While town cleans up, team prepares for a big game

AP - Sports

NORMAL, Ill. (AP) -- The home where Colton Marshall and his family lived is gone - one of 1,000 damaged or destroyed Sunday when a powerful tornado plowed through his central Illinois town of Washington.

But Tuesday in Illinois State University's Hancock Stadium, Marshall, 18, and his teammates from Washington Community High School didn't let the disruption from the storm keep them from a routine they've had for years. They put on their helmets and pads, and started preparing for a football game. This one's a big deal: a state semifinal on Saturday.

''Yeah, this is something our town's been looking forward to. So, no matter what, we're going to go play,'' Marshall said. ''We used to come here for team camps, so this is normal.''

Marshall, the team's quarterback, smiled a little. The irony of escaping to the community of Normal, where Illinois State is located, was not lost on the high school senior. What he and his teammates left back home - 40 minutes to the west - is in no way normal.

Sunday's tornado cut a path from one corner to the other in Washington, a town of about 16,000 about 140 miles southwest of Chicago. Authorities say they know of only one person who died, something that surprises most anyone who's seen the destruction.

Less than 24 hours before the storm, Marshall and the Panthers beat Normal University High 41-7 to advance to the semifinal, putting them a game away from a shot at the state Class 5A championship. Washington is undefeated, a perfect 12-0 going into Saturday's game at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield.

Under the circumstances, getting a team of teenagers to focus on football is a challenge. Members of the team spent time Sunday and Monday helping start the process of salvaging valuables from homes. But then, coach Darrell Crouch said, it was good for the players to get back to football.

''Us missing these next four days, there's going to be plenty of work for the six months or a year of cleanup,'' he said. ''Our town's very much a football town, so this will help our town, too.''

First though, Crouch had to solve logistical problems of getting a team that lives in a disaster zone back on the field.

About 10 of the players no longer have homes to live in. While the football field in Washington is fine, the high school - like the rest of the town - has no safe water supply, and the cars and trucks that would have taken many Washington High families and fans to the game are sitting under the rubble of their owners' homes.

After a text and a call from one of Crouch's old friends, Sacred-Heart Griffin coach Ken Leonard, solutions started to come together with the help of Washington High's opponent.

Sacred-Heart Griffin has chartered six buses that will get Washington fans to the game. The school's parents also will help with the Panthers' pre-game ritual - providing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Another opponent also stepped up to help. Normal University High - the team the Panthers beaten by 34 points before the tornado - bought Washington players lunch on Tuesday and even offered to help with laundry while the team practices at its temporary facility at nearby Illinois State.

With those tasks handled, Crouch turned to getting his team ready.

And that's fine for players. Even with coaches being tough on them at practice, they were loose. They finished with a handful of field goal tries, the kicker surrounded by a rowdy circle of teammates.

''Money!'' one shouted as the last kick went up and appeared to be headed between the uprights, only to clank off the crossbar to a collection of groans.

Marshall, after patiently doing a round of interviews with reporters, was the last player off the field.

Sunday morning, when the tornado hit, he was at work at a hardware store. He hid in the back break room as the tornado passed within a few hundred feet. Across the parking lot, an auto supply store was destroyed.

Now Marshall's family is scattered. He's living with a friend while his sister and parents are with another family.

He doesn't know much about what's ahead, except that Saturday afternoon he'll play football.

''I love getting my mind off of it,'' Marshall said, choking up, looking away. ''It's been awhile - feels like forever - since we've been on a football field.''

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap .

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