CHAMPAIGN — The return of high school basketball in Illinois is a boost.
Athletic directors and coaches have spent the last two weeks scrambling to get schedules and rosters in place. Athletes are adjusting to the new rules (hello, masks) and the lack of crowds. But the important fact to remember is games are once again happening.
Even if they’re different than we all would like. And even if no boys’ basketball teams will descend upon Champaign next month for what would have been the first state tournament games at State Farm Center since 1995. Those will have to wait since the IHSA decided to not have a postseason for boys’ basketball in 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meaning the revamped three-day state tournament schedule featuring all four classes won’t tip off at its rightful home until March 10-12, 2022. Fingers crossed.
“We are lucky to have the chance to play an abbreviated season this year,” West Aurora coach Brian Johnson said. “The thought of the state tournament coming back in 2022 is exciting and will be special for every team in the state.”
Johnson has coached the alma mater of Flyin’ Illini standout Kenny Battle since 2015 after replacing Hall of Fame coach Gordie Kerkman. West Aurora, a school of nearly 3,700 students, hasn’t reached the state tournament since it advanced to Peoria in 2006. The tradition-rich program is familiar with Champaign, though, having made it to 10 state tournaments played either at Huff Gym or the Assembly Hall.
“Getting downstate is always going to be an unbelievable experience,” Johnson said. “Making it downstate in 2022, especially with the tournament going back to Champaign, would be something that people will remember for a long time.”
Like people in Pinckneyville probably still talk about the three state championship teams the Panthers have produced in boys’ basketball: 1948, 1994 and 2001.
The small town in southern Illinois — about 30 miles north of Carbondale — loves its boys’ basketball program.
“The one thing that has been a beacon of hope for our players is the chance for them to put on the uniform and represent Pinckneyville,” Panthers coach Bob Waggoner said. “Two weeks ago, when the news came that we would be able to play, our team’s spirit was uplifted. It is hard to put into words how much it means to make it to state. If Pinckneyville was to make it in 2022, there would be a sea of Panther blue inside State Farm Center.”
Belleville West is the defending two-time state champion in 4A, with the Maroons winning it in 2018 and 2019 behind the efforts of two-time News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year E.J. Liddell. Belleville West coach Alex Schobert was an assistant with the Maroons during those two seasons, but he’s now entering his second season as the leader of the program. And he knows just what Champaign means to high school basketball.
“The return of the state tournament back to Champaign is a great thing for the tradition-rich history we associate with high school basketball in the state of Illinois,” Schobert said. “After what has transpired over the past year, everyone in our game realizes how grateful we should be for every opportunity to compete night in and night out to have a chance to represent our communities on that stage in Champaign.”
Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at email@example.com.
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