Urbana, fans having fun chasing school's first playoff win
URBANA — Stephen Love hasn’t seen an Urbana High football game this fall, but he keeps abreast of the Tigers’ results.
“I find out whether they won,” said Love, the owner of Black Rock Pizza Co., on Race Street. “It definitely affects our business. It has been a good season, and there has been a lot of celebrating.”
The success of the 8-1, state-ranked, playoff-bound Tigers has created a feel-good atmosphere, Love said.
“People in general have a stronger attitude about high school athletics in Urbana,” Love said.
Urbana boys’ basketball coach Vashoune Russell was at a birthday celebration with friends three weeks ago at Boomerangs. It was the day after the Tigers handed Normal West its first loss.
“They had the game (rebroadcast) going,” Russell said. “Everybody knew we won, but when the game ended, that place erupted like they didn’t know the outcome. There’s a buzz right now.”
The best in decades
Urbana is achieving in 2012 like no other Tiger football team has done, not just in years but in decades.
The last time Urbana won eight consecutive football games was in 1966. Coach Nathan Watson’s current team carries an eight-game winning streak into next week’s Class 5A playoffs, where the Tigers open with a home game against 7-2 East Peoria.
It creates a more pleasant environment when a school’s marquee fall sport is successful.
“I’ve always been very passionate about giving students the opportunity to excel, whether in athletics, theater or performance arts,” Urbana Superintendent Preston Williams said. “What people have to understand is for some, it’s important to be able to do something outside of just the academic piece.
“My feeling is if we do that, we’re able to grow very successful young people. Coach (Nathan) Watson and his staff have done a good job, and people are starting to notice.”
Former Urbana football All-Stater Rande Hoggard has to follow his alma mater from afar. He’s a high school football assistant coach in Florence, Ariz.
“This is our spirit week,” Hoggard said Wednesday, “and this was Alumni Day. I wore an Illini jacket and an orange and black T-shirt that says ‘Urbana Tigers.’ ”
School spirit abounds
Ellen Willcox is a manager at Common Ground Food Co-op, located in Lincoln Square. She is also a mentor for the Urbana district at the middle school.
She sees a correlation in the attitude of the children and the football success at the high school.
“I’ve seen a great deal of change in the kids in the quality of their interaction with teachers and the community,” Willcox said. “Anything positive that makes people feel good about themselves and their kids is a benefit.”
The vibes extend beyond the border of Urbana. Kristi Brownfield, one of the owners of Brownfield Sports, said the community interest can be gauged by sales.
“This year has been the best year for school spirit,” Brownfield said. “The football team has a lot to do with it. There’s a big increase on Fridays before a home game.”
Customers from Champaign have taken notice of what’s happening next door.
“Centennial people and Central people are talking about how good Urbana is,” Brownfield said, “and they’re glad to see it.”
However, at Charter Fitness, general manager Ryan McDermand said it’s business as usual.
“We don’t get much response about Urbana football,” McDermand said. “It’s more of an Illini vibe around here. The majority of our people talk Illini sports and not too much high school.”
One of the smallest
The numbers associated with Urbana football have been far from impressive in recent years.
Never, since the playoffs were implemented in 1974, has the school been victorious in a postseason game.
Joe Thompson has been associated with Urbana High School for years, since his dad was a dean of students in the 1960s. Thompson kept a pulse on the scene as his children
progressed through the Urbana system.
Though Urbana has not captured an outright Big 12 Conference crown in football since 1965 — the Tigers shared the title with Bloomington this season — Thompson senses a “misconception” about the status of the program.
“I don’t know that Urbana fell off so much (on the playing field) as in their enrollment,” Thompson said. “Some other schools got so much bigger. It’s a difficult situation, trying to play beyond your enrollment.
“I’m not aware of anyone playing beyond their enrollment as well as Urbana this year.”
Urbana has 1,065 students enrolled.
The Tigers’ first football game this year was against Normal Community (1,875 students), and Friday’s regular season finale was against Danville (1,622 students). Just one regular
season opponent (Decatur Eisenhower, 973) had fewer students than Urbana.
To help level the playing field, a $6 million renovation project was completed in 2011 that provided Urbana the first artificial playing surface for an East Central Illinois high school in football and soccer.
Thompson credits Williams, school board member John Dimit and athletic director Greg Hall as ramrods for the project.
“Knowing that (enrollment discrepancies) would always be there, they had a vision,” Thompson said. “One way to alleviate that was to upgrade facilities, and they did it in a dynamic way.
“That translates to the kids that people in this school care.”
It also makes an impression when families with children relocate to the area. First-year UI football coach Tim Beckman and his family moved to Urbana. The Beckmans’ freshman son, Alex, enters the playoffs as the No. 2 quarterback behind record-setting senior Cameron Mammen.
Gary Grogan, a pastor at Stone Creek Church, still attends as many of the Urbana football games as possible even though his son graduated in 1992.
“The field and all the amenities that go with it have increased the Tiger pride,” Grogan said. “There’s a whole new atmosphere and an increase in the sense of community ownership and pride.”
Bill Harmon knows the nucleus of Urbana’s team well. He served as a coach in the Central Illinois Youth Football League when the current seniors were on the fifth-sixth-grade teams and moved up as their coach when they advanced to the seventh-eighth-grade teams.
Now the high school head coach at East Central, Harmon recalls the defining moment when he realized the vast potential in Urbana’s group.
It wasn’t when Mammen was a sixth-grader and became the first player in the CIYFL to win Player of the Year honors on offense and defense.
“Cameron is now and always has been a superior athlete,” Harmon said. “If a play breaks down, he is unbelievably able to make a poor play, but not only positive, but a scoring play.”
When Mammen was in seventh grade, he broke his collarbone after one game and was sidelined the remainder of the season. The Urbana team still made it to the championship game.
For Harmon, that was the telltale moment.
“They found out one person doesn’t make a team,” Harmon said. “The rest of those guys played well together. They have believed in each other.”
Urbana’s squad members aren’t just teammates to one another. They’re friends.
It was true in youth leagues — and equally true now.
“The No. 1 thing,” Russell said, “is they are committed to each other and have bought into each other. Winning helps with that swagger, but they enjoy being with each other and like each other.”
Regina Parnell’s son, Mikshadd Townsend, is one of Urbana’s senior linemen. She said even when there were doubters outside of the program, the team was confident.
“If no one else believes in them, they believe in themselves,” Parnell said. “The boys have built a bond over the last eight years that is unbreakable. They trust each other on the field and off the field.
“They respect each other, they believe in each other and, most of all, they love each other.”
Townsend reinforced the same point.
“There has not been any bad blood between any of us over the last eight years,” he said. “We play as a unit and not individual players. We are like brothers. We have a very strong bond.”
They also have looked forward to this season for years.
“We always felt when we got to high school, we had a chance to turn the program around and do something special,” senior lineman Chris Lenear said.
The feeling, he added, defies words.
“Great is not a fitting enough word,” Lenear said.
The next generation
Mammen’s father, Mark, played sports at Urbana, and his grandfather, Wayne, is a former football head coach who directed the school to the playoffs three times in a four-year span in the early 1990s.
As Cameron Mammen became an accomplished athlete, there wasn’t discussion of having him leave his childhood friends to relocate to a school district where the athletic programs were already more successful.
“I grew up here and had a great experience at Urbana,” Mark Mammen said. “I knew the situation going in wasn’t the best situation in sports.
“There were a lot of families in my generation who went to Urbana and took their kids to other places, thinking it would be a better experience for their child. My way of thinking has always been if you have a child who is passionate about sports, works hard and has a good attitude, he will be successful no matter where he is at.
“My wife and I have five children and we never once thought we would consider a move for sports for one of our children. We plan things as a family and don’t cater to one child.”
The fact that the football program wasn’t a perennial state power just meant there was an additional challenge to tackle.
“Perhaps he might help take a struggling program to a better place,” Mark Mammen said.
Keeping it fun
Like others who’ve watched the team’s nucleus develop and mature over the years, Mark Mammen was optimistic about the group’s high school fortunes.
His belief wasn’t based on the CIYFL teams that advanced to the championship game in three of their four years under Harmon.
“They like to play football,” Mark Mammen said. “One of the things that has been lost in this generation is you used to see kids outside playing football, or sports, a lot. Nowadays, you don’t see that often.
“When this group was younger, they’d go to the park and have a big football game. That’s an indication they like what they’re doing.”
Watson’s master plan
Watson helped orchestrate what is one of the state’s top turnarounds in the sport. Football teams at Urbana totaled 11 wins in the previous seven seasons.
Success didn’t happen as quickly as he’d hoped.
“We didn’t start making gains until late in the second season,” said Watson, now in his fourth year on the sidelines. “Once we got wins, they started listening more.”
He recognized the potential in the current junior and senior groups long ago but tried to avoid promoting them to varsity too soon.
“There’s something to be said for keeping them together (with their age group),” Watson said. “I don’t like to play younger kids up.”
Cameron Mammen played one varsity game as a freshman before an injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. The next year, he took over as the first-team quarterback, though most of his classmates remained with the sophomore squad.
“It was obvious Cam had to be pulled up,” Watson said.
Thompson had a similar feeling years earlier when he coached Mammen in youth baseball.
“Cam is a once-in-20-years-type player,” Thompson said.
Superior line strength
Cameron Mammen, who made an unofficial visit to Western Illinois on Saturday, has been the focal point of the offense, but the strength of that unit is the players in front of him.
“The reason the offensive line is so good is that we kept them together,” Watson said. “None of them played up.”
And now, the front six of all seniors has formed a tenacious and formidable unit. Left tackle Tanner Laznik, left guard Josh Pratt and center Mustafa Odeh started last year. Right guard Lenear, right tackle Townsend and tight end Devon Williams earned their offensive positions this fall.
What Watson has done, according to Grogan, is take care of the intangibles.
“It’s one thing to know a sport,” Grogan said, “but some coaches have the ability to create that extra-special something winning attitude in kids. A lot of coaches don’t have the ability to motivate teenagers.
“Kudos to this coach. He apparently has it. It’s a breath of fresh air, like ‘finally.’ ”
Ex-coaches track progress
Wayne Mammen is not the only former Urbana head coach who has closely followed the 2012 football team. Mason Minnes and Steve Waller — now Urbana’s dean of students — have kept close tabs as well.
Wayne Mammen doesn’t have tunnel vision and focus strictly on the Urbana quarterback from his vantage point in the stands.
“Since I was a lineman (at Peoria Richwoods), I enjoy watching them,” he said. “The line has been playing pretty well on both sides. It’s a fun team to watch, and it has been a total team effort.”
Minnes agrees with Watson’s philosophy of keeping the younger players together with their peers.
“When a team sticks together from freshmen through seniors, they can be successful,” Minnes said, “and from a coach’s standpoint they don’t have to be coached up as much as seniors.”
Waller is the answer to a pair of trivia questions connected with the history of Urbana football:
— who was the last coach, before Watson this year, to direct the team to the playoffs (2004);
— who was the quarterback the last time the school won eight regular season games (1991).
One person who watched the 1991 team as well as the 2012 team is Kevin Booky, the public address announcer the past 15 years, but before that a member of the chain gang.
“This team reminds me so much of that 1991 team,” Booky said. “They find ways to win. It shows in crunch time. The kids don’t fold. They don’t quit playing.”
Like Wayne Mammen, Waller rates the Tigers’ balance this year as the key aspect.
“While they have great skill players, their offensive and defensive lines have been equally impressive,” Waller said.
Sporting good character
The fans and players are about the victories. Urbana administrators are equally proud of another aspect.
“Not only have they done that all season (on the field) but they have done it with class,” Waller said. “I’ve heard many people, including Urbana administrators, comment on how Urbana football players will be the first one to retrieve a dead ball and hand it back to an official.
“That demeanor goes a long way when building a winning program.”
The players’ conduct, Williams said, is a direct reflection of the coaches and what they emphasize.
“Coach Watson has done a very good job of instilling discipline, effort and focus,” Williams said, “as far as making sure to take care of the small things.
“That doesn’t necessarily always mean you will pile up victories, but it helps guide the foundation that is so important to being able to compete.
“Coach Watson and his staff do a real good job working with all our young people. Our students understand the importance of good character, doing your best and putting forth the effort. The staff has done a tremendous job instilling in these young people about doing it the right way. You represent not only yourself but also the high school and the community.”
‘A giant leap forward’
Urbana assistant Sergio Medina — who played at Arcola in 2004 when Watson was on staff — has helped at Urbana all four years of Watson’s tenure.
“I am very excited to help this current team make history,” Medina said. “These players deserve it and are more than capable of getting it done.
“It will definitely mean a lot to be the first team to win a playoff game at Urbana. Winning one game is not our whole focus, either. We’re already guaranteed one playoff game. It is in our hands what we do with the opportunity and how far we want to take this thing.”
After watching the Class of 2014 finish with a 1-8 record when they were freshmen, Parnell has learned not to put limits on what can be accomplished.
“They have a ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ attitude,” she said.
Waller said the results speak for themselves.
“Coach Watson and his staff have really got the kids to believe in winning and taking another step forward beyond just being competitive,” he said. “The kids have taken a giant leap forward in getting the job done.
“They play fast and hard every game and are a pleasure to watch. They have a great chance to make history at Urbana.”
Whether the program can remain vibrant and thriving in the future will help determine the level of fan interest and support.
“In order to get any true community support back, they will have to continue a number of years of success,” Booky said. “With such bad teams over the last 10 years, it has definitely hurt.”