And the football trophy goes to ...

And the football trophy goes to ...

The lineup is not set. There's still time for the players to change.

The IHSA needs a new home for its annual eight-class football championships because the UI's Memorial Stadium will only be available on alternating years after 2012 due to late-season Illini football home games.

Months before the IHSA will even solicit bids, several communities have let it be known they want to be in the game.

Illinois State University, in Normal, was the football host before the event was shifted to Champaign 13 years ago.

Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, has hosted IHSA state finals, including wrestling.

Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale, wants to enter the picture as does Toyota Park, in Bridgeview.

Other communities — Evanston, perhaps? — have until January to decide if they wish to pursue the Thanksgiving-weekend state finals.

There's no indication the IHSA is looking to relocate the football finals permanently, although the organization has no other sport that has shared sites for different years.

"We plan to continue to do things as much as we can at Memorial Stadium and look for an every-other-year solution," IHSA executive director Marty Hickman said. "We think we'll have some options."

As Champaign-Urbana learned when the boys' basketball state tournament was removed in 1996, the possibility exists that football also could move on.

"What would make us happiest," Hickman said, "is to continue play in Memorial Stadium every year. We know that is not possible right now. The next-best alternative is to play there when we can.

"However, over time if it turned out that's a bit of an inconvenience, we may have to look to find a permanent home."

Deja vu for ISU?

Larry Lyons is Illinois State's executive associate athletic director. He's in his 25th year at ISU and one of the few people on the Normal campus who have firsthand knowledge of the years the school hosted the prep football finals for a quarter of a century.

The 1999 decision to leave was made after ISU sought to host I-AA playoff games for the Redbirds' football team.

"Over time, priorities change," Lyons said. "It's a priority of our current leadership to have IHSA championships on our campus."

In addition to boys' golf, ISU is the host for state finals in girls' volleyball and girls' basketball.

Hancock Stadium has undergone renovations to the seating areas on the south and the west of the field.

"There are ongoing discussions about more significant renovations to the stadium on the east side," Lyons said.

The dismantling of the south end- zone bleachers resulted in the loss of about 3,000 seats. Temporary bleachers were constructed, Lyons said, "so we can keep the band in the south end zone."

Many of the ISU students who sat there, however, will be relocated to the east side.

ISU's capacity is in the neighborhood of 9,500, Lyons said. He is hopeful the school again can pursue the football tournament.

"If the timing is such we can meet the specifications, then we are certainly interested," Lyons said. "The community is interested, the campus is interested and the athletic department is interested."

Seating ample at NIU

Northern Illinois entered the bidding process the last time the IHSA accepted applications to serve as football host.

"We presented what we thought was a strong bid, but we didn't have a Convention and Visitors' Bureau as strong as what we have now," said John Gordon, the director of NIU's Huskie Stadium.

Dan Jones, the athletic director at DeKalb High School, is spearheading the next presentation.

"We've put together a committee with city officials, NIU officials and DeKalb High School representatives to see if we can do it," Jones said. "We are very interested in doing this and partnering with Champaign."

Facility upgrades have been started — the FieldTurf is 2 years old — and other updates are in the works.

"Hopefully, we'll have an indoor practice facility completed by the time the state championship games will be played (in 2013)," Jones said.

The spectator seating at NIU is about 26,000.

Gordon said it could work to NIU's benefit that it has previously hosted IHSA state-final events.

"They know the quality of professionalism of folks in our area and that we are committed to being partners with the IHSA," Gordon said.

One appeal, Jones said, is location.

"For some of the larger classes there will be less drive time and crowds will be bigger," he speculated. "Because it's something we're trying to incorporate with the university and the community, there's a lot we can do similar to what Champaign does."

SIU upgrades complete

Southern Illinois administrators said they can make a strong case to host the state football finals.

The school's location, in Carbondale, which is about 330 miles south of Chicago, "is a potential obstacle," said Jason King, SIU's senior assistant athletic director in charge of facilities, "but my response is that the climate is a lot different than the climate up north.

"I feel our ability to be 20 degrees warmer is a big benefit. It may enhance the student-athlete's experience. There is some give-and-take with that."

In 2009, when Unity played Stillman Valley in the Class 3A state championship game at Memorial Stadium, the temperature at kickoff at 4:13 p.m. was 41 degrees.

Last fall, SIU unveiled its new Saluki Stadium football facility, which has seating for 15,000 spectators, a two-story press box with 12 suites and a FieldTurf synthetic surface similar to what the New England Patriots play on. Nearly 1,100 of the seats are chairbacks.

The UI's inability to host every other year, King said, "opened the door for someone else to host, and we feel with the upgrades we did we could do a very good job."

The football stadium — which is on the south end of campus — was part of an athletic overhaul that included $30 million of renovations on the basketball arena.

"We now have quality venues," King said, "and we want to bring events in. We're aggressively searching those events out. We are committed to fully exploring these opportunities."

SIU was one of two finalists (along with Missouri-Rolla) to serve as host for the St. Louis Rams' preseason training camp. Due to the length of the NFL lockout, the Rams did not make a move this year.

"The Rams will revisit that next year, and we hope we would have the opportunity to bring them in for their training camp," King said.

Decision months away

Hickman expects the IHSA's bidding process will be opened in January, "probably a 90-day window," he said.

A decision could be announced by the end of the school year or early next summer, he said.

IHSA officials have taken an unofficial tour of NIU's campus and will visit Carbondale later this month.

Hickman hinted there might not be just one winner when the communities are evaluated.

"We are toying with the idea of having two sites on the off year (from Memorial Stadium)," he said, "but I don't think we would look at doing two sites the years we can be at Memorial Stadium."

The final decision will rest with the IHSA Board of Directors, but Hickman said in his opinion, "it would be difficult for us to have the large schools in Carbondale. The first four classes is one thing, but in 5A, 6A, 7A and 8A, six or seven of those (eight) teams typically come from well above Bloomington."

The 7A and 8A finalists have been exclusively suburban Chicago teams the past two years.

Whether the IHSA selects one site or two, the championship games will continue to be televised.

"Our TV people tell us their preference is to have it at one site," Hickman said, "but should we select two different sites, they can deal with it."

Toyota Park another option

Toyota Park in Bridgeview has an interest in the football finals but also a potential problem.

"The only issue is that we have a major tenant," said Mike Thiessen, a consultant at Toyota Park.

In 2009, the Chicago Fire had a home playoff soccer match the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This year, the team won't make the postseason and there are no conflicts.

"We looked at making a bid for the (IHSA) state soccer but passed because it was more during the Fire regular season," Thiessen said.

As far as the IHSA is concerned, there's more to deal with than potential conflicts with the date.

"In terms of a physical facility, we would need to figure how grass (surface) would play into things," Hickman said.

The Bridgeview venue, which opened in 2006, has 34 suites and a capacity of 22,000 for soccer or football.

There are other selling points, according to Thiessen. There's parking for 9,000 vehicles, a drainage system that can handle 6 inches of rain per hour and four locker rooms so that "teams can move in before others move out," Thiessen said.

Fenwick, Providence New Lenox and Brother Rice are among the high schools that have played football games at Toyota Park.

"We think we offer a championship facility that's more intimate," Thiessen said.

Regardless of whether Toyota Park enters the bidding competition, Hickman said, "we think we'll have some options."

Expect those choices to be limited to the communities that make the first move. The IHSA is not going to contact potential hosts.

"We probably won't reach out," Hickman said, "but if they have an interest we'll know about it."

C-U still in play

Hickman is optimistic the change of athletic directors at the UI will not affect the school's interest in serving as a part-time football host.

"Things can change," Hickman said. "We think we've had a great partnership. Dana Brenner (UI associate athletic director) has assured me they continue to have interest.

"We'd be surprised and disappointed if we're not able to continue to play there. We've enjoyed our time over there. We also understand their first obligation is to the conference. We want to work with them the best we can and work to find the best home on other years."

The IHSA finals will be at Memorial Stadium this year on Nov. 25-26 and again in 2012 on Nov. 23-24. After a year's hiatus in 2013, they are scheduled to return to the UI in 2014 on Nov. 28-29.

On one of the IHSA state dates in 2013 (Nov. 30), the Illini will play Northwestern at Memorial Stadium.

The 2014 football finals are the last ones committed to the UI under the current contract.

Fall in line

Hard to believe, but the area prep sports schedule began this week with boys' and girls' golf meets. With plenty more action to follow, News-Gazette prep sports coordinator FRED KRONER offers five storylines to get fans ready for a busy fall calendar:

1

What area high school has the best chance to reach state in volleyball?

Until its current streak ends, we'll go with Centennial's Chargers. Under coach Stan Bergman, the program has produced 12 consecutive 20-win seasons, including the last four with at least 30 wins. Eight times in the past decade, Centennial has won at least a regional title. The current squad has a junior-based nucleus that was instrumental in last year's 32-5 record. This could be the year Centennial makes the big breakthrough. The 11 returning letter winners on a team ranked 106th nationally by prepvolleyball.com include six who were starters and one (Kelly Wachtel) who is under consideration for the Under Armour All-America team.

2

What's the best storyline among area high school football teams this fall?

We may well have area teams competing for state championships Thanksgiving weekend at Memorial Stadium (Tuscola in Class 1A could be a contender), and that would be the ultimate season-ending story, but for the preseason we'll pick St. Joseph-Ogden's quest for a 21st consecutive playoff berth. In Dick Duval's 23-year coaching tenure, the Spartans have won more than three-fourths of their games. What a legacy Duval and SJ-O have established. This year's squad has the makings of one that will continue the streak.

3

Who is the area's premier prep cross-country runner?

Monticello senior Steve Schroeder has established a superior track record. He is a two-time Class 1A all-stater. He was the top finishing sophomore at state in 2009 and the top finishing junior in 2010. Individually, he is ranked second statewide by dyestat in the preseason, and coach Jeff Butler's Sages enter the year as the top-rated Class 1A boys' program. He trains hard and competes harder and is viewed as the area's most dominant individual. Schroeder is approaching his final high school season with focus and determination.

4

Where will the football title games wind up the years they're not in Champaign?

My feeling is that the IHSA will give a few communities a chance at hosting, as a way to evaluate more than one site. Long term, I see the IHSA picking one site for its football finals, and these odd-year tournaments are a type of tryout. I think Southern Illinois University is too far south to draw a crowd for the majority of schools that will make the finals, which would not make it economically viable. I think there will be questions about Toyota Park's grass surface. That leaves Illinois State University and Northern Illinois University. My guess is that 1A-4A wind up at ISU and 5A-8A go to NIU.

5

Will any area golfers celebrate state titles?

If you asked 10 months ago, the logical answer would have been the St. Thomas More girls' team. The Sabers won the 2010 Class 1A state title by 35 strokes and five of the team's top six were juniors. St. Thomas More still will be good, but the pick here is the Mahomet-Seymour girls. Coach Matt Mills' Bulldogs' top five return from 2010 and with the IHSA restructuring, M-S (enrollment 872) now will compete in Class 1A for this sport. Seniors Charlotte Goss, Randal-Allison Bernthal and Danielle Ellis lead the way, but juniors Amber Tabaka and Brooklyn Hildreth are tournament-tested. Also expected to contribute is freshman Emily Trolia.

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JimOATSfan wrote on August 21, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Hey MJ:
How about rotating between Northwestern and Illinois on alternate years? This way more than 10,000 can attend the games. As long as the B1G cooperates it could be a WinWin solution.

Cheers!

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