CHAMPAIGN — Jayne DeLuce knows the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made visiting Champaign County a challenge for those outside it.
No one knows for sure just how long the pandemic will last. But DeLuce already is looking forward to March 2021, when the next IHSA boys’ basketball state tournament should potentially bring plenty of non-local faces into the area.
“This is a bright light — it is very bright,” DeLuce said Wednesday, smiling up at the beaming sunshine encompassing herself and others during a press event outside State Farm Center. “It is a very bright light for the community when our hospitality industry has been decimated by COVID-19 — to be able to give ... just people who live here something to get excited about.”
Monday’s announcement that the IHSA Board of Directors voted to return boys’ state basketball to Champaign after 25 years in Peoria immediately had folks like DeLuce pondering what the local revival could generate beyond exciting basketball action on Lou Henson Court.
Some of those thoughts were shared Wednesday. Considering the actual sport of basketball wasn’t the only topic up for conversation, perhaps it was fitting this event had to be conducted outside State Farm Center because of the pandemic.
“Champaign-Urbana believes in itself, but it’s always nice to see the recognition of others who believe in our community,” said Laura Weisskopf Bleill, chair of the Visit Champaign County Board of Directors. “This is about the entire University of Illinois, being able to shine a bright light on it. ... Being able to showcase the university and all it has to offer to all the students across the state of Illinois.”
DeLuce said her staff has spoken with representatives from surrounding communities — such as Savoy, Rantoul, Tuscola and St. Joseph, which all pledged varying financial donations to Champaign’s tournament bid — about getting them involved with the three-day IHSA hoops event moving forward.
“Also (we’ve talked) with the park districts about the idea of how we can engage some basketball programs that are in this area,” DeLuce said. “We’ve talked with various community organizations that want to be involved, from United Way (to others).”
Kevin Ullestad, State Farm Center’s director, has spent most of his time over the past few months canceling and rearranging events at the building because of the pandemic.
He said those in charge of this November’s IHSA state football games, slated to be held at nearby Memorial Stadium, have “a big advantage” in trying to prepare for safely-conducted activities, given the outdoor venue.
Even so, Ullestad said he and his group will adjust as necessary with a focus on two main goals.
“We’re in the business of making memories, and you can bet some key memories will be made here as the tournament comes back to town,” Ullestad said. “Obviously, safety is our biggest concern when we do all of this.”
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman understands the memory aspect associated with any high school state series.
Whitman’s first college athletic director job was at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, which to this day hosts Wisconsin’s boys’ and girls’ high school state track and field events.
“Our track program was one of the best in America, and we credited a lot of that to the fact that we had the high school championships come to our venue,” Whitman said, “and I think the same is true here (with the IHSA boys’ basketball tournament coming to Champaign). I think when you have your high schoolers growing up and dreaming of coming to that building and being part of that experience, that can’t help but elevate your university, elevate your community.”