By Tony Hooker
For high school competitors, 2020 was basically the year that wasn’t. After the onset of the pandemic, only golf and cross-country seasons were allowed. Promising seasons in boys and girl’s basketball ended prematurely, and softball, baseball and track and field never got underway. The VGHS scholastic bowl team, fresh off a national title in New Orleans, was most definitely going to make some noise at the state level, only to have the season canceled.
Now comes 2021, and with the new year, a new vaccine brings fresh hope. Of course, with that hope comes a logistical nightmare as competition that would normally span the entirety of the academic year are now being condensed into one semester. I thought it would be a good time to catch up with VG athletic director Noreen Acton, who graciously took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions.
When was the last time you attended an indoor Villa Grove sporting event?
<laughs> It was when we were hosting a junior high volleyball regional. It was Tuesday night. In fact, I still have the March 2020 calendar to remind me of that time. It helps to motivate me a little bit! It’s been insane and I can’t believe we’ve all gone through it, but here we are now. We were about to host the junior high volleyball regional championship at Villa Grove, and Villa Grove was going to be playing in it. That was in March.
What would normally be spread out over nine months is now going to be condensed into three?
January 28 was our first game, and it will run through June 19. February 8 is the IHSA board meeting to determine the state series in Baseball, Softball and Track, and if it were to occur, the state series would be between June 2 and June 19.
Let’s do a rundown of each sport. We should start with basketball because it’s first. Do you have schedules in place? Tomorrow is girls’ basketball to start things? How many games are scheduled?
Right now, there are 12 games scheduled for girls’ basketball. There will be no post season.
There will be no state series for basketball, and they’re meeting to determine whether there will be in baseball, softball and track?
That’s correct. They’ll meet to decide about those three sports on February 8. Competitive Dance will have a virtual state series in both IHSA and IDTA, coming in March.
The Devilettes will have to compete on their home floor in front of judges?
They will videotape themselves and send it in by a certain date. They will compete virtually at IHSA sectional in order to compete at state. They will also be competing in IDTA.
How are the teams looking?
I walked in the gym on one the first days of practice and the junior high girls were there. First year coach Maddison Smith Perkinson has been working with the 11 girls on the team via zoom and you could tell when I walked in that they had been working on it. I think they’ll do just as well as they always do.
The high school roster is up a bit now?
Yes, Coach Bouton has 11 girls on her roster this season.
The girls’ basketball team has pretty high aspirations as well. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Sure. Kyleigh (Block) and Madi (Burwell) our seniors who have been with the program for four years, are excited to get out there. I think Dan’s (Coach Dan Sappenfield) goal is to enjoy each other and have a little fun. Of course, we know that Dan’s competitive, but I think this season, they’re all just glad to be together and able to compete.
It’s too bad they and the boys won’t be able to compete in the state series. I really think this would have been the year that the boys might end the 36-year drought since we last won a regional.
I agree. I thought so too. Just like last year, I truly believe that our Scholastic Bowl team would have brought home a trophy. Our junior high volleyball team had a great path to state. For the eighth-grade squad it would have been a return trip. Our softball team had made it to the super sectional the year before. <sighs> That spring season was a tough one to lose. We had some track kids who were looking to make some noise.
Boys basketball looks to be quite competitive, as we said. What does their season look like?
The season will run from now until March 13, and it will overlap with football for two weeks. Individuals have to get so many practices in place before they can compete in football, and Coach Wilson and Coach White already have a plan in place so that the kids who play both will get their practices in without missing basketball games and practices. Girls’ basketball and volleyball have the same overlap, so Coach Sappenfield and Coach Block are working on the same type of schedule. Coach Block the volleyball coach will have to work with herself, the softball coach, to figure out the volleyball and softball overlap. <laughs>
Will the softball team be able to make their annual Tennessee trip this year?
Not this year, probably. If something changes with the guidelines and it’s safe, we would definitely entertain it.
Do you anticipate things normalizing by the fall season?
That is my hope!
Nothing leads you to lean one way or the other?
No. This (spring season) seems like a very positive step towards normal, so I’m hoping that by fall we might still have to wear the masks but that we can have a normal fall. I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to . We’re doing it right now.
Basketball players have to wear masks on the court?
And football players as well?
At yesterday’s meeting between the athletic director’s association and the IHSA, they were talking to people in the state of Michigan because they did it. With the chin strap and the mouth piece, there’s a lot going on that they have to figure out. I know Coach Wilson’s talking to some people, trying to figure it out, and we’ll get more guidance from the IHSA on that. Indoors, everyone has to wear masks, and outdoors, the only people who don’t have to wear masks are officials when they’re actively engaged in officiating.
I’m happy to be covering football games in March and April, rather than January and February, as I originally heard.
That’s right. There have been so many rumors, it was like a roller coaster out there. Someone would put something out on twitter and everyone would run with it, so I’m glad that we finally have a plan in place. Just tell us what we need to do and we’ll do it.
Kind of off the rails a little bit, but how were you able to reconcile the fact that a half hour away, you could be watching high school football, and now you can be watching basketball unencumbered?
That was a very hard pill to swallow. My daughter plays travel softball, and on our drive down to Tennessee on a Friday night, we passed three or four schools, and it was Friday Night Lights. It’s tough because you think about our kids in Illinois. I’ve discussed it with my coaches. If it were all across the United States, it would have been easy to say, “Alright, I get it,” but instead we had to stop and wonder what’s different about Illinois?
Track and Field is next? What’s that looking like?
We’re happy to have Coach Wilson back, and we’ve added Coach McGarigle and Coach Griffith. They were just getting things started last spring when the season was shut down. We’re just not sending out signups, so I don’t know what the numbers are going to look like. I’m also concerned that the larger invitationals will be cancelled. We have a few dual meets in place within the conference. We’re at a disadvantage in that we don’t have a track, so we have to rely on other teams around us. I’m working through the schedule slowly, looking to see there are some other area schools that have tracks that are willing to put something together, and then hopefully there will be some sort of post season competition.
What is the start and finish for Track and Field?
Spring sports will run from April 12 through June 19, depending on the state series.
Baseball and Softball will also follow the same April-June schedule. Do you have any insight into how those two teams will perform?
In softball, we have a number of girls, led by Madi and Kyleigh, that will be coming back, and the baseball and softball teams lost their entire seasons, so they’re really looking forward to getting back out there.
Is there any hope of ever getting a track?
An all-weather track? That needs to be in our plan. It would be great for the community to be able to use it and to be able to host some smaller meets. I don’t think we can fit a large track out there without totally revamping. I know that was one of the larger issues, we would have to move the entire football field. I know we have some like-minded coaches out there who would like to see our track and field program grow, and we need the facilities to help that process.
I happen to know where there’s a park with a great big, wide open space.
So, you’re saying maybe the school and the city could collaborate?
Sure. Wouldn’t that be great? Is softball going to play at Richman park?
We’re talking about it. With the Covid restrictions, fans have to be so many feet away, and with the new building where it is, it would be pretty tight there, so in order to accommodate more fans, we might have to look at playing at the park. Of course, Coach Block and I will be talking about this in the future.
It would be great to host you at the park, and if we could get an all-weather track built adjacent, for teams to compete and for residents of Villa Grove to use for walking, it would be great.
Do you have anything you like to add?
I’m excited. I’m overwhelmed. I’m happy that the class of 2021 will get to have at least a part of their sports seasons. We’re putting schedules together, hiring officials. That’s one thing I keep putting on teacherease. <laughs> “If anyone wants to become an official….” Our coaches have been working hard since June or July when we were allowed contact days. They take temperatures, they record every student who was at practice and ask them their symptoms. They’ve all worn masks and the coaches have made the athletes clean their space for fifteen minutes before the next group comes in. They’ve handled everything that’s been thrown at them without one word of complaint, and I couldn’t be prouder of my staff. We have a great group of people here.