On Saturday, Washington (Ill.) High reached the Illinois Class 5A state football semifinals for the first time in nearly three decades. Less than 24 hours later, the players who had just achieved that moment were left hoping their teammates and coaches were alive and safe.
As chronicled by the Chicago Tribune, NBC Chicago and a variety of other outlets, the 12-0 Washington football program was still celebrating a memorable 41-7 state quarterfinal victory against University High (Normal, Ill.) when a deadly EF4 tornado struck the town. The storm caused one death, some 400 injuries and millions of dollars of damage. According to reports, as many as 1,000 homes in the town were seriously damaged or completely destroyed.
Facing scarce resources to both clean up the town and also prepare for Saturday’s state semifinal against traditional power Sacred Heart-Griffin (Springfield), there was little debate about what took precedence. In the hours since Sunday's storm, the Washington team has pulled together to help pitch in with whatever it can in cleanup efforts.
According to Washington athletic director Herb Knoblauch, the team will resume practice on Tuesday afternoon. Even then, preparations for the matchup against Sacred Heart-Griffin will take a back seat to continued efforts to regain some sense of normalcy in the tornado-ravaged community. Part of that clean up includes locating all of the team’s uniforms and equipment in time for the semifinal.
"Coach [Darrell] Crouch is out there with about 50 athletes from every team going to players' houses to see if they can find their uniforms and equipment," Knoblauch told the Tribune. "Then we'll go from there.
"We're trying to keep it as normal as possible. Hopefully by Friday we are all back home and we can do our regular routine that coach Crouch has had here at Washington for the past [nine] years."
With Washington in turmoil, Sacred Heart-Griffin has stepped up to try and ease the program’s worries as much as it can. The Springfield school is sending three charter buses to transport the Washington team and fans to the playoff game. It will also provide food, bottled water and charitable donations thanks to the Sacred Heart-Griffin booster club.
More charter buses will be provided by Sacred-Heart Griffin if they are needed for additional fans. The Springfield school's coach Ken Leonard told the Tribune that his school’s efforts were the least they could do to help the embattled town.
In the meantime, Washington’s players continue to balance preparations for one of the biggest games in school history with an overriding need to find normalcy somewhere, somehow.
"We celebrated a quarterfinal win, 12-0, and then this happens the next day," Washington senior Casey Danley told NBC Chicago. We have a bunch of great people in this community. We're coming together right now."
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