Kroner: DeKalb gives winning effort
DeKALB — Call it a given.
Everyone wants to be the best. Whether it’s an athlete competing in a sport, or a student in the classroom or a community that hosts a major event, the primary objective is to achieve a winning effort and do it better than anyone else.
The scoreboard tells the tale of how well a group of athletes fares. Class rank is a good indicator of the academic portion.
There are no clear-cut parameters to judge the effectiveness of a town when it serves as the official site for an IHSA championship event.
Folks in Champaign-Urbana — and the surrounding communities — would love to hear how bad things went this weekend as Northern Illinois University and all of DeKalb hosted the 40th annual state football championships.
Sorry to disappoint.
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Fact is, there is no more proof of a fumble by the NIU group than there was when the Champaign-Urbana communities took over 14 years ago and the games were played at the UI’s Memorial Stadium.
Perspective is an interesting thing.
Is there an appearance of more fan involvement when there’s 3,000 spectators in a 24,000-seat stadium, such as the one at Northern Illinois University, or with a turnout of 3,000 people in a 60,000-seat stadium, such as the one on the UI campus?
“What I noticed on the field,” said Stillman Valley coach Mike Lalor, who has won state championships in both communities, “is that the crowd (at NIU) seemed louder. For us (40 miles away), we probably had more fans make the trip (to NIU).”
Or, maybe the interest hit a peak in the semifinals, when 3,000 fans lined a high school field, often two and three deep, to view the action and give the impression of a packed house.
An attendance of 3,000 isn’t the same, depending on location.
Call it a given.
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Though fans might disagree, the games aren’t for them. It’s for the athletes and about the athletes.
The essentials for the competitors are a football field and a set of officials (OK, maybe not those guys), and the location is not all that significant.
If St. Joseph-Ogden had been required to travel two days to Timbuktu to compete in a state championship game, there’d only be one question: “When do we leave?”
Sure, the Spartans have been to the UI more routinely and it would be convenient, but that didn’t make a three-hour road trip to DeKalb a deal-breaker.
No Spartans missed the bus Friday, thinking it was just too far.
“It doesn’t matter where, as long as we’re playing for a state championship,” SJ-O senior Seth Griswell said.
“It doesn’t make a difference,” Spartans senior Jake Stewart said. “More people might be able to come (to a closer venue), but it wouldn’t mean more to us. This is the last time most of us will ever touch a football.”
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When out-of-towners arrive in a new and unfamiliar area, judgments on how well the event was handled often are based on those people they come in contact with throughout the day.
When a friendly police officer greets a vehicle and smiles while providing directions, that’s a good start.
When the parking lot attendant asks if there are any questions he can answer, the favorable impressions continue.
When making the short walk to the stadium, the sight of an armchair quarterback (not a former neighbor, but an inflatable) brings a smile to the faces of the guests.
The volunteers, standing outside of Huskie Stadium in sub-freezing temperatures, are friendly and give the impression you are the most important person they will see all day. Then, another guest approaches, and the process is repeated.
The teenage athletes may be the stars once the whistle blows to start the action, but the unsung heroes are the individuals who may not see one second of any game while devoting 12 hours of their day to welcoming the community’s newcomers. And, they are donating their time on a holiday weekend when shopping is foremost on the minds of most non-football fans.
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Brad Hoey is Northern Illinois University’s director of communications and marketing. He is also a member of DeKalb’s host committee.
He said casual observers won’t find many differences in DeKalb’s approach compared to the policies Champaign-Urbana has followed since 1999.
“Essentially, this is the IHSA’s event, and we wanted to work with the IHSA to keep the integrity of the event going,” Hoey said. “Champaign has done a great job the last 14 years, and we wanted to keep that spirit going.”
The greater DeKalb community put its stamp on the event by creating a destinationdekalb logo which is not only on lanyards but also on popcorn bags and signage around the area.
”The goal of every high school team, in the old days, was to go downstate,” Hoey said. “We wanted to let people know on odd years (on the calendar), DeKalb County and NIU will host the championship games. It’s where every team wants to get to the final week of November.”
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The folks in Champaign-Urbana rate an assist for how smoothly things went in DeKalb. They graciously allowed committee members from DeKalb an inside and up-close view last fall.
“We learned a lot then, and we will learn a lot this year, listening to our fans,” Hoey said. “Our goal is to make it the best experience we possibly can. From the lessons we learn, I’m sure there are things we will apply for 2015.”
The people in C-U didn’t give a list of “dos and don’ts,” Hoey said.
“There wasn’t a heck of a lot of ‘you shouldn’t do this,’ ” he said. “The best advice was, ‘Welcome people with open arms and extend your hospitality.’ That’s what we witnessed in Champaign eyes-on and what we wanted to carry through. We’re getting people excited about extending the red carpet.”
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In an era when fundraising is — at best — challenging, the folks in DeKalb not only met their stated goal of generating $225,000 but exceeded it.
“We had a lot of great partners involved,“ Hoey said, “and raised $230,000 to offset some of the cost. All of it goes into the operational cost of the event and, if there is anything left over, it goes into the budget for 2015.”
Debbie Armstrong, from DeKalb’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, made sure to pair an athletic administrator and a community member with all 16 of the competing schools as team ambassadors.
“They will absolutely be able to answer all the questions so that teams can focus on the game,” Armstrong said. “Having someone involved with athletics (as an ambassador) makes a good pairing. Those people know what coaches are looking for.”
Schools that approach NIU from the west are met at Kishwaukee Community College, in Malta (which is on Illinois 38) and given a police escort the final 8 miles to town. Those arriving from other directions have a shorter police escort of about 5 miles off the tollway.
Armstrong wants to cover all the bases.
“The experience is something these people will remember the rest of their lives,” Armstrong said. “It culminates with their destination: DeKalb.”
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Lena-Winslow coach Ric Arand has won state championships in two locations. His first was at the UI in 2010. The second was Friday when his Panthers won the inaugural title game at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium, 28-21 against previously unbeaten Tri-Valley.
He has mixed feelings about the IHSA’s every-other-year location.
“To be on the UI field is an incredible feeling,” Arand said, “probably the first and only time our kids will ever be there.”
And yet, the proximity of Lena and Winslow to DeKalb (less than a 90-minute commute) gave the feel of a home game for the school in the 1A finale.
“The smaller venue makes the crowd seem a little bigger,” Arand said. “(Friday’s) crowd doesn’t put a dent in it at the UI. We had a huge crowd, probably double what they (Tri-Valley Vikings) had, and it’s easy to hear them from the stands.
“They’re practically on the field, right on top of you.”
The warmup area, just north of Huskie Stadium, is another major amenity for participating schools.
“The indoor practice facility here is incredible,” Arand said.
“The people were fantastic at the UI, but there seems to be a more ‘homey’ atmosphere here,” said Sterling Newman coach Mike Papoccia, who like Arand and Lalor has coached championship teams in Champaign-Urbana and in DeKalb.
Papoccia’s Class 2A state titlists had a 50-minute commute to reach DeKalb.
In the quest to be No. 1, Northern Illinois University hit paydirt. There’s good news, too, for those associated with the University of Illinois: There’s always next year.
Call it another given.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s executive sports editor. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5235, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.