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A trip to Tuscola: One small town’s passion and planning brought high school basketball back to Illinois sooner than expected

Tuscola hosted a high school basketball game on Friday. That’s a simple sentence, and it used to be a common occurrence. But to fans all over the state, it seemed incredibly unlikely just a week ago.

Tuscola’s Jalen Quinn plays against Arthur-Lovingon-Atwood-Hammond on Friday.
Tuscola’s Jalen Quinn plays against Arthur-Lovingon-Atwood-Hammond on Friday.
Daniel L. Chamness/For the Sun-Times

TUSCOLA, Ill. — This was my first trip to Tuscola. It’s a city of 4,000 just a short drive south of Champaign, and it now has a permanent spot in the part of my brain reserved for high school basketball memories.

Tuscola hosted a high school basketball game Friday. That’s a simple sentence, and it used to be a common occurrence. But to fans all over the state, it seemed incredibly unlikely just a week ago.

Illinois went 323 days without high school basketball. More than 19,000 residents have died from COVID-19 since the last game. Shockingly and suddenly, high school basketball is back. And Tuscola was ready to play almost immediately.

Ryan Hornaday, the athletic director at Tuscola High School, is the kind of guy who asks to shake your hand during a global pandemic. That boldness wasn’t surprising, considering what Hornaday had pulled off. Only two schools, Tuscola and Flanagan, were ready to play this quickly.

“It’s all about [Hornaday],” Kevin Quinn, the grandfather of Tuscola star junior Jalen Quinn, told me at halftime. “He was ready to go whenever [the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois High School Association] pulled the string on this. He’s amazing. It is awesome.”

Hornaday said Tuscola was actually ready to play Thursday but couldn’t find another team with the required seven practices. Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond (ALAH) was ready to go on Friday, though.

Tuscola had bottles of hand sanitizer, sponsored by a local bank, at the entrance, right next to the rosters. I used some after shaking Hornaday’s hand.

All the players and coaches wore masks during the game. The officials did not. The few spectators were spaced out in the bleachers in the gym’s balcony. No one sat within 20 feet of me.

There is a 50-spectator limit under the new guidelines. The first game was a hot ticket, so I was lucky to be invited. There aren’t normal entry procedures these days. Katie Wienke, the school social worker, saw me waiting outside and let me into the school.

High school sports are important in Chicago. But visits outside of the metro area drive home how crucial they are in smaller towns.

Shane Pangburn, a Tuscola grad who lives in Los Angeles, summed up his hometown in a tweet during the game: “No surprise that my high school would be the first in Illinois to restart basketball. It’s a good school with excellent admin and planning combined with a sports zealotry that haunts and shapes me to this day, twenty years out.”

The local newspaper’s photographer, Dan Chamness, offered to take pictures for the Chicago Sun-Times when he heard I was coming. Steve Fiscus, the Tuscola principal, came by in the fourth quarter to plan a postgame news conference. Tuscola is proud of what it accomplished.

“We are very blessed to be in this community,” Jalen Quinn said. “They did a really good job of giving us an opportunity to play.”

Quinn scored 18 points to lead the Warriors to a 58-43 victory. Senior Grant Hardwick added 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Hardwick’s dad, Rob, said his son “kept level-headed and didn’t get too up or down” during the long period away from high school sports. Hardwick’s favorite sport is football, but he plays basketball because all of his friends do.

“I’m afraid things may slide backward, and they may say this is too much, too soon, and we have to pinch her back down,” Rob Hardwick said. “If that happens, it may impact football season.”

I asked Hardwick if he was worried about his son playing high school sports. He paused for a second before answering; it was clearly something he’d considered.

“I’m not worried,” Hardwick said. “[Grant] has a good head on his shoulders. He doesn’t want to get sick, either.”

The game was sloppy, as high school games usually are early in the season. That felt like a return to normal.

ALAH sophomore Kaden Feagin dunked in the third quarter. Normally, the crowd would have erupted. I’m guessing that Knights fans watching on the live stream at home did.

There wasn’t an audible reaction in the gym, but it sent a shock through me. Everything up until that point was awkward, odd and socially distanced. Feagin’s dunk was the first bright reminder that high school basketball, something so many of us love dearly, was back.

“We take a lot of pride in the fact that we were able to do this safely and successfully,” Tuscola coach Justin Bozarth said. “That is a testament to our administration for having a plan in place and the confidence in all of us. The amount of behind-the-scenes work that went into this to make tonight happen is just tremendous.”

Tuscola’s Grant Hardwick heads to the basket against ALAH on Friday.
Tuscola’s Grant Hardwick heads to the basket against ALAH on Friday.
Daniel L. Chamness/For the Sun-Times

Did they pull it off safely? It’s too soon to know. That same experiment is about to be attempted in cities all over the state.

There will be programs shut down after positive COVID-19 tests. That’s inevitable. Is it smart to be gathering inside for sports right now? The jury is still out on that.

It’s a cliche that you don’t know how much you value something until it’s gone. This past year, that happened to high school sports fans in Illinois. There was no state basketball tournament. There wasn’t a football season this fall.

Pro and college sports figured out ways to start up fairly quickly after COVID-19 hit. It has been a long political and emotional process to get high school sports back. I don’t know if it’s smart to be playing; that’s not my area of expertise. But I know how much the return of high school sports means to communities, from the West Side to Tuscola. And so does Jalen Quinn, who never considered moving across the border to play in a neighboring state back in November.

“I never thought about it one time,” Quinn said. “I grew up here, and I love this community.”