Walk into a high school football stadium in Central Illinois on Friday nights in the fall. One of the first things to hit you is the smell of pork chop sandwiches. You can't miss it.
This fall, we are left with lemonades.
"My wife always says, 'Let's make lemonade.' Lemonade is her saying," said Fieldcrest first-year head coach Mike Freeman of his wife, Melinda. "This off-season, in the fall in football, we're making lemonade."
Football players, coaches, parents and fans are all trying to make lemonade while coping without Friday Night Lights this fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Illinois High School Association announced in late July that football, along with volleyball and boys soccer, would be postponed until the spring.
Golf, cross country, girls tennis and girls swimming were allowed to have their seasons this fall with safety guidelines in place. However, there will be no state championships for them. The IHSA said the state tournament series will end at regionals, mainly because travel restrictions for schools are limited to specific COVID-19 regions as defined by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Fieldcrest is coming off a 12-1 football season that ended in the semifinals of the Class 2A State playoffs in 2019. The Knights return several key players from that squad, including many who later helped the basketball team advance to the Class 2A Elite Eight in that sport.
Instead of heading to Dwight for the season opener last Friday, the Knights gathered on their field at Veterans Park in Minonk wearing their jerseys.
"We took a picture under the lights to say we're still here and still thinking about football," said Freeman.
Tim Moore is starting his 14th year as Bloomington High School's principal and 24th overall at the school. This is his first year beginning the school year not only without students roaming the halls (as BHS has gone to remote learning) but also without football.
"It's definitely a different feeling," said Moore. "I've always said, at least since I've been at Bloomington High School, that if our football team has a good year then our school year gets off to a good year just because of the excitement that comes around football on Friday nights."
Football is a bond that unites towns big and small, bringing in the old and young. Some come to watch the games. Others to hear the marching band. After two weeks now of not having the games, many realize how much they truly miss it and always assumed it would be there.
Some of the top players in the Pantagraph area knew from the curtailed summer workouts that this season could be different.
They seem to have come to gripes with having spring football.
"At first a lot of people were upset," said Normal West standout Corey Walker, who has committed to Western Michigan. "Our summer was really restricted, so you can't say we didn't see it coming. We've looked at it and have made the best of it."
Walker and his teammates have been getting up early, arriving at the school at 6 a.m. a couple mornings a week to go through conditioning workouts while wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
"It's a fun thing for them to be around each other and having something to do, having a purpose which is why I'm grateful they at least told us we could have a spring season so they have something to work towards and focus on," said West coach Nathan Fincham. "With all things considered, they've been pretty positive about it."
'You've got to stay positive'
Fieldcrest doesn't have a large enough weight room to be able to handle more than a couple players in there at a time. To get through the whole team would be a day-long activity, said Freeman.
Jaxon Cusac-McKay, who was the Pantagraph Athlete of the Year as a junior, said the Knights have stuck together despite there being no football until practices can start on Feb. 15 with the first game on March 5.
"You've got to stay positive and we're glad to know hopefully we're going to have a season this spring," said Cusac-McKay. "We've got to try to stay as positive as we can and stay in a football kind of mind."
Fieldcrest has in-person classes for half-a-day five days per week. That has helped get the players through not having football practices and games to look forward to, according to senior quarterback Cory Land.
"I like seeing the guys in school, talking with them and having a good time in school," he said.
Some Fieldcrest fans began clanging cow bells during its game against two-time defending Class 2A state champion Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley last season. The Knights stopped GCMS' 31-game winning streak with a 14-6 victory and the cow bells became a weekly occurrence, increasing in decibels.
Land expects the fans' enthusiasm to pick right up where it left last season in March.
"I think we'll be even more excited now that it has been pushed back and we'll be ready to play," he said.
Penny Land was like mothers all over Illinois on Aug. 28. She said it was "definitely sad'' to see Cory wear his football jersey to school that day, but the season opener was still six months away.
"It was an extra reminder what should be happening isn't happening," she said.
The big signs put up around Minonk by a group of women also are missing, said Penny Land, along with the football posters with players' names on them.
In other words, things that unite communities such as those in the Fieldcrest district.
"We've been through all the emotions," said Penny Land. "We've cried, begged and thought what if. There was talk of kids leaving Fieldcrest to play somewhere else (out of state). Obviously that did not happen."
Freeman isn't worried about spring football feeling different than fall football. He said the stadium will be "rocking" even if there is snow on the ground for the first game.
"It feels like we're on hold," he said. "A reason for a lot of our success last year, and why we're projected to do so well this year, is we have fierce competitors who are really good friends. This time (away from football) is going to give them time to grow together and bond and hopefully fuel that fire when we can get to play."
Looking to other states
GCMS' football team also got together on Aug. 28 when its season opener against PBL was to be played. The Falcons had some snacks and drinks on the football field with the cheerleaders and named the captains at 6:45 p.m.
Then, at 7, they listened to a WGCY-FM broadcast of a Falcons game from the past. The Gibson City radio station plans to do that every Friday night during the season.
"It gives people something to do on Friday," said veteran GCMS coach Mike Allen.
Like many adults, Allen freely admits he's having trouble with the football season getting a delay-of-season penalty.
"One of my sons was leaving for college and said he wanted to talk. I said sure," said Allen. "He said Mom is really concerned about you. She's never seen you this down. I said look what's been taken away? I'm a routine-type person for 24 years. I've done the same routine in the fall."
Allen said one of the toughest things to understand is all the states bordering Illinois have high school football going on this fall. That came, said Allen, after GCMS followed all the rules put out in the summer but in the end didn't matter.
"We said from the beginning we're going to control what we can control. Our GCMS kids could play football today," he said. "There's no (positive) cases and nothing going on. We're not a hot spot, but we're going to stay positive and not whine and cry about it. We're going to make the most of it. They've been in good spirits but it's tough on them, especially the seniors."
Fincham agrees seeing Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri being able to hold games Friday night is difficult to explain to the West players.
"The toughest part is trying to rationalize it for the athletes and players and be like, why is this happening here and not here, here and here," he said. "I think that's frustrating for them. Something we preach is consistency and not having consistency is tough to explain."
Yet Fincham believes there is a positive.
"I've gotten to spend a lot more time with my kids and my family. That makes a difference, too," he said. "I've never gotten to spend a fall with them outside of a few hours here and there. It's a unique experience from that point of view. But my wife said she would rather deal with football right now than e-learning (for their kids)."
When Kevin Braucht woke up on Aug. 28, he knew immediately what to do.
"I sent a text out to our coaches and captains," said Central Catholic's second-year football coach. "I'm trying to thank them for being positive and having a willingness to adapt to all these weird things we've had to deal with."
Braucht said he's been "amazed" at the resiliency his players have shown through the mental ups and downs of not knowing if there would be a season.
When coaches are allowed to utilize 20 contact days beginning on September 7 through October 31 (following IDPH Phase 4 Guidelines), the Saints will be back on the field and hoping beyond hope there is real practices beginning in February.
"For us it's keeping our message consistent and making sure parents understand what's going on because there's really no blueprint for this for anybody," said Braucht.
Tim Moore laughed and said one of the things he won't miss on Friday nights is supervising the large crowds that typically come out to BHS games at Fred Carlton Field.
Yet he would gladly trade that for the other things that are gone for the time being.
"We have our drum line play in our student center right when the kids are getting out of school. I miss that," said Moore. "I miss seeing our drum line lead the football team across street into our stadium. Those are the things and the traditions we have here ... it's definitely going to be difficult not having football this fall."
Volleyball and boys soccer also are feeling the pain of not participating until February. However, there are other avenues for many of those players on club teams.
University High volleyball star Maycie Welborn, who has committed to Morehead State, is playing for Uno Volleyball Club in Joliet along with her Pioneer teammate, Eastern Michigan-bound Kendall Burk. They drive to Joliet twice a week.
"We're meeting a lot of new people and getting along with new girls. It's fun," said Welborn. "I can't imagine not being able to play my sport. I would be off the walls trying to look for something to do."
Yet Welborn misses the daily interactions at this time of the year not only with her U High teammates, but also her classmates as the school also is in remote learning.
"So many of my friends play volleyball it's hard not to be in that atmosphere all the time, especially when it's something you're used to every year at this point," she said. "It takes some getting used to being by yourself and not in the gym with your classmates."
U High finished fourth in last year's Class 3A State Volleyball Tournament. Pioneer coach Mike Bolhuis said he heard no complaints this summer when workouts resumed despite the gymnasium having no air conditioning and masks being worn.
"As soon as the announcement was made from fall to spring, a lot of us were like it's better than nothing. It could have been canceled altogether like our spring sports were last year," he said. "There was was a little sense of relief that we still have the potential to play. Who knows what it's actually going to look like."
'We'll be fine'
Normal Community's Matt Chapman, who coaches the boys and girls soccer teams, said his boys squad was grateful when there was still a chance to have a season, even in March. Girls soccer has been pushed back to May in the IHSA's new modified schedule.
Dealing with the safety restrictions that club soccer teams are not facing will be a challenge when the Ironmen can have access again in September.
"Most of our soccer players, male and female, are having club opportunities take place right now, which is terrific. I'm happy they're able to do that," said Chapman. "Clubs aren't competing against each other, but will have full scrimmages within their own team without the limit of contact where we maintain social distancing.
"I think we will use our contact days. I'm struggling to figure out how to do it effectively when kids have other opportunities where they can more fully engage in the sport. Primarily our goal with our contact days is just opportunities to be together, to be honest."
While the sports being allowed this fall are grateful for the chance to have some kind of season, the typical ending at the state finals is gone.
Steve Barger has two sons playing golf for BHS. Senior TJ Barger won the Class 2A individual state title two years ago before finishing fourth last year. Jacob Barger is a junior.
"TJ has won one. I feel bad for him not having a chance to win another one," said Steve Barger. "But I feel for people like Matthew Barker (of Tri-Valley) or Macomb that has a really good team and a good following."
The Prep Tour has stepped in and invited some of the state's best golfers for a two-day event on Oct. 17 and 18, normally the state tournament weekend, at The Den at Fox Creek and Ironwood golf courses in Bloomington-Normal. But there will be no team competition.
"I was hoping someone (at the IHSA) would be able to have some leadership and make a decision that somehow makes something work because these kids have worked so hard all year to play for a state championship, not only in golf but tennis, cross country and swimming," said Steve Barger.
There is no promise for state playoffs in football, either, come the spring.
Still, they just hope for the chance to get on the field again.
"Through all this we've stayed together and gotten through it," said Corey Walker, wearing his mask during the morning workout at Normal West.
"We'll be fine."
Photos: Fieldcrest football's season ends in Class 2A semifinal
End of the season
Contact Jim Benson at (309) 820-3404. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_benson
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