Nearly every square inch of space outside the University High School gym is covered with championship plaques that go as far back as 1926. ( Photo by Eric Stock/WJBC)
By Eric Stock
NORMAL - University High School Athletic Director Wendy Smith has a problem that many ADs wish they had.
Many trophies that the school's student athletes win (excluding state finals or intercity tournaments) either get put in storage or the students take them home simply because the school has already filled every available square foot with athletic hardware.
That 'problem' is more glaring after what appears to have been one of the most successful sports years in the 156-year history of the Illinois State University laboratory school.
During the 2012 calendar year which spanned two academic years, the Pioneers celebrated a state title in baseball, second-place in boys basketball, boys golf and girls soccer, third-place in boys cross country and fourth-place in girls soccer. Plus the school's highest-profile sport, football enjoyed its first undefeated regular season since 1989.
There was also a litany of individual honors: State champion golfer Katherine Hepler was named Female Scholar Athlete of the Year at the State Farm Student Athlete Recognition Banquet, quarterback Arion Worthman was named WJBC Ron Smith Printing Intercity Football Player of the Year and Keita Bates-Diop, McLean County's most highly-sought recruit in decades, announced he would accept a basketball scholarship to attend Ohio State.
Smith said the school's trophies which fill a near length-of-the-gym trophy case outside the gym, fill the walls of Ruth A. Stroud Auditorium and are tucked away in the teacher's lounge, date as far back as the 1920s.
Smith credited the school's athletic success to its student-athletes, its coaches, but above all - its culture.
"We're not naive to the fact that we're very fortunate with how successful we've been athletically," Smith said. "We expect a lot from our teachers, our students, our parents who are very involved in our programs.
Baseball coach Jim Collins said he embraces the high expectations that are an annual rite of spring for him.
"I wouldn't want it any other way. You shoot for a state championship and if you win a regional championship or a conference championship, it's still a good season," Collins said.
Girls golf coach Greg Dennis noted that many of U-High student athletes play multiple sports and that success carries over.
"They have that successful gene. Whatever it is I don't know, but they come out here to perform and do well. Honestly, I expect it," Dennis said.
U-High is much like schools in smaller communities where it's not uncommon for a football player to be performing in the band at halftime or participating in speech or some other extra curricular activity.
" You win on Thursday and Monday you're in the gym or auditorium for your other activity going, 'What's next?' I hate to say it but you get to celebrate it for a few days and it's on to the next goal," boys golf coach Darrin York said.
Smith also credits the school's athletic success to its coaches, more than half of which have other full-time jobs but have decided to make coaching their full-time hobby.
"It's amazing that they can go from their corporate mindset, walk through the door of the school and now they become a teacher," Smith said.
As prideful as the Pioneers are about their athletic prowess, Collins joked that it also has a way of keeping you humble.
"When I was in high school, if my team won the state tournament, we would have paraded around a little bit differently. Here, everybody sitting next to you has been to the state tournament," Collins said.
According to Illinois High School Association records, the Pioneers have won 28 individual and team titles in the program's history dating back to 1910.
Eric Stock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.