WNIN’s Steve Burger went to Norris City, Illinois where a proud tradition of high school sports is on hold until conditions improve.
Shouts, the boom of a digger’s fists on a volleyball and then the hard slap of a spike echo off the walls of an otherwise empty gymnasium at the Norris City-Omaha-Enfield High School in Norris City, Illinois.
History is ever present here- The hopes and dreams of a community showcased in the championship banners nearly filling one wall of the gym. A section of the original basketball floor from seven decades ago, along with the names of the teens who first played on it is framed and hanging on another.
The volleyball team members have soaked up the history in this gym all their lives and know their job is to create more of it. It’s what the community expects. It’s what the school expects. It’s what they expect. Senior Sophie Neal is a team leader.
“Every season, every year a team comes through here and every year they just add to our record. They add to NCOE. Just to, yeah, be a part of that timeline, to be a part of those records, those games, those state championships, that’s awesome.”
When I visited the school this fall, the team should have been in the middle of their 2020 season. However, as of the release of this story, they’re still waiting to hear whether their season, which the pandemic pushed back to the spring of this year, will happen at all.
But Coach Jackie Melton and the team come here anyway, because they love volleyball and there’s not much else to do. Sophie Neal and fellow senior Mattie Wells have played together since the fifth grade. Their lives are so closely connected that they can almost finish each other's sentences. Mattie Wells says that intimate knowledge of what your teammates think, say and do is how the team will hang another championship banner on the east wall of the NCOE gym if they only get the chance.
“Since everybody works together, you get the perfect pass and the perfect set and you just see your hitter kill it and everybody on the court feels the excitement. It can’t be just one person winning the whole game for everybody. You have to work together.”
Sophie Neal adds, “I definitely think so. I always think of basketball. I mean you can dribble the ball down the court and take the shot and it’s all an individual, but in volleyball, you really have to rely on your team to get a single point. You have to have a pass, you have to have a set and you have to have a hit. You have to talk, you have to communicate. And it goes the same way for other sports. But I just feel that you have to have more of a connection, or else it affects how you play.”
NCOE athletic director Jim Tucker watches the practice hoping that Neal and Wells will get to play their senior season. He recalled the dark days early in the pandemic when spring sports were cancelled in Illinois.
“Yeah, there might have been a tear or two shed. I will admit that. We walk in here, we’re very proud of our facilities and you walk in here with the lights off and no more cheering, the crowd noise, no more squeaking of the shoes. Yes, it’s depressing. So, it’s fantastic to come back in here and see all this.”
Tucker is also the boys basketball coach. Their season has been postponed as well. Tucker and the athletes all know there’s a pandemic. They know that keeping everyone safe is job one. But in a small town, nearly everything revolves around the school and sports.
Tucker says, “This gym holds approximately 2,100. And even for a small town, there’s no problem getting 500-750 people in here each night for a home game."
“So what happens to a community when that stops?”
Tucker adds, “It’s difficult. We have a gentleman and a lady who haven’t missed a game in thirty years.”
“What are they saying?”
“They’re bored and ready for the games to start again.”
Mattie Wells and Sophie Neal have an opinion on that too.
Mattie Wells says, “Oh yeah. The whole community shows up and supports us- especially the 'red army'."
Sophie Neal adds, "Our fan section definitely makes up a huge part of our volleyball season. I’m honestly kind of thankful that our season got moved to the spring in respect to that. ‘Cause they are a part of our team, and if we would have had to play games remotely they wouldn’t have been able to be involved and they bring so much support to our team. They literally make up such a huge part."
Mattie Wells adds, "Yeah, it wouldn’t have been the same without everybody out there with us.”
History, tradition, community.
I reported this piece in late September. It’s January now and the pandemic is hitting even remote southern Illinois much harder.
In the grand scheme of things, maybe the NCOE volleyball team’s season being on hold isn’t such a big thing. But when people in Norris City, Omaha and Enfield, Illinois gather ten years from now and remember the pandemic, that piece of the history is sure to be discussed.
So I guess it is important, to them.