HOOPESTON — High school football and the National Sweetcorn Festival have been staples in this Vermilion County community of 5,351 for generations.
The pageant is still going strong after 69 years. The football program, in its 116th year of existence, won’t go by the wayside without a fight.
For the first time since the 1897 high school team played a two-game schedule, football was downgraded from varsity to junior varsity status this fall.
It’s not an ideal situation for the 15 Hoopeston Area underclassmen from a high school of 380 who started practice in mid-August, but it’s better than the alternative.
“Our team couldn’t be more proud to hopefully be known as the team that kept the program going,” junior quarterback Aidan Berg said.
Principal Larry Maynard is optimistic this is a one-year anomaly.
“The goal was to keep things together and next year have a varsity team,” Maynard said. “I had one kid (Thursday) say, ‘I’m embarrassed we didn’t have a team for my community. That’s why I’m working on my grades. I want to play next year.’ ”
Glory years in past
There is a tradition of football success in Hoopeston, but it is decades removed from anyone currently in high school. Between 1898 and 1966, the school had teams that won at least 75 percent of their games in every decade.
In the last 46 years, however, there have been 13 different head coaches and five total winning seasons. The last one was 1993. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the most recent playoff team.
“Over the years and the decades,” Maynard said, “low numbers have always been the issue. We play freshmen and sophomores at the varsity level. They get beat up, and as sophomores and juniors aren’t out. They’re back as seniors, but are like sophomores in experience.
“They need to have a good experience as freshmen, get the enthusiasm built and be ready (for varsity) as sophomores.”
Identifying the problem is the first step. Solving it is much harder.
Changing an attitude
Jeff Ohlemeyer had a three-year coaching stint with the Cornjerkers from 2007 to ’09. He is now a second-year line assistant with Maroa-Forsyth’s state-ranked squad.
He has fond memories of his time in the district and still has a special fondness for Hoopeston Area football.
“I am saddened that the football program is in the current state it is,” Ohlemeyer said.
The problems, he believes, are self-perpetrating. There’s not been tremendous student participation, which has hampered the success. It’s hard to have one without the other.
“I think the prevailing attitude that is probably hurting them is that many student-athletes don’t want to play because they feel like they are going to lose no matter what,” Ohlemeyer said, “and they don’t want to be part of a losing tradition. I heard this from students all the time when trying to promote the program.”
Keeping the spirit
The decision to deactivate the varsity program for a year was made to try and salvage it.
Coach Michl Kearney saw signs that he believed would make it virtually impossible to compete with varsity teams in 2012.
“I opened the weight room in the summer from 6 to 8 a.m. and then 2 to 7 p.m.,” Kearney said. “We only had eight kids show up to lifting. The most we had in one day was five.”
Hoopeston administrators considered it paramount to keep as much of the football experience in place for those who are participating this year.
“We have been trying to play JV games just like a varsity game,” athletic director Kevin Root said. “We have the concession stand open. The marching band plays before the game, at halftime and in the stands during the game. The cheerleaders are there.”
The spectator turnout, Root said, “has been great.”
The JV Cornjerkers have played games on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The only missing element are the Friday Night Specials.
The varsity will return
“People in the community are asking, ‘What do we need to do to get it back,’ ” Kearney said. “Our job (as coaches) is to keep it going and build it. We don’t want this thing to die.”
Those attitudes are why Maynard is encouraged about the future.
“One year without it and no one likes it,” he said. “That’s good. Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Not a day passes, he said, that he is not getting the message out.
“Basically, we’re recruiting in the halls all day,” Maynard said. “We’re communicating, ‘We’re going to have this and we want you to be a part of it. The only way we won’t have it is if you don’t take ownership and participate.’ If we don’t have young men show up, we don’t have any options.
“It’s about coming together for a cause.”
A challenging path
Two paid coaches and two volunteer assistants are charged with keeping the football program moving forward. It’s a program where two of the players — including Berg — are sidelined for Monday’s finale with injuries. “The last 31/2 quarters against Bismarck-Henning (on Monday), we played with 11 kids,” Kearney said.
That was 11 on offense, the same 11 on defense and the same 11 on special teams for what is truly throwback ironman football.
The roster shows seven juniors (only one of whom has played football all three years), four sophomores (three of whom weren’t out in 2011) and four freshmen.
It’s not just a tough scenario when the games are played. It’s even harder at practice when the offense doesn’t have a defense to work against, and vice versa.
“It’s difficult,” Kearney said, “to get kids to go hard in practice if there’s not someone behind them who could push them and take their spot.
“We do a lot of form tackling drills, hitting dummies. We hardly do any contact (in practice). We save out hitting, and it has paid off. They love to hit someone in the games.”
Two on-field wins
The Hoopeston JV record entering the finale against Westville is 2-5. One of the losses was 22-16 to Milford/Cissna Park when the Bearcats returned an interception for a touchdown on the game’s final play.
What they lack in numbers, the Cornjerker players make up for with heart.
“Despite the injuries, fatigue and low numbers, we have continued to gel as a team and keep getting better each game,” Berg said. “We have two wins and barely lost two others in the last minutes.
“Those were heartbreakers, but were opportunities to learn and get better. I’m hoping our success will encourage others to come out and be a part of our team next year.”
Berg is confident the numbers will grow.
“Around 10 new kids have told me they are coming out next year,” he said. “Some have expressed regret at not playing this year.”
Making the grade
Building a program requires attention to detail. Kearney is not overlooking any aspect. One battle has been won each week and it’s in an area that Root and Maynard say hasn’t occurred at the school for years.
“No football player has had to be suspended for grades this year,” Root said. “In the past, I’ve always had to suspend a few football players during the season.”
Maynard likes the approach Kearney has taken.
“He has a study table, and during football practice time, if a kid is on the bubble (in a particular class), will send him to the teacher for extra help and tell him to bring a pass when he comes back,” Maynard said. “He is putting the emphasis where it needs to be.”
The Cornjerkers are making others take notice.
“I have been very impressed with the boys this year,” Root said. “They have shown a great commitment to the program and in the classroom. Their attitude in school and on the football field has been great to watch.”
Maynard said eligibility issues can be draining.
“It totally handcuffs you,” he said. “You can’t practice properly. It’s like a dark cloud hanging over you. It puts everyone in a negative, downward spiral.”
Seeking the best
In a self-evaluation, Kearney acknowledged, “sometimes I’ve pushed them hard. We’ve all felt pressure. We push them because that’s what we have to do to make them better.”
Berg and his teammates understand.
“I’ve never seen a group of kids come together as well as we have to stay motivated to stay strong and keep getting better,” Berg said. “Our coaching staff has done an amazing job of keeping us on the right path and have pushed us in practice to make us better.
“Our coaches haven’t been easy on us in practice and we’re getting in the best shape of our lives.”
The team has shown signs of weariness in the second half of games, but Berg added, “it has never stopped us from leaving all that we have out on the field.”
The work and work ethic will pay off, Kearney said.
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We’ve opened a lot of people’s eyes. They are playing hard and making a lot of strides.
“There is no quit in this group. They battle until the end. This team is closer than any team I’ve had.”
Playing on the turf
Ohlemeyer remains a fan of the Cornjerkers’ program and hopes to see glorious years ahead.
“I wish I had the magic answer to what would fix those ailing programs,” Ohlemeyer said, “because I know that football, along with other sports, teaches our students so much that can not be learned in the classroom. It is very important for them to get all of those life lessons.
“I have nothing but respect for Coach Kearney. I would like Hoopeston Area to succeed. I know the athletes are there. They just have to be convinced to play.”
Thanks to Ohlemeyer and Trojans’ head coach Josh Jostes, Hoopeston Area had a chance to play on Maroa’s freshly-christened artificial field two weeks ago. The Cornjerkers’ JV won, 36-0.
Kearney had contacted the school about getting a practice on the field, but when an opening occurred on Maroa-Forsyth’s freshmen schedule, they offered a game instead.
“It was a great experience for both of us,” Ohlemeyer said. “The most important thing, I think, for developing those young kids is playing games. Fortunately our schedules worked out and we were able to get it done.”
Kearney said the hosts did more than provide a contest.
“They treated us like kings,” he said. “It was a great opportunity for our kids to play in a facility like that. I appreciate them helping us out.”
Similarity at Schlarman
A few miles south of Hoopeston, also just off Illinois 1, is another football program struggling with its numbers. Schlarman Academy shut down its operations this fall after three varsity games. The Hilltoppers are forfeiting their final six games.
One school of thought is that the two Vermilion County schools could form a cooperative team for the 2013 season and beyond.
Root and Schlarman athletic director Jason Woodworth have talked, but the discussions have not been centered around joining forces.
“I have had conversations with Kevin about what ideas and thoughts he has on how we can get football back on track at our respective schools,” Woodworth said. “The goal at both schools is to have and sustain successful football programs, but as both schools have shown it can be very difficult to get things back on track when they start going in the wrong direction.”
Maynard, too, prefers the approach of each school keeping its independence.
“As far as a co-op, that’s not the direction we are at,” Maynard said. “When Jason contacted Kevin, it was more of a problem-solving meeting, what can we take back to make things happen for our schools?
“You can’t deny this is serious. Both of us are in challenging situations. We hope the students will rise up.”
Preparing for the future
For Berg, the bottom line is to maintain the availability of football.
“I’m really hoping to play Hoopeston Area football as a senior and inspire our youth football league to look forward to their high school days,” he said. “My 11-year-old brother plays and loves the game.
“I would love to see him grow up to have the opportunity to play on the same team I did. We are fighting to make that happen. Some of our players love this game enough to want to pursue it and play it in college.”
Maynard said it’s a tribute to this year’s football players that it’s realistic to think the program can continue.
“These kids have been the model of leaders for our school,” he said, “and doing something for the love of the game.”
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column during the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or by email at email@example.com . Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.