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High school basketball state finals returning to Champaign

The Illinois High School Association is moving its marquee event back to Champaign after 25 years in Peoria.

The State Farm Center at the University of Illinois.
The State Farm Center at the University of Illinois.
Provided by State Farm Center.

The boys state basketball finals are the Illinois High School Association’s marquee event. The tournament is the major revenue generator and sets the tone for how the entire state views the health and vibrancy of high school sports.

That crown jewel was neglected for a decade. Attendance figures dwindled and eventually were no longer released. Peoria’s downtown seemed to crumble along with fan interest.

There was a backlash from fans and media when Peoria won a bid to continue hosting the tournament five years ago. It was jarring for Chicago-area fans to go from sold-out sectionals and supersectionals to an empty, lifeless season finale at Carver Arena. But year after year, the IHSA did nothing.

That has suddenly changed in a whirlwind. Earlier this year, the IHSA announced that it would move all four classes to a one-weekend, three-day event the weekend before the NCAA Tournament.

And then the major change came Monday. The IHSA board voted to move the tournament from Peoria to Champaign-Urbana’s newly renovated State Farm Center.

“We see this as the passing of the torch from Peoria to Champaign-Urbana,” IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said. “It is bittersweet because there is incredible passion for high school basketball within these two communities.”

Champaign hosted the finals for 77 years before the move to Peoria in 1996. The first 15 years of Peoria’s run were a tremendous success. But it is long past time to leave.

In a recent Chicago Sun-Times Twitter poll, 82% of 4,066 voters backed the move to Champaign. Sixty-one of 90 coaches surveyed agreed it was time to leave Peoria.

“Peoria was definitely good to us, but it will be good to go to Champaign,” Simeon coach Robert Smith said. “It’s a great facility. The attendance will go up just because people want to see something new. The economy kind of hit Peoria. With all the stuff to do in Champaign, that will give it a boost. As a coach, if I don’t happen to make it down there, I would go just to see the new atmosphere.”

Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose led the Patriots to several state appearances in Peoria and a championship in 2015.

“I’ll miss Peoria,” Ambrose said. “I have a lot of great memories there. My two boys loved the March Madness experience they put on. But it was time for a change. It got a little stale. It’s exciting, and the new State Farm Center will pump some energy into the whole thing.”

The breakup with Champaign 25 years ago was tumultuous. Fans accused the town’s hotels of price gouging. Champaign County executive Jayne DeLuce acknowledged that and said things will be different this time. Anderson said several hotels have agreed to lock in prices for the duration of the bid’s three years.

“There was complacency,” DeLuce said. “We never thought the tournament would leave. The people are different from that time, and the community is different.”

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman and basketball coach Brad Underwood were major supporters of the bid. It should provide a valuable recruiting boost with in-state prospects.

“I’m excited for the great memories young people will have,” Underwood said. “It can be such a big trip to come to our campus. So much has changed since the last time it was here. I couldn’t be more elated for our program and our community.”

Peoria residents point to the IHSA’s decision to expand from two to four classes in 2008 as the major factor in the attendance drop. That played a factor and was an acceptable excuse for a decade. But four-class basketball hasn’t stopped fans from showing up in droves to sectional and supersectional games.

Peoria and Champaign were the only communities that bid on the boys tournament. Five years ago, the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates made a bid, but it sat this one out.

“It was a very difficult decision for our board,” Anderson said. “The bids we received were awesome. We feel very fortunate to be wanted. There is no sense of Peoria having done anything wrong. They took our tournament to a high level.’’

Expect a bump in attendance and excitement for the first few years in Champaign. Chicago fans will be watching with interest.

“Let’s see how this goes,” Young basketball coach Tyrone Slaughter said. “If this is successful, we can support it. If Champaign does not work, maybe the next step is to bring it to the most populated city in the state where basketball is king.’’