With state championship in DeKalb, SJ-O fans going distance

ST. JOSEPH — They cook up a tasty cheeseburger at Roch's Place. Beef patties that dwarf the buns. Fries with just the right amount of crunch.

The plates figure to be flying out of the kitchen late Friday afternoon. Manager Fred Sturts is expecting a big crowd at the corner of Lincoln and Main. All to watch the Class 3A state championship game between St. Joseph-Ogden and Stillman Valley in DeKalb.

"Everybody is very excited," Sturts said. "They are looked at as underdog this year. Everybody in St. Joe knows better."

During SJ-O's semifinal win last week against Greenville, Roch's was packed. "You couldn't even walk through this place," Sturts said.

The allegiance is obvious just by looking around. SJ-O jerseys and helmets hang from the walls.

The community fervor for the Spartans shouldn't be a surprise.

"Small towns like this are a little more close-knit," Sturts said. "The teams grow up closer together at a younger age. Everybody knows everybody."

All six TVs at Roch's will be tuned to the game. Don't ask about switching over to a soap opera or CNN. Not going to happen.

***

In an even-numbered year, the fans would simply get in their cars and zip over to Memorial Stadium. But with an Illinois game scheduled there every other year, the new reality for high school football in the state means years ending 1, 3, 5, 7 or 9 will find the title games at DeKalb's Huskie Stadium. Not as easy to get to for SJ-O fans. Not as much of a game-day decision. They will need to do some planning.

***

Recent SJ-O grad Delaine Florey was trying to make travel arrangements Tuesday. Now a student at Illinois State, she plans to be at the game.

"I just got back into town," Florey said. "I'm going for sure.

"I'd like it a lot better if it was in Champaign. But I understand the schools up north who would rather have it closer to home, too."

***

Friday's title game is the first for SJ-O since 2007. That game was played at Memorial Stadium.

SJ-O administrative assistant Lori Hoveln guesstimates 2,000 SJ-O fans were there.

Though the ticket count is far from final, Hoveln said the number Friday could be closer to 750.

Ticket sales were moving briskly Tuesday morning, then a lull.

With a seating capacity of 24,000, the school can ask for an unlimited number of tickets. All seats are general admission.

"I'm guessing we would have more than 1,000 if it was in Champaign," Hoveln said.

The school is sending the band and another bus full of students.

Hoveln hopes as many as 200 of the school's 486 students will find their way to DeKalb. And a large chunk of faculty members.

The travel isn't the only difference for SJ-O. When the games were in C-U, meals were easier to arrange for the team. Now, there are no local vendors for the school to hire.

SJ-O will have a hospitality tent available. There will be some help for the fans, but not as much as if the game were at Memorial Stadium.

With a late afternoon kickoff, the Spartans are staying at home Thursday night, then taking charter buses in the morning to DeKalb. The buses leave at 10 a.m.

***

The college home of Jordan Lynch and nationally-ranked Northern Illinois is a nice building. But Red Grange didn't play there. Neither did Dick Butkus, Simeon Rice nor Kurt Kittner.

Those names matter to the people of SJ-O.

"It means a little bit more to the kids to play at Memorial Stadium," Hoveln said. "They're used to seeing the Illini playing there, and it's just a little more special for them. Not a lot of us follow Northern's football.

"It's special, but it doesn't have as much meaning to them. It's still great."

***

The Spartans would play the game in a parking lot or on a dirt field if it meant a shot at the state title.

"We're glad to be there," Hoveln said.

That's the way Alicia Maxey feels, too. The school resource officer plans to make the trip north. She wouldn't miss it.

"I will trek wherever they go," Maxey said. "This community is very, very based on community, school, athletics," Maxey said. "They will travel wherever they have to to support their team."

A title game is a title game.

"It's very important to the school, the staff and the children."

***

Paige Johnson, a former Spartans cheerleader now working as a cashier at the St. Joseph IGA, isn't happy about the games moving to DeKalb. Not one bit.

"I don't like it," Johnson said. "It stinks because it's a long ways away."

Her brother, Austin Hedrick, is on the current team. So is her cousin, Dalton Walsh.

"My whole family is going," Johnson said.

The players aren't as concerned about the venue, she said. "They're just happy they made it."

***

Nita Brooks put four kids through SJ-O. No football players.

The 76-year-old has been a fan for years. She attends all of the school's sporting events, and her license plate reads "SJO FAN 1"

"This town is buzzing," Brooks said.

Hip troubles will keep her from being at Friday's game. She will be watching at home. Hunkered down and hoping for quiet.

"With the door locked and the telephone off," Brooks said. "Nobody better bother me."

She was listening to an earlier playoff game on the radio. She yelled so loud, she scared her chihuahua Shawn "half to death."

If SJ-O wins, Brooks has no doubt how the community will react.

"It will go wild," she said. "Like it did when the girls got the softball title. Last year, the boys got fourth in basketball, and it went nuts then."

If you go

Directions to Huskie Stadium

1. Take Interstate 74 west to Bloomington.
2. Follow signs for I-39 north.
3. Take I-39 toward Rockford.
4. Merge onto I-88 E/Illinois 110E/Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway toward Chicago.
5. Merge onto South Annie Glidden Road toward DeKalb.
6. Turn west onto Lincoln Highway/Illinois 38.
7. Take the first right onto Stadium Drive West.
8. Follow signs for parking.

If you stay home

-- Watch on Comcast Sportsnet and WCIX.
-- Listen to WDAN (1490-AM) and WPXN (104.9-FM).

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