he approached his opponents while delivering strike pitches from the mound. Like his fellow CornBelters, he is looking to get into affiliated ball from here. He had been with Traverse City Beach Bums for 2 ½ seasons before they released him and he caught on with Normal in June. Even in Independent ball, guys get cut loose and have to look for a new ball park and town to call home.
Having graduated from Virginia Military Academy in 2012, Devine was picked up by Traverse City. At Traverse City, his jersey may have read “Beach Bums,” but his numbers showed he was anything but one in his time there, playing five games in his first season there and posting a 6-2 record last season which came with a 3.95 Earned Run Average. He struck out 65 batters in 86 innings, allowed 80 hits, and 41 runs. Having only been here since June, and as of Sunday, Devine currently has posted 1-1 record after seven starts, with a 5.45 ERA.
A call from CornBelters hitting coach Vinny Ganz, who got wind of Devine’s release was about all it took, followed by approval from Manager Brooks Carey to get the Cheswick, Pa. native signed up. “You just call guys and you offer them an opportunity to pitch,” Ganz explained. “When you hear good things about your manager, they want to come here.”
Entering The Corn Crib as a member of Normal’s roster as opposed to being a member of the opposition still showed he was entering “a great atmosphere to play in,” Devine said. He added he has no preference as to which team picks him up, but being a native of suburban Pittsburgh, he considers himself a Pirates fan. In fact, in his freshman and junior years of high school, he was positioned as either a pitcher or a shortstop and was able to play in a charity tournament held at the Pirates’ home field, PNC Park in downtown Pittsburgh.
“As a 16- or 17-year-old kid, getting to play there is all you ever think about,” Devine said of what most young ball players living that close could have on their minds.” But now, at age 24, Devine knows this team he’s on now is fighting to remain in the playoff hunt, with the number of games left getting shorter.
“We’re in the middle of a playoff hunt with our backs against it right now,” Devine said. “So anything I can do to give ourselves a chance is my goal.”
The CornBelters’ chances at making the playoffs suffered a difficult blow earlier this month by going 1-5 on a six-game road trip to Gateway and Florence, Carey said. “We’d have to win a lot of games in a row now to work our way back into the playoffs, and other teams would have to falter.”
Having to rely on the other guy “is not always a position you want to find yourself in,” Carey said. He may be disappointed in where his team finds itself in the standings at this juncture, but he said he is not disappointed in the effort nor the enthusiasm his players show by going out and giving their all every day, he explained.
“We’re going to play every game as hard as we possibly can,” Carey said. “Wherever we wind up will be because I will ask for 100 percent effort from our guys. I’m going to try to end this season on a high note, not a low note,” Carey said, having an understanding that time and circumstance are also the opponent at this point in the season.
“And the fact is, some of these guys are also playing for next year’s contracts and they know that,” Carey said. “I’m going to be watching very carefully to see who continues to play hard to the end of this season. I think all of them will.”
He said he believes that last comment because the players “want to have their best possible season personally, too, because there are no guarantees for next year.”
“Until the final out of the last game of this season, Carey said, “Whoever is still healthy and still here, we’re going to play to the best of our ability.”
Having had Monday off, Normal gears for the Schaumburg Boomers having arrived in town Tuesday for three games. That will be followed by a three-game home series against Traverse City Friday through Sunday, Aug. 22-24. The league takes Monday, Aug. 25 off, and when action resumes Tuesday, Aug. 26, the Lake Erie Crushers will be at The Corn Crib for the start of a three-game series.

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IWU Optimistic About Overcoming Poor CCIW Record Sustained In 2012
by Steve Robinson

Most of us probably wouldn’t relish being considered the underdog in any situation. But Illinois Wesleyan University senior defensive lineman Jeff Jerome rather welcomes the challenge presented by being put in that position.
In a poll of Collegiate College of Illinois and Wisconsin football coaches, IWU, who finished last season 9-2 overall which included a 6-1 conference mark. For Jerome, dating back to his days at Normal Community West High School, being underestimated was something he nearly became accustomed to, he said. During his time with the Wildcats, he explained, Normal West was seemingly always below Unit 5 rival Normal Community High School, and another Big 12 nemesis, Bloomington High School. “Back then, we always had to fight our way to the top,” Jerome said. “It looks like it’s the same situation with CCIW.”
West Alum Jerome Wants To See IWU Win D-3 Crown: The 6 foot-1, 245 pound Jerome will begin his senior season on head coach Norm Eash’s squad “loving the idea of being the underdog and it gives all of us motivation and determination to get to the top of CCIW.”
“Being a senior, I can’t wait to get back on the field again this year,” Jerome said. As for personal goals, he explained, “I’m just looking at IWU winning the Division III Championship,” Jerome said. When he graduates, he is looking to take his career path toward doing something in the field of accounting.
Lexington Alum Laible Picking Up On Reading D: Lexington High School alum Donavan Laible played on IWU’s junior varsity team last season during his freshman year. Now a sophomore, he will rejoin the JV team as the season begins. A quarterback, he explained six guys split time under center on that squad and saw parts of or an entire quarter of action during JV contests.
“It’s definitely a lot different,” the 6 foot-1, 190 pounder said. “It was just good to get out there for live competition,” he said of his experience so far as a Titan. “There are a lot more decisions to make concerning recognizing coverages, and you have to make those faster,” he said explaining what he found was the biggest difference between playing college and high school games.  He said most high school teams present the same defensive scheme on a regular basis.
Assessing his freshman season, Laible said, “I did alright, but I’ve got a lot of improving to do. I did alright.”
BHS Alum Rudicil Makes Switch From Wrestling To Football: Stephon Rudicil played football last at Bloomington High School in his senior year two years ago. He switched to Wrestling when he attended Lincoln Community College, and now is back on the gridiron trying for a linebacker spot with the Titans. “The fundamentals from high school are still there,” Rudicil admitted. “There are still some things I need to pick up quick, and I’m working hard to do that. I’m not worried about it.”
Eash Says Preseason Polls “Don’t Mean Anything”: “Preseason polls are interesting to look at, but they mean nothing,” Eash said. “Preseason polls are based on how you finished the year before.” He said last year’s preseason poll had IWU ranked second. “Looks like it’s our job to get back some respect from the conference,” said the veteran coach who used Media Day at Tucci Field at Wesleyan Stadium to begin his 28th season at the helm. “But the burden of proof is on us.”
IWU has 16 seniors on the squad. That’s exactly half the number they had last season. “We’re going to be a different team,” Eash said. “We’re going to have some veterans in there, seven All-Americans, and some newcomers who were on the field last season but weren’t starters, and then we’ll probably have some youth out there.”
Circle Your Calendars: The year 2014 will mark IWU’s 125th season of football, and the Titans will open at home on Saturday, Sept. 6, facing Franklin College in a 1 p.m. kickoff. Their next two games will be on the road to Albion College in Michigan (Sept. 13), then to Simpson College in Iowa (Sept. 20) before facing their first CCIW opponent, Carthage College, at Tucci Stadium on Sept. 27 in a 6 p.m. contest.


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