Nick Vlahos | Journal Star This has been perhaps the most unusual Illinois high school basketball season, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, Lewistown and Peoria Christian almost made it even more unusual. Because they almost made inadvertent history. No boys basketball team in this state ever has played a girls basketball team in
| Journal Star
This has been perhaps the most unusual Illinois high school basketball season, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week, Lewistown and Peoria Christian almost made it even more unusual. Because they almost made inadvertent history.
No boys basketball team in this state ever has played a girls basketball team in an official varsity contest, according to Illinois High School Association records.
But a game was scheduled for March 4 between the Lewistown girls and the Peoria Christian boys. On a local level, it might have been a battle of the sexes that rivaled the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis showdown of the 1970s.
Unlike that meeting, this one was unintentional. “A total freaking mess,” as Lewistown girls coach Greg Bennett put it.
Prompted by scrambling to fill a COVID-canceled game, a scheduling mix-up wasn’t caught until just before Lewistown players and coaches were to make the 40-mile drive up U.S. Route 24 to Peoria.
“I thought, ‘What reaction are their boys going to have when they see my girls team in the gym?'” Bennett said. “‘And what reaction are my girls going to have when we get there, and they see the boys team warming up?'”
Said Peoria Christian athletics director Cory Hynek: “Blame it on COVID.”
‘We had some miscommunication going on’
The pandemic and the steps Illinois government took regarding COVID-19 mitigation were responsible for the oft-delayed and ultimately truncated basketball season.
Play began in late January and ends Saturday. No state tournament will be held.
Few pandemic-related problems regarding basketball games have been reported around central Illinois. But because of COVID protocols, Havana canceled its girls game set for March 4 against Lewistown.
Scrapped March 1, the Havana game was one of 16 on the Lewistown schedule. All except that one were played.
The cancellation would have left Lewistown idle too long for Bennett, whose team last season was Class 1A state runner-up before the pandemic shut down high school sports.
Bennett, who also is the Lewistown athletics director, searched for schools that had open dates. Peoria Christian had one.
Unbeknownst to Bennett, it had plenty.
Because only four girls reported for tryouts, the Peoria Christian season was canceled, Hynek said. But the boys team was playing, although pandemic scrambling and the start of the spring-sports season have jumbled the athletic calendar significantly.
“When (Bennett) called asking for a game, I assumed he knew we didn’t have a girls team, so I just figured it was boys,” said Hynek, whose boys program was free that night.
Bennett figured Hynek, who also is the Peoria Christian soccer coach, might have had a few other things on his mind when he answered the telephone.
“I think I caught him in the middle of something,” the colorful, longtime Lewistown coach said. “I think the first thing he heard from me was ‘Wa-wa-wa-basketball,’ not ‘My girls lost their game at Havana.’ So we had some miscommunication going on.”
With Bennett assuming his girls now had a game and Hynek assuming the same for his boys, all systems were go. Until it was time for Lewistown to go to the Peoria Christian campus on the East Bluff.
The afternoon of the game, Bennett visited the Peoria Christian website to get directions.
“As I was getting ready to click off the webpage, I see it says, ‘Boys basketball, home vs. Lewistown,'” Bennett said. “That caused me to have a little bit of a pause. ‘I think we may have a problem, Houston.'”
Nothing in IHSA by-laws about boy-girl basketball games
The first phone call Bennett made was to Hynek, who agreed there was a problem. Bennett then rang IHSA headquarters in Bloomington.
Bennett said he isn’t sure why he called the IHSA; perhaps only to vent. By the time Bennett got hold of Beth Sauser, the IHSA administrator in charge of girls basketball, he figured he might as well let her know what he had in mind.
“I told her, ‘I’m thinking about bringing my girls over tonight to play the Peoria Christian boys. Is there any problem with that?'” Bennett said. “She said, ‘In all my years working with the IHSA, we’ve never had that issue come up.’
“I said, ‘Well, it’s kind of come up now.'”
After Sauser conferred with IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson, she told Bennett there was nothing in the organization’s by-laws that prevented basketball games between genders.
But according to Bennett, Sauser advised against it.
“‘That could open up a can of worms for us in the future,'” Bennett said in recounting the conversation.
“My interest was mainly me just blowing off steam and calling people on the phone because I’m in a bad mood. I thought about making history, but cooler heads prevailed.”
IHSA spokesman Matt Troha confirmed what’s believed to be the uniqueness of the potential Lewistown-Peoria Christian matchup. He also confirmed no rule would have prohibited it.
As for who might have won this boy-girl battle, Bennett said he had no doubt it would have been Peoria Christian. But the 2019-20 Lewistown team, led by Journal Star small-school Player of the Year Anna Heffren, might have presented a challenge.
Still, when Bennett presented last week’s possibility to his current players, “they kind of looked at me like I was nuts, like they do a lot of times,” he said with a laugh.
In the end, much of the rest of the Lewistown and Peoria Christian contingents had a good laugh about it, too. That hasn’t necessarily been typical during pandemic-related uncertainty in Bennett’s final season before he retires from coaching and teaching.
“This year of COVID, I’m not surprised something like this happened,” Hynek said. “But this would be kind of the craziest thing.
“We were happy to schedule dates to get kids in the gym. We just left out a minor detail.”