NORMAL — Even before Urbana Uni High stepped onto the The Corn Crib pitch on Saturday evening, the Illineks had already made history by becoming the first school from Champaign County to play in a boys’ soccer state championship match.
The significance of that achievement wasn’t lost on Illineks head coach Phil Anders and his squad.
“These seniors are part of the class that is the most winningest class ever at Uni,” Anders said. “To finish second in state and to play in the state final, no team from our area has ever done that.”
Senior midfielder Tarik Koric echoed those sentiments.
“Second place in state is something to be proud of,” he said. “Credit goes all to the fans. They helped us out the whole year and supported us to the end.”
Lending their support. Uni High had a healthy contingent of fans situated in front of the first-base dugout at The Corn Crib on Saturday night. Uni athletic director Sally Walker said the school sent one fan bus to Friday’s 2-0 state semifinal win against Rockford Keith Country Day School and had another one make the 45-minute trek to Normal for Saturday’s match. The school also held a pep rally on Friday and will hold an assembly for students on Monday at the school.
“The support from the Uni community has been unprecedented,” Walker said. “From last year to our super-sectional (appearance) and continuing through the sectionals and supers and state this year, it’s been so cool seeing not just their parents, but parents of Uni kids that aren’t in sports. It’s just sort of unheard of for Uni High.”
“Having the crowd here, it’s just icing on the cake,” Anders said. “Our fans have been absolutely fantastic. They’ve been our 12th player.”
The Illineks will graduate nine seniors off this year’s squad — Fredrick Stavins, Ryan Kuck, Patrick Wong, Paul Seeley, Christopher Sligar, George Voulgaris, Andrew Lumetta, James Boyle and Koric — and Walker said their legacy is firmly set.
“We knew that when they came in as freshmen that we had a pretty special group,” Walker said. “They’ve proven that in the four years they’ve been here.”
Anders rooting for Urbana. Champaign County might still achieve another soccer milestone. Urbana High plays at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Marion in a Class 2A super-sectional match at the University of Illinois-Springfield. A win there and the Tigers will bring home another state trophy at the 2A state tournament next weekend at Lincoln-Way North High School in Frankfort.
Anders is hopeful Urbana can accomplish that.
“If we get two teams that end up in the state finals from Urbana, that says something,” Anders said. “It helps our community.”
Braving the elements. The Illineks had to play in nearly every weather condition during their postseason run. From above-normal temperatures in Uni’s regional semifinal win in Champaign to rainy and wet conditions at Schlarman in the sectional to cold and windy temperatures at state this weekend, Anders’ squad had seen nearly everything Mother Nature could throw at them during the past 18 days. Temperatures were in the mid-40s at the start of the match on Saturday.
Many of the Uni players wore gloves and long sleeves during the match.
Junior defender Lucas Newman-Johnson was the only Uni starter who did not have long sleeves on, but he did wear gloves.
Hanging at the Crib. The Corn Crib — which is the home to the independent minor-league baseball team Normal CornBelters — just finished its second year hosting the state’s small-school soccer tournament. No seats were moved to set up the field, which had one goal near the third-base dugout and the other just in front of the warning track in right-center field.
Fans were situated along the chairback seats down the first-base line.
“It’s definitely unique,” Koric said. “I’ve never played at a baseball stadium (and) never even been to a baseball stadium before, but I like it because of the atmosphere.”
One team’s bench was in what would be considered shallow left field, with the other just to the left of center field. The facility has FieldTurf, including clay-looking FieldTurf for the base paths.
“It’s definitely different,” Uni senior midfielder Paul Seeley said. “I was looking at some of the state games last year to get ready and saw the dirt. I thought, ‘How are we going to play on dirt?’ but then to come out here and see it’s actually brown turf (was surprising). You’ve just got to get used to it.”
The Corn Crib is the third facility used for the small-school soccer state tournament since 1997, the first year the IHSA expanded soccer into classes. It was held at SIU-Edwardsville’s Ralph Korte Stadium from 1997 to 2000, and then from 2001 to ’10 at North Central College’s Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.