Prep sports coordinator Fred Kroner takes a look at area high school football:
1. Loren Tate does a weekly segment, "why I feel old." What makes you feel old?
It's when I scan the football coaching rosters for schools in area conferences and see so many names of athletes I covered not that long ago. Seems like Schlarman's Catlin Crozier (Hoopeston Area, Class of 2004), Argenta-Oreana's Chad Eisenmenger (Unity, Class of 1998), Normal U-High's Dusty Burk (Tuscola, Class of 1998), Milford/Cissna Park's Nate Albaugh (Monticello, Class of 1996) and Georgetown-Ridge Farm/Chrisman's Josh Cavanaugh (Monticello, Class of 1992) should still be playing instead of instructing others about the finer points of the game.
2. Where's the best place to watch a game (and don't say in front of a TV)?
The answer might not be the same for me as for others. When I cover a high school football game — except for the state finals, when the IHSA mandates that reporters stay in the press box — I'm on the sidelines, tracking the action up and down the field. So, I'm not impressed by huge bleacher sections or other amenities. I just need an out-of- bounds area that leaves me space to maneuver, so I prefer the spacious sites where a track surrounds the playing surface. In particular, I like Tommy Stewart Field in Champaign, Ned Whitesell Field in Danville and Mahomet-Seymour's Frank Dutton Field.
3. What game are you most looking forward to in 2012?
The date I've had circled on the calendar since the IHSA released schedules in June is Oct. 19. Not sure at this time how meaningful the game between Danville and Urbana will be, but it will be memorable to cover my first game at Urbana's now 2-year-old artificial turf at McKinley Field. The only chance I had to watch the football Tigers in 2011 was on the road. I got an up-close look at the field last spring when I covered a girls' track invitational, which ended under the lights, but I am anticipating the football game. Too bad it's not Week 1.
4. What's your record for most games covered in person during a single night?
That's an easy one. Two, multiple times. The opportunities occurred during the era (beginning in 1994) when Danville High School started its home games at 5:30 p.m. due to security concerns. After watching the Vikings' game, I had time to catch the second half of a game at Westville, Oakwood or St. Joseph-Ogden while en route back to the office in Champaign. Nothing like a full night of football. This went on for six or seven years before Danville reverted back to the traditional 7 p.m. kickoff time.
5. When can we look forward to Unity and St. Joseph-Ogden playing again in the football regular season?
Sometime in the fall of 2014, hopefully during the October portion of the season. Don't know if the coaches would appreciate it being the final game before the playoffs — everyone wants momentum entering the postseason — but it would make sense to have the rivals' game scheduled sometime during the second half of the season once the schools are both in the Okaw Valley Conference, which I believe will happen.
6. So, what is going on with the Okaw Valley Conference? It seemed like a bunch of schools were going to withdraw, but now they are talking expansion.
From my perspective, a lot of people realize what a storied league it is and how much respect there is for a conference that can trace its roots back to 1926. It's a fiercely competitive league, and the Okaw representatives are well-prepared for postseason play after enduring such a tough conference schedule. A lot of league decisions are football-based, and it's true that the smaller Okaw schools would have difficulty competing with the larger schools year in and year out for their four nonconference contests. Yet, there are advantages to keeping the league together for the majority of the other sports. Look at how well the Okaw has fared in running competitions (cross-country, track and field) in recent years. One solution is to increase the number of members and create two divisions for football. If there are 16 member schools (up four from the current number), the smaller schools would just need to play two larger schools during the non-league portion of the schedule in football. Schools are looking for options to make that happen. Meanwhile, some school boards have signed off on withdrawing from the Okaw to form a new league dependent on the fate of upcoming talks. It could still go either way.
7. What's your most vivid Friday night football memory?
It's from a 1977 game and, with the passage of time, I no longer remember who won the game. Centennial was playing at Decatur Eisenhower. I was a college student working part time for the Champaign-Urbana Courier and shared a ride to the game with The News-Gazette's Joe Millas. This turned out to be one of the three high school regular season games I've covered from the press box because of a prolonged and heavy rainstorm. There were delays, and the game ended late. Neither of us was going to be able to file a story by deadline if we drove back. Keep in mind, this was in 1977, well before the advent of cellphones and laptops. We drove around looking for a phone booth and finally found one. The door was broken, and each of us got soaked as we took turns calling in our stories and statistics. Thankfully, this exact scenario will never be repeated.
8. Since you've spent so much time on the sidelines, did you ever get upended and knocked down?
Short answer: No. I've been able to avoid contact during the course of the games I've covered, but I was much less fortunate in the fall of 1978 while working for the Bloomington Daily Pantagraph and driving back to the office from a game in Chenoa. A thick fog settled in and visibility was poor as I headed south on Interstate 55. I was in a company car, which — unlike my personal vehicle at the time — had power steering. As I drove, I suddenly realized I was rapidly approaching a semi without a working taillight on the left side. I turned the wheel and overcorrected quicker than was needed. The next thing I know, my car was in the median and flipping over several times. The vehicle was totaled, but I was uninjured. A state police officer asked where he could drop me off, and I proudly report that I made it back to the office in time to write my story before deadline.
9. If the IHSA gave you complete control for a day, what changes would you make pertaining to football?
I'd love that opportunity! I'd start with something that would affect all sports, not just football. I would eliminate the IHSA-imposed multiplier for private or non-boundaried schools whose enrollments are 1,200 or less. Then, I would authorize the hiring of additional staff to more closely police the growing numbers of transfers that occur annually. Because I could accomplish this during the morning, during my afternoon shift I would make minor changes to the football playoff pairings. First, I would make an across-the-board decision — no matter how the seeds fall — that no two schools that played one another in Week 9 of the regular season will be matched up one week later to start the playoffs. Second, I would allow for logic to enter into the playoff pairings. Instead of holding firm that a No. 16 seed MUST play a No. 1 seed, I would require that the travel distance be considered. If a No. 16 seed had to go 150 miles to play the No. 1 seed, but the No. 15 seed was 9 miles away, I would grant the flexibility for the No. 15 seed to open with the No. 1 seed, meaning the No. 2 seed would draw the No. 16 seed rather than the No. 15 seed.
10. What's the best football story you've covered?
It would be easy to mention one of the state championship games I've seen where an area school emerged victorious, but I have a special fondness for another story. Oakwood's Justin Shaw (a 1997 graduate) competed in sports despite having an artificial leg. He was a shining example of what can be accomplished by someone with determination. In wrestling, Shaw would remove the artificial leg before taking the mat.
11. Who was the toughest football coach you ever had to deal with?
This happened early in my sports writing career during the summer (1977) that I did a 12-week internship with the Springfield State Journal-Register. For some reason, which has escaped my memory, I was asked to call Lanphier coach Lyle Wind for a comment on something. He answered the phone, I asked my question and was greeted by silence. After what seemed like an eternity (but it was probably more like 20 seconds), I asked, "Are you there?" and he bellowed, "Damn it. I'm thinking." I was fearful that he was representative of all coaches, but I've since discovered Wind was the exception, not the rule.
12. What's the funniest story you have from football?
This wasn't funny as in "ha ha," but it was certainly the most unique situation I've encountered. During one of Tom Stewart's final seasons coaching at Champaign Central (I believe it was 1982), I accompanied a photographer to a preseason practice. We did the traditional ritual of shooting a team picture, individual pictures and a shot of several players drinking water. We published the picture of the players cooling off the next day. The following week I learned a copy of the photo had been sent to the IHSA and that the state organization was going to place sanctions on Stewart. He had his players wearing shoulder pads even though it was during the first three days of practice, when no pads are permitted. Stewart didn't blame us. Instead, he said he knew the rule, didn't like the rule and it was more important to him that the athletes weren't risking shoulder injuries when hitting the hard ground during practice. I respected Stewart for being true to his beliefs and his willingness to take a stand.
13. Who will be the area's surprise team this season?
Interesting question. I will interpret "surprise" as a team that has not had a lot of success in recent years but should make the playoffs in 2012 as opposed to a team that is lightly regarded in the preseason. For my purposes, I'll go with Urbana, which hasn't made the playoffs the past seven years and won 11 games in that span. I see a six-win season for coach Nathan Watson's team — and that's in the regular season. The Tigers will have an all-senior offensive line and athletes with starting experience at as many as 19 of 22 positions. Cameron Mammen is not only on the verge of becoming the most prolific passer in Champaign-Urbana history but he is equally good as a leader. He'll be joined by playmakers such as receiver Tanner Russell and runner Alex Lynch on an offense that should be able to score points. However, Urbana is already on the radar screen of opposing coaches, one of whom listed the Tigers as the team to beat this fall in the Big 12 Conference. I'm not sure I would agree with that, but the pendulum is definitely on the upswing.
14. Which current senior football player do you consider the area's premier three-sport athlete?
There shouldn't be any dispute on this one: Villa Grove's Ryan Pearce. As a junior, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and accumulated more than 100 tackles while earning second-team All-Area accolades. In basketball, he was one of the area's top 20 scorers (15.3 average) and rebounders (10.6 average). In track and field, he was the Class 1A discus state champion and the runner-up in the shot put. And, for good measure, he's one of the area's fastest 200-meter runners. No other senior can match those credentials in such a variety of sports.
15. Your newspaper's pick as Preseason Player of the Year is St. Thomas More's John Strauser. Do you really believe he is the top player?
As they say in golf, "he's the leader in the clubhouse." How things play out the next 14 weeks is impossible to predict. An important point to consider is this: The ultimate year-end decision is not necessarily in Strauser's hands. He could have a great season, as predicted, but he can't control how well other individuals fare. His "great" season could be trumped by someone else's "fantastic" season. I will say this, it is very difficult to evaluate an offensive lineman's play compared to quarterbacks, receivers and runners who have statistical data to support their cases. Strauser's best way to make a favorable impression will be on the defensive side. Though I thought Urbana's Cameron Mammen would be an excellent preseason choice, too, I have no problem with the selection we settled on. Strauser had numerous college offers and settled on Purdue.
16. Who's the best area high school football player you've seen during your more than three decades on the sidelines?
Wow. Nothing like a question to get 1,000 people angry simultaneously. Let's establish some criteria first. It needs to be someone who was an impact player on offense as well as defense while considering only what the person accomplished during his four years of high school, not his impact in college or beyond. My top choice is Tuscola's Dusty Burk, a quarterback who had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons as a junior and senior as well as consecutive years of passing for at least 3,300 yards. His total offense for those seasons (5,138 in 1997 and 4,396 in 1996) rank first and fourth, respectively, on the all-time IHSA state list. As a junior, Burk was a special mention All-Area selection as a defensive back. One other player deserves recognition. The best prep kicker I've covered was Danville's Jake Strader (who was a senior the same year as Burk). Strader is tied for eighth on the IHSA charts for career field goals with 21. You can count on one hand the number of football players who've been chosen to the All-Area first team three years in a row. Strader, an all-conference first-team quarterback as a senior, is in that elite group. He also excelled as a punter, averaging more than 40 yards per kick his final two seasons.
17. What's the most unique situation you've encountered at a game?
In an August 1994 game between Schlarman and Bloomington Central Catholic — played at Illinois State University — the Hilltoppers had a woman signaling in the defense. A Schlarman assistant coach resigned a week before the season, so head coach Mike High recruited his wife, Daphne, to be on a headset with then-defensive coordinator Mike McDonnell, who was in the press box. Daphne High then relayed McDonnell's wishes to the defensive captain on the field, Bill Cahill. It wasn't an easy task. Schlarman had more than 30 different defenses and six different coverages.
18. You're a numbers guy. How many high school games have you covered and how many different football fields have you been to?
I wish I would have kept a journal to document the journey. It would be fun to reflect. I know for certain I have been to at least 75 different fields. It wouldn't surprise me if the actual number was closer to 100, but I can't prove it without a lot more research. As for games, I'll be close to 575 when this season ends. The best story I have of traveling to an unfamiliar location was a trip to Taylor Ridge to cover a Rockridge playoff game. I was cruising along when I saw a sign that said, "Welcome to Iowa." Turns out I hadn't missed my turn by more than a few miles.
19. What one football state record do you consider untouchable?
We should never say never, however, I can't imagine the single-game individual scoring record ever being broken. Almost 70 years ago (Oct. 8, 1943), Salem's Don Wile scored 88 points against Fairfield. To put that in perspective, a player would need to score 15 touchdowns in a game to surpass the record. Fifteen touchdowns would put 90 points on the board. The original record was set prior to the existence of a second-half running clock for games that reach 40-point margins, which will make it harder for a player to rack up monumental numbers against a hapless opponent. Wile played for the only Salem football team to finish a season without a loss.
20. As you prepare for your 37th consecutive year of covering high school football, have you considered how you'll spend your first football Friday after you've retired?
Probably rent "Rudy" and watch it. Again. Or maybe travel to Olathe, Kan., and watch my soon-to-be born grandson, Titus, make his debut in pee wee football. (Note to Tim Beckman: For future planning, Titus Kroner will be in the Class of '29.) Perhaps I'll take the Loren Tate approach to retirement and keep on doing what I've been doing.