CHAMPAGNE — This year’s trip to the IHSA Boys’ State Basketball Tournament was a little easier for Mike Mize and Randy Kircher.
Driving to Champaign instead of Peoria like years past shaved about 40 minutes off their morning commute from Decatur.
They didn’t bring any allegiance to the team — “we just like good high school basketball,” Mize joked — but the scene, for them, was perfect.
“That’s where the state tournament should be,” Kircher said from his second-tier seat. “It’s the flagship of the state here at State Farm Center.”
Thursday morning’s slate of games, for Class 1A teams, drew impressive small-town crowds. Hometown fans roared throughout the game for the Steeleville Warriors, Yorkville Christian Mustangs, Liberty Eagles and Scale Mound Hornets – schools with a combined enrollment of less than 500 students.
But some of the fans were just there for the ride, or there for entirely different reasons. Like a group of natives and parents of natives and parents from Fairfield (population 5,000, about two hours and fifteen minutes drive due south) who had lower level seats for games, but who didn’t haven’t always kept their eyes and ears on the teams on the ground.
Their specially designed shirts told the story.
“We are discontinuing the IHSA State Finals for the FCHS Mules Cheer Group,” the jerseys said.
Many relatives of Fairfield band members, like Debbie Legg, whose son plays snare drum, or Angel Maguire, whose son plays cymbals, were seeing the State Farm Center for the first time.
“They’re making history for our school,” Legg said, as the band burst into a rendition of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” just yards away.
Hundreds of feet above them, a group of Martinsville high schoolers watched the first two games from tippy-top nosebleeds, where the edge of the arena roof was an arm’s length away.
“There’s a lot of space here; there are fewer people,” said Sebastian Herrera, who played basketball and quarterbacked for the Martinsville Blue Streaks. “We discuss and we say anything.”
In the tournament opener between Steeleville and Yorkville, all eyes were on Jaden Schutt, the 6-foot-6 Duke rookie who is averaging 25 points per game for the Mustangs.
“I want No. 2 to play for Illinois,” Kircher remarked.
In the second, between Liberty and Scales Mound, the fans were half the story. Scales Mound educators Lisa Dole and Wendy Johns decided to watch their first game in person more than four hours away from home.
They see much of the team passing through the halls, and one of the players is a mentor to some of Johns’ special education students.
To match the Hornets’ green jerseys, they wore bright green headgear.
“We bought it in the St. Patrick’s Day aisle at Walmart,” Dole said. Right moment.
On the other side of the arena, Liberty native Bryan Fessler relived his childhood.
Fessler and his family made the more than three-hour trip – his daughter was in the student section, while his two sons and his wife were by his side – to watch the Eagles dive and fight their way to a monstrous victory.
“Our bread and butter at Liberty is basketball,” he said. “For a school as small as we are, we don’t have too bad a history.”
He’s played the IHSA tournament twice before – once in high school just to watch, and before that, in 1981, aged 2, when his parents took him to see Liberty’s first-ever tournament appearance. .
“Obviously I don’t remember much,” Fessler said. “But with the nostalgia of the U of I and Fighting Illini, State Farm Center has a name in this state, and it’s pretty neat to play on this floor.”