Witnessing passion for prep sports in many communities

Published: 12/10/2008 12:02 AM

I was reading some online sportswriting the other day, and I saw Northern Illinois' presence in the Independence Bowl disparaged because there won't be a lot of NFL caliber play on display.

My thought was "it's a college game" - so there better not be any NFL caliber play on display.

Somehow, this is a reason to not watch, not attend or to not care about the game - and I suppose by osmosis, the Huskies.

As a Huskie grad, I disagree, though as a sports writer, I understand why people would disparage a 6-6 team that gets to play in a bowl game. But Huskie bowl games aren't annually anticipated events as they are in some programs. So I will rest happily that they play in the postseason and that their presence doesn't necessarily mean the end of civilization, as we know it.

But taking that point one step further, what then about high school? The caliber of play is less than that on display in college - sometimes by a wide margin. Does it then stand to reason that, because there isn't NCAA-caliber material on display, that the competition can be ignored?

Or in other words, do high school athletics still matter?

Well, you are going to expect me to say "yes." I cover prep sports. If I say "no" I just negated my entire existence.

And the answer is "yes" - but it doesn't seem the slam dunk it once did.

We have so many distractions now. If we go to the early 90s, when today's high schoolers were born, cable television certainly existed, but the number of options has grown. Now with the abundance of cable channels and satellite dish options, there are college and pro games on offer from around the continent every night. There is always a Top 25 team playing, and ESPN markets a wide variety of Rivalry Weeks and other contrivances to make games bigger than they should be.

And that's not even mentioning all the computerized options to keep you away from TV, whether computer games, Facebook, MySpace or old-fashioned e-mailing.

Yet fans still flock to games.

I took my children to see my dad, who still lives in Park Ridge, over the weekend. In so doing, we passed my alma mater, Maine South. And driving down Belle Plaine Ave., we traced the same route as did the school's football team during its victory parade after winning the Class 8A title.

The signs are still standing. So you can still proclaim the Hawks success for a few blocks and for a few weeks, until the signs come down, as they always do eventually.

And I remembered Hawks of the past, and why high school mattered then. Jamie Butcher, who quarterbacked the team long after I graduated, was the son of the minister of the church I belonged to.

Off the top of my head, it is easy to remember a handful of athletes who I saw on a daily basis, or on Sunday or around town growing up.

Jeff Baker, the brightest star of the 1979 boys basketball state champions, was also a church member. So were the Mau brothers, who were track stars and the Kroeschells, two brothers and a sister, all good athletes.

The Kroeschell family lived about two blocks over. Tom Kroeschell, now the Associate Athletic Director of Athletics Communications at Iowa State, was in college by the time I entered school, but son Bill was a Maine South track runner in my time there.

Just up the block on which I lived, resided the Baldoni family. John was a runner too. His sister Gail was a tremendous multisport athlete.

Just around the corner and two blocks over lived the Brownson family. Lynn, from my Class of 1981, played multiple sports in those early years after Title IX was passed.

And in my own house, my brother - class of 85 - played football and wrestled.

That's just off the top of my head. I am sure there were others. And that's not counting those of us who were otherwise involved growing up. I sang in the choir. I took guitar lessons. Diane Scheck across the street had an incredible voice. Lynn Brownson was also in that choir. My closest friends then, Jim Chung and Vince Bianco - played in the orchestra.

And this was in a school just outside the city of Chicago. When I speak with friends and co-workers who grew up in other communities, the sense of town and school is so much tighter.

So why does high school matter? Because it permeates your life block by block as you grow up.

It does so when you are older too.

My children live in an area that feeds into West Aurora High School, a long football pass from where Ryan Estabrook, Geneva's boys soccer coach lives. Geneva's girls track coach Peter Raak lives in the same subdivision.

When they go to Mass, they see jackets from Aurora Central, Marmion and West Aurora intermingling. I attend church in Wheaton, and it is the same church that U.S. Olympian Sean Rooney attended when he was a volleyball star at Wheaton Warrenville South High School.

Is it possible that they would live on streets or go to church as area college or pro athletes? It's possible, but it's also not the case. But they have connections to the local high schools.

The children growing up with my kids will mature to be athletes of various Blackhawks teams. My son has some interest in band as well, and there are no doubt musicians in those blocks as well.

And even if there are not, those athletes will find their way into classes, lunchrooms, study halls and other areas of life.

Certainly my Maine South classmates, and those who graduated in the years before and after I did, all moved on. I haven't been back to see a Maine South game since I covered their football team dismantling St. Charles in the 2001 playoffs, and that was business for me.

At the same time, Dave Inserra - a 1985 grad, was on teams with my brother, who graduated in 1984. So we talked briefly after that game seven years ago.

But I also don't live in town any more, and my job takes me to a vast array of high schools, so I get to see the passion on a community-by-community basis.

So while it's true that you're unlikely to see NCAA caliber or professional-grade action from the school in town, I don't see why that would keep anyone from attending.

And given the people who keep filling the stands at games throughout the area, I'm not alone in that feeling.