By definition, a pioneer is “a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area.”
University High School’s athletic teams were not forming a nation or staking out a territory over the past year. Yet, rarely in the school’s lengthy history have athletes and coaches been more in line with their Pioneer mascot.
U High’s first year in the Central State Eight Conference began amid scoffs and skepticism. There was a groundswell of opinion that jumping from the long-established Corn Belt Conference to the Central State Eight was too big of a leap — in football certainly, but also in general.
Had the pessimists adopted a slogan, it would have been, “This will be ugly.”
U High’s first year in the league ended with it placing second in the Central State Eight’s all-sports standings. Only Chatham Glenwood finished ahead of the Pioneers and by a slim margin, 157.8 to 155.8.
Points were awarded based on the order of finish in each of the league’s 19 sports and the Scholastic Bowl.
“Going into it, I don’t know if we knew for sure how we would end up,” U High athletic director Wendy Smith said. “Being second in the Central State Eight is pretty impressive for it being the first year of totally new opponents and facilities and schedules and everything else.
“We’re happy with it, but I think we’re also a little frustrated with it. I think about every coach would say, ‘If we had just won this or just won that,’ we probably had a very legitimate shot at winning the whole thing.”
U High won or shared conference championships in boys cross country, girls cross country, boys golf, girls swimming, baseball, boys tennis and boys track.
Football, pegged by many for 0-9 and last place, finished sixth with a 4-5 record. Had the Pioneers converted a two-point conversion try in overtime in the season finale — against Chatham Glenwood — they would have made the playoffs.
“I felt like football did very well. They did better than a lot of people expected them to do,” Smith said. “It (the all-sports standings) is definitely a motivational thing for us this next year.
“I think we’ll be more settled this year. Our athletes and coaches … they thought they would do OK last year, but now they proved they will do OK to all of the doubters and the naysayers. That pressure is off maybe. They don’t have to worry about proving themselves. They can just go out and compete and hopefully come out on top of the conference.”
Chatham Glenwood and U High distanced themselves from the rest of the league last year. Springfield High was third with 139.5 points and Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin fourth with 124.
U High’s postseason finishes will result in its boys track, boys cross country and boys golf teams moving up to Class 3A this year in the state series under the Illinois High School Association’s success factor. As a non-boundaried school, U High also is subject to the IHSA’s enrollment multiplier.
The Pioneers won’t get sympathy from other area schools, who point to U High’s advantages in drawing from surrounding communities.
Smith said no one at U High seeks sympathy … from outside or within.
“We’re a multiplied school and now we have sports affected by the success factor so they’ve been moved up,” she said. “We’ve just dealt with it and gone out and worked at it more as a challenge than a detriment.
“That’s just kind of the mindset here. I wasn’t surprised to see our teams compete and do as well as they did (in the Central State Eight). That’s just kind of how we roll here.”
One league to the next.