ROCHELLE — A winter without basketball is something Hub varsity coach Tim Thompson hasn’t experienced in the four decades he’s been involved with the sport. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that, however, and over the last two-plus months since the IHSA halted athletic activities, Rochelle Township High School’s main gymnasium has been void of any basketball-related events.
With the winter months winding down, Thompson wondered whether or not he or his student-athletes would have another opportunity to compete or even practice this year. That door slowly crept open when IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike revealed Friday afternoon that high-risk sports including basketball, football and wrestling would be allowed to compete in any healthcare regions that return to Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois reopening guidelines.
More good news came Monday morning, when the IDPH returned Region 1 to Phase 4 for the first time since early October. Rochelle and other Ogle County athletic programs fall under Region 1, meaning Hub basketball players can not only resume practices, but play games once the IHSA reveals the revised start for winter sports after its board meeting Wednesday.
“It’s all about the kids and how stressful it’s been on them, whether it’s academically, physically, socially or emotionally,” Thompson said. “The kids I have this year really love basketball and they’ve been dying to play. I’m so excited they’re going to have an opportunity and I think they’re at a point where they’ll take anything they can get, regardless of how long the season is or how many games they play. They won’t let this opportunity pass and they’re going to play so hard.”
The Hub basketball program had been conducting contact days during the fall before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker moved the state into Tier 3 mitigations, which required all athletic activities to be suspended, on Nov. 20. Since that date, Thompson and his coaching staff have been maintaining contact with players through Google Classroom. Additionally, Hub players have also taken advantage of the Flagg-Rochelle Community Park District recreation center, using the brand-new facility to get shots up and workout either on their own or in small groups.
“We’ve used the Google Classroom to keep their spirits up and make sure they’re keeping their grades up,” Thompson said. “I have to give my senior captain Garrett Burdin a lot of credit. He organizes team functions, getting kids to the rec center and encouraging kids to keep their grades up because he knew there was a possibility we could start up again pretty soon.”
While the length of the winter season won’t be revealed until Wednesday’s IHSA board meeting, IHSA officials have mandated that basketball programs conduct at least 12 practices before games can begin. With such a short timeframe for players to be conditioned and ready for varsity action, Thompson said the Hubs will use their contact days this week to run full practices, as opposed to open gyms, and install as many in-game scenarios as possible.
“We’re going to use our first few practices and go one-and-a-half hours with one hour of true practice,” Thompson said. “That includes conditioning and shooting. We’ll then have a half hour of breakdowns in terms of getting our offense in, our out-of-bounds plays in, our sideline out-of-bounds plays in and last-second plays. We want all of those in by the end of this week.”
Seniors Garrett Burdin and Spencer Warborg headline a talented varsity roster that includes several rising juniors such as Ryan Simmons, Zach Sanford, Adam Kemp, Tanner Lager and Noah Brown. Rochelle’s sophomore and varsity teams combined for 44 victories this past season, and while the parameters of the upcoming season are undetermined, Thompson said the Hubs are keeping their expectations high and hoping to play as many games as possible.
“Normally I feel that practice time is so essential, but with us having a minimal season and knowing how desperate these kids are to play games, we’re going to schedule as many games as we possibly can,” Thompson said. “We want to be successful and a lot of the kids who were on the bench during the regional title game last year really want to get back there this year… The kids want some hardware and we have a solid junior class that needs varsity minutes.”