Monticello football 2018 state

The Monticello football team celebrates after winning the 2018 Class 3A state championship at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Thanksgiving weekend this fall is scheduled to mark the return of the football state championships to Champaign, but that remains in limbo amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Sprinting back and forth at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

Watching the Chicago Cubs win a long-awaited National League pennant.

Those are some of the indelible moments for IHSA assistant executive director Matt Troha during his past 12 years working the night of the IHSA football playoff selection show.

A show that was supposed to air on Saturday night. But, of course, didn’t since no Friday night lights have flickered on this fall in Illinois because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Staying up until 2 a.m. tracking high school football scores,” Troha said, “sounds pretty amazing right now.”

In a normal year, 256 high school teams would find out their playoff path on Saturday night. A path that would have ended with eight state championship games at Memorial Stadium. Which is where Troha was 10 years ago when the IHSA did the playoff show on site in Champaign.

“The Illini had their homecoming game ahead of us that day, and several of the high school games were delayed that afternoon due to storms in southern Illinois, so we were just way behind our normal schedule,” Troha said. “I remember being cramped in this little TV van and we are on the air revealing the 2A field, and the guy next to me is still building the bracket graphics for 6A, which was more than a little concerning. Our van was parked in the TV truck lot on Kirby Avenue on the southwest side of the stadium, and the TV set was in the southeast corner of the field. We were having communication problems between the van and set, so there were several commercial breaks where I had to sprint from the van through the maintenance building to the set, and then back before the commercial ended.”

An ardent Cubs’ fan, Troha vividly recalls getting done with the 2016 show at NBC Sports Chicago’s downtown studios and seeing the Cubs clinch their first trip to the World Series in 108 years.

“We stayed until almost midnight watching all the coverage,” Troha said. “Given that the playoff show was up against this historical Cubs game, we didn’t know if anyone would watch that night. The NBC Sports Chicago folks were shocked when they got viewership numbers, as they told us the playoff show still did a really good ratings number, which was cool to hear.”

What’s really cool for Troha, though? To see high school teams and their fans get amped up for the selection show.

“We were always looking for ways to include the team parties in the show,” Troha said. “Ten years ago, when I would send out the e-mail asking which teams would be gathering to watching the show, I felt like I’d get maybe 30-40 affirmative responses. In the past few years, it feels like it’s closer to 100.”

A former Joliet Catholic football player who was part of JCA’s 1999 Class 4A state championship team, Troha understands the powerful appeal of high school football.

“I know how special of a time high school was in my life,” Troha said. “This is the time of year when, as a staff, we are usually incredibly busy, and I miss that grind, but our hearts really go out to the students.”

Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at mdaniels@news-gazette.com.

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