Daily Herald
Dawn of a new era at South Elgin
By John Radtke | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 9/16/2011 12:45 AM

Don't be surprised early Saturday afternoon if you see an Elgin Area School District U-46 school bus driving around the South Elgin parking lot with the Storm's football team aboard.

Some habits are hard to break. And since Day One of South Elgin football, coach Dale Schabert has had to put his team on a bus to go to a game any game. The Storm's "home" facility has been at Millennium Field at Streamwood High School.

Heck, in 33 years of coaching football in U-46 Schabert has only had two seasons in which he didn't have to board a bus for his home games the two years he coached at Elgin High. All the years he was at Larkin his team had to jump on a bus to go across town for home games.

But at South Elgin all that changes Saturday when the Storm host the school's first on-campus football game at South Elgin High School Stadium, a work still in progress but one that has come far enough to now host events. The first of those was Thursday night when the Storm hosted Hoffman Estates in boys soccer. South Elgin won 2-0.

"The fact that this has become reality is just phenomenal," beamed South Elgin Principal Melanie Meidel earlier this week as Associate Principal/Athletic Director Jim Szymczak, Ben Erickson and others tested the sound and video system on the state-of-the-art scoreboard.

Phenomenal may be an understatement here. The most amazing and positive thing about South Elgin having a new stadium is that the project is being funded 100 percent with private donations. That's right not one cent of taxpayer money has gone into what fans will see on Saturday. And while the district will pay a little more than $60,000 to maintain the field and stadium complex, saved transportation costs and a potential increase in gate revenue will cut into that figure, making it a paltry sum compared to the cost of the facility itself.

A large portion of the $550,000 spent on the first phase of the complex came from the Wisdom Foundation and the Hoffer Foundation, charitable organizations in Elgin and South Elgin respectively that have doled out millions of dollars over the years toward the betterment of youth and education.

It's a project that first hit the drawing board when South Elgin opened in 2005, one that started with the Booster Club and now retired Principal Dr. Jean Bowen, and was continued by Meidel when she took over for Bowen. But it's one that no one person has been responsible for. We teach our young athletes the value of a total team effort and that is as true in the South Elgin Stadium effort as in any athletic contest a kid will ever play in.

First and foremost, Meidel cites the South Elgin Booster Club. Under its first president, Joe Cluchey, the club jumped on the idea of trying to raise private funds to build an on-campus facility that would not only host athletic events but community events as well. Ed Stade and Karen Weedman followed Cluchey as Booster Club presidents as the progress pushed forward and current president Mike Bersani couldn't be happier to see it all come to fruition this week.

"I've had kids at the school since it opened in 2005 and this is by far, I feel, the most exciting day in school history," said Bersani Thursday afternoon prior to the soccer game. "It's been a great effort by the Booster Club, the business community, the school district, the principal, the AD - everyone. It's a unique project and it's an exciting time."

Barsani was quick to point out the importance of the donations from the Wisdom Foundation and the Hoffer Foundation, and lauded the contributions of Provena St. Joseph Hospital, Sherman Hospital and Sebert Landscaping among others.

"It's been a joint effort," he said. "It's also a testament to what a bunchy of crazy parents with crazy ideas can accomplish."

The facility is far from complete the estimated cost of the finished project a year ago stood at $3.2 million. What everyone at South Elgin hopes is still to come includes a press box, lights, permanent seating on the visitor's side, a new turf field, a permanent concession stand and a brick walkway.

The permanent bleachers on the home side of the stadium will hold 1,500 fans and the new scoreboard is worth the trip in itself. Adorned with a huge U-46 on the sound box, it also has a large video screen. The Booster Club took out a $115,000 loan for the scoreboard and then went out and got close to half it paid for by securing five-year agreements for annual $5,000 donations from Coca-Cola and the Bear Family Restaurants, which operates nine McDonald's in the area.

"I don't know if it will ever get finished because there will always be something we want," laughed Szymczak, now in his third year as South Elgin's AD. "The remainder of the project will be phased in based on the amount of donations we get. My hope is people get here and see what a positive atmosphere this will create for the South Elgin community, and that some of them will have big checkbooks and help us out."

That could all take some time and there may be some sitting on Kenyon Bros. hay bales in the end zones for a while, but the push forward for completion will continue.

"We visited Vernon Hills," Meidel said. "It took 10 years to complete their facility and that was with district funds and a referendum."

South Elgin administrators stress the stadium, as Meidel said, "is an events stadium." The American Cancer Society's Relay For Life will use the facility as well as Special Olympics and myriad South Elgin High School classes and teams.

"It really means a lot to South Elgin, to U-46, and to the community to have a project like this get accomplished," Szymczak said. "There was no referendum and no use of public money. It's happened because a group of community leaders believed we could get it done. It's really exciting. Everyone has a vision but not until you actually see it can you really appreciate it.

"Ever since the beginning of the school year people would come out and look at it or drive by and stop to look. I would imagine and hope we'd have everyone in town out here Saturday."

From the football side of things, Schabert couldn't be happier to see his team finally have a true place to call home.

"It's great for the kids," said Schabert, whose team (1-2, 1-0) will take on Metea Valley (3-0, 1-0) Saturday in a big Upstate Eight Valley contest.

"To know what this was at one time and to see the growth is phenomenal. It's exciting."

Ah, what it once was. Well, the land South Elgin High School sits on what was once part of the Kenyon Bros. dairy farm, a place I did my share of cow chasing as a kid. Where the stadium itself sits was once nothing but a cow pasture, and that's no joke. Still today, fans can look to the immediate east and see cows grazing the Kenyon farm an occasional one getting out and taking a stroll past the school on Kenyon Road bringing a little country to the city while events are being held.

"There's quite an array of sites out here, that's for sure," said Schabert, a lifelong resident of the area and a Larkin graduate. "And we're just really excited for the kids to have a home."

The kids are excited too, especially guys like Zach Gross and Jon Slania, whose brothers played on the first South Elgin football teams, teams that practiced on parking lots in the infancy of the program.

"We've seen how much it's grown," said Slania. "Our freshman year was the first year there was a track out here and now this. It's going to be an electric atmosphere (Saturday). There will be a lot of town people here."

"It's going to be amazing," said Gross, the Storm's quarterback. "All the town people will be out here supporting us and seeing how we've grown as a community. It's going to be awesome."

Just make sure that bus driver knows to stop at the stadium entrance. The South Elgin High School Stadium entrance, that is.

jradtke@dailyherald.com