Whirlwind, exhausting -- looking back at a most unusual high school season

  • Lake Park players cheer as Chris Worcester slides home for a run during the Lancers' 6-5 loss to Plainfield East in the Class 4A state championship game Saturday night at DuPage Medical Group Field in Joliet. The game concluded a high school sports year like none before.

    Lake Park players cheer as Chris Worcester slides home for a run during the Lancers' 6-5 loss to Plainfield East in the Class 4A state championship game Saturday night at DuPage Medical Group Field in Joliet. The game concluded a high school sports year like none before. Geoff Stellfox/Shaw Media

  • After placing second in the shot put, Vernon Hills' Hunter Matuch throws the discus in front of a large crowd at the Class 3A state track and field meet Saturday at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.

    After placing second in the shot put, Vernon Hills' Hunter Matuch throws the discus in front of a large crowd at the Class 3A state track and field meet Saturday at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Hersey's Luis Vazquez hands the baton to teammate Remy Jankusky as Prospect's Asher Warmanen hands the baton to Kevin Stokes in the next lane in the 4x800-meter relay at the Class 3A state meet Saturday.

    Hersey's Luis Vazquez hands the baton to teammate Remy Jankusky as Prospect's Asher Warmanen hands the baton to Kevin Stokes in the next lane in the 4x800-meter relay at the Class 3A state meet Saturday. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Kaneland's Aiden Gatz finished third in the pole vault Saturday at the Class 3A state track and field meet. The Knights were the second smallest school in the field.

    Kaneland's Aiden Gatz finished third in the pole vault Saturday at the Class 3A state track and field meet. The Knights were the second smallest school in the field. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 6/22/2021 6:19 PM

When 13th-seeded Plainfield East recorded the final out Saturday to win the Class 4A state baseball championship over Lake Park, it capped a high school sports season unprecedented in many ways.

The main reason was the pandemic, which threw the sports calendar into chaos: Football in March, wrestling in May and athletes balancing the gratitude to be playing with the disappointment of no postseasons for some.

 

"Challenging and transforming," Dave Carli said.

That's how Geneva's athletic director responded when I asked ADs to describe the school year in a couple words.

"Whirlwind but appreciative," said Schaumburg's Marty Manning.

The school year began with football, girls volleyball and boys soccer all moved from fall to spring. Everyone learned -- or was confused by -- the difference between low-, medium- and high-risk sports, and all kinds of different phases and levels and metrics needed to move from one to another.

That happened while the majority of states played those sports in their traditional fall seasons. It led to a handful of athletes in Illinois moving to new states to play, and to the frustration of many here who couldn't play.

Illinois continued in the fall with golf, tennis, swimming and cross country but without state tournaments, and with new guidelines for all that included social distancing, masks and no fans.

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With COVID metrics getting worse and basketball season approaching in November, high school sports hit another pause. More contradictions arose between the Illinois High School Association wanting to start winter sports and the governor not wanting to, and it seemed there might not be any basketball at all.

That changed in late January. All of a sudden, the sprint was on for a six-week basketball season that led into a six-week football season and the just completed summer season that certainly has been "challenging and transforming," as Carli put it.

"For the last 12 months, but especially the last five months, it has been a constant unknowing and changing athletic landscape," Manning said. "It's been difficult on athletes, coaches and athletic directors. I'm appreciative we have been able to give our athletes, especially our seniors, some sort of athletic season.

"From the IHSA, to the officials, to our workers at events, it was a team effort to give our athletes a chance to participate. For as difficult as this year was, it was great to see everybody work together to give these student-athletes a chance to compete and play sports with their classmates."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Wauconda hosted 50 home events from March 17 to June. Athletic director Mark Ribbens said some changes this year might be here to stay, such as livestreaming and procedures like bus drops and digital ticketing.

Ribbens chose "mentally exhausting" to describe the year; Naperville North's Bob Quinn went with "growth."

Like his colleagues, Quinn made it through a chaotic final five months while phrases like "COVID pauses" and "quarantine breaks" became more of a norm. Football teams playing all six games turned out to be a win while others played three or four. That continued in the spring with teams navigating new guidelines, and ADs scrambling to reschedule games when teams had to cancel.

"There is no doubt this was a difficult year," Quinn said. "I can honestly say this was the hardest I have worked in 35 years in education."

Quinn said by nature that educators are planners and the vast majority of this year revolved around speculation. Similar to Ribbens, Quinn called it an "emotionally exhausting" experience.

And yet, Quinn said the overriding emotion is positive.

"I am unbelievably proud of our Naperville North community," he said. "That includes coaches, families and student-athletes. We were able to salvage competition for every one of our sports. Some got an IHSA state series, and some did not. Nevertheless, they all played. Our coaches adapted, worked hard and functioned outside the normal in an effort to keep students connected and ready for a return.

"Our families were patient, flexible, trusting and pushed us to maximize participation while keeping everyone safe. Our student-athletes stayed positive, demonstrated resilience and were ready when the whistle blew. We all made it and are better for it."

And here's hoping we never see another year like it.

When it's Aug. 27 and we get Friday night football, here's hoping we take a moment to appreciate the bands, cheerleaders, student sections and packed stands -- and the return of high school sports the way we know and love it.

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