DeKALB – When Betsy Fons was a student at Kankakee’s Bishop McNamara High School in the 1980s, the football team made two trips to the state finals.
On Friday, she came to Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium to cheer the Fightin’ Irish on again as they reeled off a convincing win against the Tolono Unity Rockets to take the the Illinois High School Association Class 3A state title.
“My freshman year and senior year [at Bishop McNamara] we won the state championship,” Fons said. “So now I’m back to support them.”
The first four games of an eight-game state championship slate were played Friday in DeKalb, with the games in classes 5A through 8A – the state’s largest schools – to be played starting at 10 a.m. today.
Officials have been preparing for the event for weeks and say it will bring thousands of fans and millions in economic impact to the county.
David Wheeler, whose daughter is a freshman at Bishop McNamara, said he was excited when he heard the school was going to be headed to the championships.
“It’s always a good thing for the school,” he said. ‘It was very exciting.”
Football coach Rich Zianni has been with the team for more than 40 years, which Fons said would make a win even better.
“For him to go out on a championship would be great,” Fons said.
Fans from all over Illinois crowded into Huskie Stadium on Friday, huddled under blankets and scarves on a cold and drizzly late-November afternoon. The weather was a challenge but fans were understanding, said Brad Hoey, director of campus communications at NIU and a member of the IHSA Destination DeKalb Committee.
“We’ve had a good turnout,” he said. “It’s exciting. Despite the chilly weather, there are a lot of people having fun out here.”
Hoey said that while he didn’t have official attendance numbers Friday, the amount of people who had showed up for the first day seemed comparable to the 2013 games, when about 30,000 tickets were sold during the two days of games.
It wasn’t the first time that some fans had made the trip, including Patti King, who began her morning early with several hours of travel ahead.
King was out to support her son, who plays for the Tolono Unity Rockets. Tolono is about three hours south of DeKalb, in Champaign County. On even-numbered years, the IHSA championships are played at the University of Illinois, which is much closer her home.
“We’ve gotten second four times,” King said. “We’re going to get first this year.”
King said that while a lot of work goes into the execution of the trip, it’s worth it.
“It’s fun,” she said. “Just seeing how excited the kids get. We got up at 8:30 this morning, fed the boys breakfast, headed over to the school and honked our horns to send them off and drove out here. … We’ll follow them back to the school tonight.”
Baylee McLaughlin also had a three-hour ride to DeKalb, but this was a first for her school’s team, the Auburn Trojans, a finalist the Class 2A game.
“It was really exciting,” she said. “It was really emotional for everybody. It’s not just the players, it effects the whole town I guess.”
She said that it seemed like a lot of supporters from Auburn showed Friday, but even if they didn’t make the drive, the hometown pride was there.
“They showed their support through social media and we did send-offs at home,” she said. “You could tell the whole town was really involved in it.”
The support was there, even if the results weren’t the best. Auburn was defeated, 41-8, by Downs Tri-Valley in the Class 2A game.