By Joe Gisondi

2021 has been marked by both COVID-induced cancelations and by amazing accomplishments. But we won’t assess the school year’s top athletic performances until the summer. So we have instead revealed our readers’ assessments of these achievements – based upon total views for individual stories. The list below reveals the stories that you liked the most this past year.

You’ll notice that the list includes a mix of different sports and varying story genres. Feature stories are most prominent but several game stories are in the top 10 as well. Far more game stories would be among our top 20, if we had extended this list.

Basketball and baseball, incidentally, are often more popular than football when it comes to readership.

We will have posted a little more than 500 stories before the end of the year on our website, which will have led to nearly 250,000 page views. We also post breaking news, updates and features on our Facebook page, along with Twitter and Instagram. Twitter appears to be the least favorite media choice by our readers.

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We are pleased to offer recognition to our area’s athletes and coach. Thanks for reading in 2021. We look forward to chronicling athletic achievements across 2022.

  1. Mattoon’s Johnson never even knew that he had reached a football milestone.

Should we be surprised that Troy Johnson had no idea that he accomplished a major milestone this season?

The calm Mattoon Green Wave head coach has always tried to find the middle path. His assistant describes their leader as someone who always keeps everything in perspective. Try to find the middle ground. Don’t let the highs get too high and the lows never too low.

With that said, when Mattoon defeated 2020 Apollo Conference champion Effingham on Week 4, it was Johnson’s 100th career victory and he didn’t even have a clue. 

“I honestly don’t know my overall record,” said Johnson with a laugh. “I had no clue.”

Read the full story on the link below.

2. Former Mattoon Post 88 baseball player is taking on lymphoma like a champ.

Dalton McFarland has a long way to go, but he’s okay with that. 

McFarland, a Neoga native, former Mattoon Post 88 baseball player and the current Casey-Westfield special education teacher/softball coach was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma. It was not an easy road to get a final diagnosis. 

Read the full story on the link below.

3. Mattoon’s Braden Smith headed to new professional football league.

Many kids dream of playing in the National Football League, including 2016 Mattoon graduate Braden Smith.

He has not reached the NFL yet, but he has signed a contract to play professional football in the inaugural year of the Fan Controlled Football League. He will become at least the third MHS grad to play at the professional level, following Rick Moss, who played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1979, and Rick Duncan, who played from 1967-69 for the Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions. 

“Originally, I signed to play in the Arena Football League for the Salina Liberty in Kansas, but when I saw this they let me take the new offer,” said Smith, the son of Greg and Rachel Smith. “What really made it intriguing is that my agent told me there would be NFL scouts that were recommending the league to him. It is a chance for me to get some pro film out there and what I know would be better competition than what I would have had otherwise (Arena Football League). It is over before the NFL draft starts this year.”

Read the full story on the link below.

4. Phipps, Starwalt, Considine, Gordon bolster impressive all-decade softball team.

Everyone knows about Mattoon softball, but how about an up-and-coming Charleston program?

Mattoon captured an IHSA Regional title seven of the 10 years, won two Sectional championships, made the Sweet 16 four times, earned two Elite 8 appearances and finished fourth in the state once. 

Mattoon was clearly a powerhouse – also recording seven seasons with at least 20 wins or more, and three seasons with at least 30 wins or more. Among those wins included two Big 12 Conference titles and four Apollo Conference titles. 

Charleston, meanwhile, started making headway toward the later part of the decade. Back to back 30-win seasons and trips to the Sweet 16 highlighted a program that normally struggled to compete against top-tier softball programs. Charleston won its first Regional (2018) for the first time since 1994 and was ranked as high as the No. 1 team in the state. 

Needless to say, this All-Decade team features some of the best softball players the county has ever seen. 

Read the full story on the link below.

5. Remembering the Charleston Boys Holiday Tournament and the top-10 players ever.

Thanks to former Journal Gazette-Times Courier sports editor Brian Nielsen, many memories from the holiday tournament were kept alive. 

Nielsen, who eventually was inducted into the IBCA Media Hall of Fame, attended nearly every holiday tournament from 1980 to 2010. The first holiday tournament began in 1975. The 16-team bracket stayed around for 32 years until low attendance and teams leaving forced the tournament to use pool play in 2009. In 2010, the last holiday tournament was run.

The tournament used to split games at Baker Gym and Eastern Illinois University’s Lantz Arena. After years of not making money and a lack of interest from the public, the Charleston brass decided to pull the plug. Still, the holiday tournament displayed great basketball talent from 1975 to 2010. Charleston won the tournament twice under the leadership of Steve Hutton in 1977 and 1978. CHS has only one tournament MVP – Jeff Petersen in 1984.

After reading an article by Nielsen in 2002, I agree that the best game ever played was in 1980 between Lawrenceville and Effingham. Lawrenceville had two of the best players in the state in Marty Simmonsnow Eastern Illinois University’s basketball coach, and Doug Novsek. This game featured a battle between Novsek, who finished with 26 points, and a future NBA center in Effingham’s 7-foot 2-inch center Uwe Blab. Effingham won a close contested game, 51-49.

Read the full story on the link below.

6. Hutchinson, Warrem, Wilson headline impressive all-decade baseball squad

Only one losing season has came out of Coles County over the last decade. For Mattoon, seven teams finished with 20 or more wins in a season, while Charleston had eight teams. 

Baseball talent is always popping out of the county, so forming this list was no easy task. For that, we filled out a starting team, which included two pitchers (because normally two pitchers played in a game), a complete infield and outfield, as well as a designated hitter. 

Read the full story on the link below.

7. Hess-Johnson duel lives up to hype, Mattoon sweeps DH to remains atop Apollo

A number of major league scouts converged on Mattoon High’s baseball field Saturday morning to watch the No. 1 state prospect, Charleston’s Ben Hess, pitch for only the second time this season.

Hess impressed. The 6-foot-5 right-hander, who has signed to play for Indiana, allowed just one hit and struck out 13 batters across five scoreless innings, clocking 90-plus mph fastballs.

But Mattoon’s Meade Johnson, a 6-2 righty headed to play for Heartland College, might have turned some heads as well by also fanning 13, scattering four hits and keeping CHS scoreless for 8 2/3 innings in a 1-0 victory that kept the Green Wave tied atop the Apollo Conference.

“I was throwing everything pretty well today,” said Johnson. “The big thing was just keeping myself in the zone and really mixing my pitches well. If they didn’t know what I was throwing up there then I was doing my job right. I think I did well. I kept them on their toes. Keeping the ball inside the zone and being effective today was the big thing. Last week, I went 6⅔ and 105 pitches, but this week I was able to go 8⅔. It is just a big thing to be effective and get kids out on under five pitches basically.”

Read the full story on the link below.

8. Charleston’s Miller has inspired a generation of girls basketball players

Aislinn Parish has a point. 

“Honestly, ” she said, “who isn’t entertained when Miller gets lit up?”

Charleston’s Jeff Miller, who appears to be coaching his final few high school girls basketball games. He’s always been animated and engaged on the sidelines. 

His players call him passionate, competitive and supportive – traits that have helped him make them better players through the past 14 years. 

Miller, who started his high school career coaching boys at Windsor, took over Charleston’s boys basketball for five seasons, beginning in 1997. After a five-year hiatus, he started coaching the CHS girls, going 20-8 that initial season. Miller hasn’t skipped a beat since then, winning 20 games seven more times for 246 total victories and a .672 winning percentage with the program.

But a coach is more than wins, losses and statistics. Who better to reveal that than former players? Here are their stories.

Read the full story on the link below.

9. Charleston’s Campbell among 7 LLC softball players headed to next level, 3 to EIU

Charleston’s Dee Campbell and Windsor’s Carson Cole are among seven Lake Land players headed to play softball at four-year colleges.

“It’s every little softball player’s dream (to play at the Division I level), and mine is coming true,” said Cole, who will play for Eastern Illinois next season . “I’m especially excited because I help coach some of the younger girls in my community, and I hope I can show them to keep working hard.”

Read the full story on the link below.

10. Charleston’s historic run in state baseball playoffs ends in Super Sectional, 7-5

Charleston’s historic run through the state playoffs came to an end Monday night.

The Trojans were about a play or pitch away from advancing to the state finals in the 7-5 loss to Springfield High in the Super Sectional held at Millikin University.

Springfield (29-5) rallied from a 5-3 deficit and then held off Charleston for the win in a game that lasted three hours. The Senators now play Burbank St. Laurence at 1 p.m. Thursday in the state semifinals. 

Charleston finished the season 26-10, reaching the Elite Eight for the third time – joining the 1960 and 1956 teams that reached the state tournament when it was one class and involved eight teams.

Read the full story on the link below.