CHAMPAIGN – Last October, less than eight minutes remained during the Champaign Central-Centennial boys' soccer match on the Chargers' lighted field.
Then the lights went out.
"You couldn't see the hand in front of your face," Centennial booster club president Scott Anderson said.
The Chargers scored the tying goal in the final minute, the match finished in a 1-1 tie and some Maroons were left wondering exactly what had happened.
It was a problem with wiring, which was no longer capable of supporting the power being supplied from the transformer.
Almost five years ago to the day, the Chargers had debuted under their lights in a 14-0 victory against Rantoul. Now, there was a problem, and it was up to the boosters to provide a solution – at an expense of almost $12,000.
Karen Kaplan can empathize. Central's boys' boosters club president was part of a project – several years in the making – to get lights installed on the Maroons' home field behind Franklin Middle School.
The cost: about $14,000.
If not for the determined efforts of each school's booster clubs, along with extraordinary generosity from the community, the Maroons and Chargers would be without the benefits that go with a match under the lights.
"I took it as an academic issue," Kaplan said. "The boys had to miss the last hour of classes 20 times in the first quarter – 10 for out-of-town games, 10 for home games. If we had lights, they'd only miss 10 classes."
In addition, the junior varsity team – which plays after the varsity – would only get about half of their match in before darkness fell.
"For as much work as they put forward, they were being shortchanged," Kaplan said.
On a lighted field, the junior varsity match can be played and completed prior to the varsity match, allowing more parents and fans to attend after their work day is complete.
It makes a big difference.
"I think we play better under the lights," Central junior Martin Musuruana said. "Everything is so much more exciting."
The Maroons are hopeful of getting their lights in place by season's end. Centennial's lights are fixed.
So how did it happen?
Shifting into high gear
Centennial has had more experience in this area. The Chargers put up their lights in 2001 by getting used towers and benefiting from donated labor.
But, as logic would dictate, the project was accomplished in a way to minimize costs. Time takes its toll on all equipment, and eventually the system's wiring needed to be replaced, among other adjustments.
"I was initially told it would be around $20,000 to do the light repairs," Anderson said. "Our big break came when Remco agreed to let us get materials at cost."
Springfield Electric also provided their business on a cost basis, and the Chargers were ready to move.
"The project would have been delayed without that," Anderson said of the savings, more than $5,000.
Of the $12,000 required, Centennial AD Brian Easter contributed $4,000 from his budget. The Unit 4 school board chipped in $4,000. The rest was left to the Chargers' boosters.
The boys' club contributed $2,000, as did the girls' club.
"Both clubs make money on concessions," Anderson said, rattling off the fundraising activities. "We sell clothes. We do car washes. And at the beginning of the season we ask for a $75 per family (donation)."
That money goes toward a list of items, including uniforms, warmups and nets.
"They want what's best for the kids," Easter said. "It's important to have strong leaders in each (booster club) position. Clearly this wouldn't have happened without Scott Anderson. He was very persistent in his communication and took the bull by the horns and made it happen."
Give me a call
Like Centennial, Central received $4,000 from Unit 4 for its project. The remaining $10,000 came from the boys' and girls' booster clubs.
If it sounds like a daunting task, Central alumni came through in a big way.
Girls' booster club co-president Cathy Moe said both clubs solicited donations from past players, parents of former players and general alumni.
"We specifically targeted soccer alumni and sent letters to their homes," Moe said. "I think we got between $3,000 and $4,000 from donations."
Central's boys' boosters had been setting aside money for six years in preparation, Kaplan said. That was important because "by the time we started this project, the business community had been tapped out. You only have so many pots you can pull from."
Labor, along with light poles, was donated by a private contractor with ties to Central, amounting to about $5,000 worth of labor and materials.
The effort is ongoing, too. On Saturday, the Maroons team members conducted a car wash on Kirby Avenue.
"I see it as support through the whole community," Kaplan said. "We've got community volunteers. We've got the boosters and the soccer players and the district. It's a full piece now."
Money, however, is only part of the equation. Coordinating the various efforts – from electrical companies to Unit 4 departments – requires cooperation from everyone involved.
Centennial's lights, for example, were causing a hazard after last spring's girls season. They needed to be repaired in time for the boys' campaign, which required some juggling by a number of parties.
"The contractors were willing to work us into their schedule in time for the first night game," Anderson said. "The operations and maintenance department from Unit 4 rearranged their schedule to do the trench work to coordinate with the contractors. ... You don't do projects like this without a lot of people being able to step up and help."
Help from above
There is one underlying issue that all parties would like to see resolved.
Unit 4 will pick up the tab for the ongoing costs of lights, from routine maintenance to paying the electric bill. But at what point does the board have a responsibility to provide the district's students an appropriate venue in which to compete?
Booster clubs play a vital role in every community. In some sports, their work is essential to the continuing viability of the program. Without them, the program might vanish.
"Our booster clubs have continually been a source of parental involvement, and we need to continue to encourage that in every way possible," school board president Dave Tomlinson said. "But on the other hand, I wish that the district would be able to afford to do those things."
Tomlinson said the board has "turned a major corner" in its financial objectives recently. But, "I do think we're a couple years away from seeing real turns where we can invest a lot of money in the infrastructure."
While many boosters obviously would prefer that not be the case, they seem to be understanding.
"Do I want the school board to spend $10,000 on soccer lights or would I rather see them put that money into a mentoring program and maintain a mentoring program? That's really what it comes down to," Moe said.
"Money is one of those things that there's just never enough of, and there's always a higher priority for something. A lot of it comes down to what's important to me, as a parent. My kid is a student and a participant in the program, and what can I do to promote that or facilitate making that go smoothly for them?" she said.
At Centennial and Central, parents, boosters, community members, and the business community have combined to provide their soccer players with nighttime enjoyment.
Money can't measure the appreciation of the players. At Central, for example, as many as 30 members of the girls' and boys' programs showed up at the August school board meeting to display their support.
"The boys are playing with a lot of pride," Central coach Josh Alford said. "They feel like they have to play twice as hard with all the time and effort that people are putting in."