By this time last year, Charleston would have already played in two tournaments and hosted a few games.

By Kyle Daubs

While players are trying to remain optimistic, several Apollo Conference coaches are apprehensive. 

Under normal circumstances, Mattoon and Charleston High Schools would be about one-third into their respective seasons. Instead, the winter sports season remains up in the air. Earlier this month, the IHSA left its regularly scheduled meeting without a set time for basketball to begin. 

“We just keep trying to be positive,” said Mattoon coach Ryan Ghere. “Hopefully, we will get a chance to play. The kids are optimistic.  We keep telling the kids that this is out of our hands, and we just need to wait and see what happens.”  

The IHSA did announce that contact days for fall, spring, and summer sports would be allowed as soon as the Illinois Department of Public Health and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office lifts Tier 3 mitigations. For now, basketball remains a high-risk category, which means no contact practices can be conducted. 

So Apollo coaches are learning to adjust even further.

Taylorville first-year girls coach Hayden Eldred is conducting virtual practices that include ball handling workouts four days a week.

“Nothing mandatory, and turnout has been pretty good, but just something to keep us going and for the girls to get to see their teammates and work on some skills in the meantime,” Eldred said. “I know, for me, it has been a good way to cope with not being able to play, and I think the girls participating would agree.”

The Taylorville school district has been offering classes remotely all semester except for five days in November.

Taylorville boys coach Ryan Brown said a few of his seniors have played travel basketball in Missouri and Iowa in hopes of securing college offers.

“Christian County has been hit pretty hard with COVID, so the basketball players and parents are playing this safe,” said Brown. “Aside from the occasional pickup game at the park when the weather is nice, the players get very limited opportunities to play.”

Charleston boys coach Brad Oakley is concerned that delays might cause conflicts with other sports. 

“The players are trying to adapt and sometimes handle the situation better than adults,” said Oakley. “The players are doing their best to stay active and find opportunities to play. The frustrating part is the continual pushing back of the season. I see multiple sports possibly be played at the same time in the spring/summer. Hopefully, we get to play in some form.”

Mount Zion won’t practice until the school district returns to in-person learning Jan. 19. 

“The frustrating part is that no one seems to have a plan that can be shared and is reliable so we know exactly when, how, and why,” said coach Mt Zion’s Dale Schuring. “The entities in charge don’t seem to get along or be willing to work together to come up with a plan.”

Effingham girls coach Jeff Schafer says the IHSA and the governor should have tried to start the season.

“We are in school to get the academics, but sports and activities are the motivation for many of our students,” Schafer said. “Right now, my real job as an educator is more challenging than it has ever been.  It is really difficult to look at your players in the eyes, especially the seniors, and not have any answers for them.”

Taylorville girls, coming off a 5-25 season, were starting to rebuild its numbers.

“I know for me and the team it is a bummer,” said Eldred. “We were all looking forward to playing. Our numbers were up, had some new talent added to the roster, and a lot of ideas to try out. I hope that we will at least be able to get back into the gym sometime after the holiday break and have some sort of practice where we can work on some skills, shoot, and have some fun. Anything more than that would be an awesome bonus.”

Brown says the vaccine makes him optimistic. 

“The light at the end of the tunnel for basketball in the second semester of school simply revolves around the vaccine and whether or not people will take the shot soon after it’s available,” Brown said. “I hope enough people in health care and long-term health facilities do get inoculated quickly so that our hospitalizations, positivity rates, and deaths begin to drop.  Once those numbers are under control, I could see our Governor begin to lift restrictions.  My hope is that we play a short season in the springtime.”

Schuring, though, remains pessimistic. 

“To be honest, I do not see any light at the end of the tunnel for basketball this school year,” he said. “I just don’t see the governor releasing us or the state because he keeps adjusting his standards to make it more difficult to return to normalcy.”

Effingham’s Schafer also doesn’t believe restrictions will be lifted. 

“It is just a tough situation for all,” said Schafer. “You can’t cram all of the seasons into a few days.  We don’t have enough officials.  What about the lower levels? We are a program that usually has 25-30 kids participating, so the younger kids are going to be left out. As much as I hate it, I have pretty much accepted that we won’t be playing this year.”