Zilis: Uni High has skills, too

Zilis: Uni High has skills, too

URBANA — The hallways constantly buzz with soft chatter at Urbana Uni High, whether class is going on or not. Students sit at tables outside of classrooms with textbooks flipped open, discussing history or biology or geometry or gossip of the day.

Senior Varun Chopra crams his books into his locker and leaves it open. He knows it looks a little messy, but that’s the way it’s done at Uni High. No locks are affixed to the locker doors, and students rarely close them, a symbol of the controlled chaos with which the University of Illinois laboratory school is run.

“It’s part of the atmosphere,” Chopra said. “It’s open, there’s a lot of trust, no one’s going to steal your stuff. There’s more freedom.”

At 1:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, students literally are free to do as they please within reason. That’s when Ema Rajic heads to her part-time job at a university physics lab, where the self-proclaimed “science nerd” works on a project trying to change the DNA makeup of E. coli. Chopra and junior Arielle Summitt work with the school’s Habitat for Humanity club.

Academics are intense in this atmosphere, which operates more like a college than most schools. But in this atmosphere, another realm stands out.

At this school of about 300 students, packed into an old, four-story building, some of the area’s top athletes thrive.

Last year, four of The News-Gazette’s nine fall sports’ Players of the Year came from Uni High. That list includes Chopra, who committed to play golf at Illinois as a junior; Summitt, who ran the third-fastest 800-meter time across all classes at last season’s state track meet; and Rajic, who took 49th in the 100 breaststroke at the Olympic Trials this summer.

Of the four, only soccer player Panos Voulgaris, now a freshman at the University of Chicago, has graduated.

“I think one of the reasons Uni brings in a lot of good athletes is because people that apply to Uni are driven and focused academically, and therefore it translates over to the athletic side,” said junior Rahi Miraftab-Salo, who scored 23 goals and led the area with 24 assists last season as the Uni High boys’ soccer team finished fourth in Class 1A.

“I wasn’t expecting that, and I realized that like halfway through,” Miraftab-Salo added.

It wasn’t always that way. While cross-country and track garnered regional, sectional and state trophies through the years, the only other team hardware the Illineks took home before 2011 was two girls’ basketball regional titles.

In the last four years, Uni High’s boys’ soccer and girls’ cross-country teams won two state trophies apiece, the girls’ swimming and diving team won two sectional titles and its girls’ basketball team won a regional title.

“In the past, we’ve had kids who might want to come to Uni, deserve to be at Uni, make the test, make the grades to get there, but for some reason or not, they might think, ‘Well, I’m also a pretty good athlete, I don’t know if I want to go there,” said cross-country coach Doug Mynatt, who has been Uni High’s head cross-country coach for 20 years.

“Now they see us in The News-Gazette, they see us in social media and they see the success we’ve been having, and that might be a factor. They get in and they say, ‘Yeah, I know I can play soccer,
I know I can swim, I know I can run cross-country or track and still be competitive.’ ”

Last year, Uni High was so successful in boys’ soccer and girls’ cross-country, which both earned state trophies, that those teams were forced to move up a class because of the IHSA’s success factor despite the school’s stringent admissions process, which places little to no bearing on athletic success.

Chopra, for instance, rather would have golfed at Champaign Central, whose district he lives in, or Centennial, instead of Uni High, which has only two golfers and no full-time coach.

Miraftab-Salo and his brother Omeed, the twins who lead the Illineks boys’ soccer team, grew up dreaming of playing for the Maroons. Summitt also lives in Central’s district, where the track and cross-country teams have a district track to run on, a luxury Uni High doesn’t possess.

Rajic’s older sister, Gabi, urged her to attend Urbana, where the current Indiana swimmer earned All-Area Swimmer of the Year honors.

For the younger Rajic, the workload is intense. She wakes up for her 5 a.m. practices about 4:30. After school, she has an hour or two, give or take based on the day, before a 5 p.m. practice, after which she usually stays up until 11 p.m. completing schoolwork.

While she admits sleep deprivation has been an issue, Rajic has learned to utilize every free minute during the day, including the five-minute periods in between classes.

“There’s no one really hovering over you all of the time,” she said. “There’s no one telling you, ‘You’re in study hall, you need to study.’ It’s more like, ‘If you need to do college things, you can do college things.’ It’s really nice because you can do what’s personally best for you.”

Despite the workload, 79 percent of Uni High’s 300 or so students played at least one sport last year. Rajic, Chopra, Summitt and the Miraftab-Salos are far from the only elite Illineks athletes.

Senior Annemarie Michael earned all-state honors in cross-country last year. Tennis players Grace Qiu and Lindsay Huang each won at least one match at the state meet last year. And the boys’ soccer team is strong once again despite losing most of its starting lineup.

The Illineks also have athletes competing off campus in speedskating, figure skating and table tennis.

Altogether, they buck expectations of Uni High athletics. At least to Rajic.

“I think coming into the school, I didn’t really think much of athletics,” Rajic said. “I thought, ‘Oh, there’s going to be a bunch of nerds.’

“Wow, my class is really strong academically and athletically. We have the best soccer twins ever; we have a fantastic runner. We have a speedskater. Seeing them do so well in their sports makes me strive to do well in my sport.”

Preps coordinator Anthony Zilis writes a column throughout the school year. He can be reached at 217-351-5235, at azilis@news-gazette.com or @adzilis.

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upahbant@uiuc.edu wrote on October 24, 2016 at 8:10 pm

Nice job capturing the feel of the place, Anthony! As someone who worked at Uni for many moons, you really captured the place. Well done!

Marilyn Upah-Bant