All-Area Football POY: STM's Storm Joop
CHAMPAIGN — Storm Joop’s entrance into high school football is not even closely related to the pomp and circumstance for which he ended his prep career in the sport.
In the beginning, there was no fanfare. No predictions of grandeur. No telltale signs of future success.
When Joop enrolled at St. Thomas More in the fall of 2010 as a ninth-grader, he brought with him a limited background in football.
“I played a year of youth football, as a lineman,” Joop said. “I didn’t like it.”
He went on to other interests, particularly travel baseball. He retired from football throughout the remainder of his middle school career.
As a high school freshman, Joop opted to give football another chance after a two-year absence.
“I knew I wanted to be part of something greater than the aspect of school,” Joop said. “The football program here was pretty big.”
At the first day of practice, coach Dan Hennessey welcomed the newcomers. He asked them to pick the positions they wanted to play.
He even put one thought in the heads of the football rookies.
“I asked who could throw,” he said. “Sean (Sullivan) raised his hand.”
Joop didn’t volunteer.
“He was a quiet kid as a freshman,” Hennessey said. “We had him (Joop) at running back. Sean Sullivan was the (freshman) quarterback. That lasted about two weeks. They came to me and said they’d like to switch positions.”
Joop and Sullivan discussed the matter before approaching the coach.
“I wanted to run the football,” Joop said. “Later on, I figured it would be nice to throw it. We talked it out and were like, ‘Let’s switch.’ ”
The position change paved the way for Joop’s unparalleled success. He finished his high school career as not only the top passer in school history but also the all-time Twin City leader (for athletes from any Champaign-Urbana high school) for passing yards.
One of his targets was Sullivan.
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Playing quarterback and becoming a quarterback didn’t happen simultaneously. There was no pressure as a freshman for Joop to step into a role.
The varsity signal-caller in 2010 was the same person who had established the single-season passing record the previous year, Julian Boswell. With an All-Area performance as a senior, Boswell went on to set the school’s career passing standard.
Joop wasn’t expecting to get a varsity shot, even as a sophomore. In the class ahead of him was Spencer Atkins, who was tutored in the intricacies of quarterbacking by former Illini Jeff George. “I figured I wouldn’t get quarterback time until my senior year,” Joop said.
Even when Atkins (who is now a receiver on the UCLA roster) transferred to a Florida high school for his junior year, it didn’t open a spot for Joop. He was neck-and-neck with a freshman during the 2011 workouts.
“Me and Jimmy Fitzgerald were battling it out,” Joop said. “With a week to go (in the preseason), we were going through a walkthrough. He ran a play, and we saw him on the ground.”
Fitzgerald had suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament. Joop was the quarterback.
If he won the position by default, he kept it based on his performance.
“It was in him all along,” Hennessey said. “No question, he was in charge in the huddle, even as a sophomore. He was given an opportunity, and he took full control.”
Hennessey is glad that the final decision wasn’t left up to him.
“It was like having a No. 1 and a No. 1A,” he said. “It was that close between the two of them. My mind was spinning with ways to use both players to the best of their abilities. I probably could have used either as a quarterback or a wide receiver. They both would have been on the field at the same time.”
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Now it’s more than two years later, December 2013. The finishing touches have been made for the annual News-Gazette All-Area football team. Two quarterbacks stood out in what was the area’s deepest position of talent.
The first-team representatives are Joop and his former competitor, Fitzgerald, who broke the Centennial High School season passing mark in his second year after transferring.
In retrospect, Joop has an idea how it would have worked out had Fitzgerald not been injured in 2011.
“I figured we’d split it,” he said. “It was right down the middle.”
Though Joop was a virtual quarterback novice when he enrolled at St. Thomas More, the truth is that he wasn’t totally inexperienced, either.
“One thing that greatly helped, every recess at Holy Cross (Grade School), we’d play football,” he said. “That’s all we did.”
And yet ... “coming in as a freshman I never expected everything that has happened,” Joop said.
Others might have predicted the gridiron glory. His father, Matt, is a former Champaign Central football player, and both grandfathers played the sport collegiately: Lester Joop at Illinois and Robert Clasey at Purdue.
Though Player of the Year is a singular award, Joop recognizes it took others for him to land in the spotlight.
“It’s nice to have those receivers who are ballhawks,” he said. “You throw it, and they go catch it.”
Hennessey added, “It’s about the cast he has with him, the other 10 guys out there on those plays.”
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There was no reluctance on Hennessey’s part originally to trust the critical position to someone with a limited background. He saw traits that provided him confidence and comfort.
“I saw the drive he had,” Hennessey said. “The competitiveness. He didn’t like to lose. Period.
“To say he’d do the things he did, no, I didn’t predict that, but he became a student of the game. This year, it was like he knew what I was thinking, where to go with the ball. He sees the field and could read defenses well.”
It helped that Joop wasn’t a one-dimensional quarterback. He had two ways to attack a defense.
“When I can’t throw, I can run; and when I don’t need to run, I can throw it,” Joop said. “You don’t want any losses. You just want to make a play.”
He wasn’t on his own to call every play, but Joop’s input was taken into consideration.
“If I saw something, I’d run over (between plays) and say this is open,” Joop sad. “He’d either say, ‘Go with it,’ or ‘We’ll come back to it after this play. I liked how he had trust in me and gave me a lot of freedom. This year, I knew Coach had faith in me.”
Not to say that every decision would have been Hennessey’s first choice.
“His big attribute was getting out of the pocket and evading rushers and, yes, sometimes he bails early, but he’s the one with the ball in his hands, and if he sees an open field he’s gone,” Hennessey said. “When you have a kid who’s that versatile, you have to give him leeway.”
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The season has been over for weeks. St. Thomas More was a playoff entry for the seventh straight year. Hennessey was reminiscing about Joop.
The numbers on offense speak for themselves. He was also a quality punter, but there was something else.
“He was probably just as good on defense,” Hennessey said. “It scares me to death, him out there tackling like he does. He gives up his body. He’s an all-around player, and if he played defense more his tackling numbers would have been way up.”
You can’t blame Joop for not being on the field more when the Sabers were on defense. It was a time Hennessey could confer with his quarterback about upcoming strategy. “It’s hard to get something set up if your quarterback is on defense,” he said.
If Hennessey was speaking, Joop was listening. However, if they weren’t in a conversation, anything was likely.
“He’d sub himself in sometimes,” Hennessey said. “It would drive Coach (Chad) Slack (defensive coordinator) nuts. He’d look at me and ask if I put him in.”
Joop wasn’t quickly removed.
“We left him in and talked to him later,” Hennessey said. “It’s a roll of the dice. When you look at each game, knowing you have to win to get in (the playoffs), you’ll play your best.”
There was no argument from Slack.
“He loved it,” Hennessey said. “He wanted him on defense.”
Joop said substituting himself into the game wasn’t a frequent pattern.
“It only happened a few times,” he said. “Part of it was incidental. You want to be out there as much as possible to help the team win.”
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If Joop had not elected to join “pretty much my whole grade from Holy Cross,” in attending St. Thomas More, he would have been enrolled at Centennial. It’s the school where his sophomore brother Mason plays baseball.
Storm Joop didn’t summarily dismiss becoming a Charger.
“It was kind of a tough decision, but my mom (Jan) works at St. Thomas More as a special education teacher and that had an impact,” he said.
Hennessey received inquiries from football coaches wondering about Joop’s intentions for the next level.
“My answer is he definitely could have played, but he is devoted to baseball,” Hennessey said.
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No Storm Joop story could be considered complete without the scoop on his first name. Was he born during a major weather event? Is it a nickname? Inquiring minds want to know.
The fact is, there were no underlying reasons for his given name.
“Mom and Dad found it in a baby book and went with it,” Storm Alan Joop said, “and I love it.”