Taking a look back at the top prep sports stories of the past school year

When looking back on the 2007-08 school year, I will remember three things:

Lot’s of long road trips. Even longer hours in the office.

And that – in the end – it was all worthwhile.

Just one glance at the images above and the list of the top 10 sports stories from the 2007-08 school year convinced me of that.

A vast majority of the most memorable stories from this past prep sports season were marked by two ingredients that makes sports so enjoyable to me: the element of surprise, and the joy that comes along with exceeding expectations.

Back in August, no one could have foreseen Vandalia’s girls 4×400-meter relay team winning a state title.

Nor could anyone have dreamed it possible that the VCHS wrestling team would bring home a program-record five state medals – including four silvers.

And, to suggest that the Mulberry Grove softball team could not only win a regional title – but advance to a sectional final – without longtime ace ace Brittany Crandell in the pitcher’s circle would have sounded ludicrous.

And how ridiculous would it have sounded if someone had told you South Central’s Tanner Bushue would record the first 20 outs of a game via strikeout before finishing just one infield single shy of a perfect game. That’s tough to do in video game, for crying out loud.

But it all happened.

And, in each instance, it was no fluke.

Each of the accomplishments listed above was the byproduct of persistence, teamwork and dedication – as were the Vandalia football and girls basketball team’s successful seasons, the Brownstown cheerleading squad’s state title and St. Elmo senior Colton Booher’s unprecedented achievement at the National Trail Conference Tournament.

And now that the summer’s finally here, there is finally time to reflect on it.

So without further ado, here’s my list of the top prep sports stories for the 2007-08 school year.

1. The VCHS 4×400-meter girls relay team’s state title

As Ashley Durbin approached the finish line during the finals of the 4×400-meter relay at last month’s IHSA girls track and field meet, I kept asking myself, ‘Is this really happening?”

Looking across the infield at Durbin’s 4×400 teammates – Kayla Houston, Kris Stunkel and Paige Dodson – I get the feeling they were asking themselves the same thing as they spontaneously embraced in a display of joy and disbelief following their momentous accomplishment.

It wasn’t that VCHS junior foursome didn’t anticipate success heading into their first state appearance together.

The group fully expected to bring home medals. Gold medals, however, were not even on the radar.

But like a summertime thunderstorm, the Lady Vandals’ emerged out of nowhere as state-title contenders with Friday’s third-best preliminary time of 4:06.39.

It was time that shattered that group’s own school record by six seconds, indicating the Lady Vandals had possibly hit their ceiling.

Instead, they showed the sky was the limit, shattering that record by more than two seconds the very next day.

More importantly, that time was more than 1 1/2 seconds better than the next-best team, giving Durbin, Houston, Dodson and Stunkel the first girls state title in VCHS history.

2. VCHS wrestlers take five state medals, four reach finals

Truth be told, there wasn’t a whole lot the VCHS wrestling program had yet to accomplish entering the 2007-08 season.

But, somehow, Vandalia seniors Cody Pyle, Josh Eller, Matt Shroyer, Nate Stone and Adam Bowling managed to pull off something unprecedented in VCHS history at the IHSA individual state tournament in February.

Each of those wrestlers medaled in their respective weight divisions, with Eller, Bowling, Shroyer and Pyle all advancing to the finals.

In their long and storied history, the Vandals had never had more than two representatives in the Grand March, prompting normally reserved VCHS head coach Jason Clay to describe Vandalia’s performance in the semifinal round as ‘unbelievable.’

Unfortunately, each of the Vandals’ finalists came up short of state titles, but the senior group solidified its legacy as perhaps the best single class in VCHS wrestling’s proud history.

3. Vandalia football makes playoffs again

Vandals coach John Stout referred to his 12 seniors as the ‘hardest working group’ he’s ever coached during VCHS’s fall sports awards night.

And thanks to that work ethic, they also turned out to be one of Stout’s more successful groups.

Coming off the program’s first playoff appearance since 1997, that senior group set the bar high on the field and in the weight room during the offseason, vowing not only to return to the playoffs – but secure a first-round home game.

The Vandals did exactly what they set out to do, putting together a 7-2 regular season thanks in large part to hard-nosed defense and a balanced offense.

Highlights included the Vandals’ first victory at Hillsboro since the early 1990s and a gritty 7-6 home victory over Staunton that all but clinched a first-round home playoff game.

Visiting West Frankfort got the best of the Vandals in the opening round of the postseason, but Vandalia made the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1997. With a strong junior class coming back, VCHS hopes to make three consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in school history next year.

4. Tanner Bushue strikes out 20 in one-hitter

Mere dominance wasn’t quite enough to get Bushue a victory against rival Dieterich in his previous start against the Maroons, who rallied for an extra-inning victory against the Cougars despite striking out 18 times and getting no hit over the first six innings.

So Bushue elevated his game to a whole different level in his next start against Dieterich, leading South Central to its ninth-straight Midland Trail Conference Tournament title.

The hard-throwing righty recorded the first 20 outs of the game via strikeout before getting a groundout to cap a record-breaking performance. Dieterich’s only hit was of the infield variety in the third, as Bushue broke Spencer Patton’s school record of 19 strikeouts set in 2005.

Making the feat all the more impressive was the fact that it came against a very good team. The Maroons would go on to advance to the super-sectional round of the postseason in the spring.

5. Vandalia girls basketball sets program wins mark

The Lady Vandals reached new heights in 2007-08, winning a school-record 22 games. And one has to get the feeling that bigger and better things are still to come.

A deep and talented junior class teamed up with a pair of natural-born senior leaders – Julianna Banal and Emily Shields – to stifle opposition offenses and pile up victory after victory.

Highlights included tournament championships at the Mattoon and Sandoval tournaments, as well as a second-place finish in SCC-East.

Perhaps even more impressive than all those victories was the fact that four of the Lady Vandals’ five losses came against perennial powers Pana (twice), Breese Central and Teutopolis. The other was to Marion, a solid Class 3A program.

The Lady Vandals had the misfortune of running into the T-Town in the championship of their own regional. The Lady Shoes went on to place third at state. Pana might have gotten that far had it not fallen to the T-Town in the sectional round.

Breese Central – the 2007 state champ – advanced to the sectional round as well.

The secret to the Lady Vandals’ success was its stifling defense, which held opponents to just 34 points per game.

The Lady Vandals will return their top four scorers and top two bench players next year.

6. Mulberry Grove softball advances to sectional final

Pitching is the name of the game in softball. So when Mulberry Grove ace Brittany Crandell suffered a torn rotator cuff early in the 2008 season, the Lady Aces’ hopes of reaching new heights appeared to be dashed.

But thanks to a potent offense the emergence of the ‘Brew crew’ in the pitcher’s circle, senior Rachel Brewer and younger sister Joanna Brewer, the Lady Aces not only maintained their recent level of excellence – they exceeded it.

The latter Brewer, a freshman, hurled Mulberry Grove to its second regional title in three seasons and its first-ever sectional-game win. Fittingly, the injured Crandell wound up getting the game-winning hit in the latter game.

Despite Crandell’s unfortunate injury, the Lady Aces willed their way to a 26-10 record under the fiery leadership of head coach John Barnes.

7. Colton Booher makes all-NTC Tournament team for fourth time

It is quite a feat to earn a varsity starting spot as a freshman. To excel in that role is even more impressive.

St. Elmo’s Colton Booher did so to such a degree that he was named to the National Trail Conference all-tournament team as a freshman. It was a feat he’d repeat three more times, as he became the first player in the long history of the highly regarded small-school league to earn such an honor four times.

Granted, the NTC did not start releasing all-tournament teams until 1989.

But considering that during that span just five players – St. Elmo’s Casey Hord, Brownstown’s Curtis Schwarm, T-Town’s Brent Niebrugge and Mitch Koester, and Effingham-St. Anthony’s Kyle Hoene – have made the team three times, Booher at the very least established himself as one of the all-time great players in the tournament’s history.

The performance highlighted a season in which Booher received numerous accolades, including winning NTC regular-season MVP. Booher, also a standout baseball player, will play both sports at Olney Central College next year.

8. South Central denied entrance into NTC

The biggest off-the-field story of the year was also one of the year’s most baffling developments.

A seemingly perfect marriage between the National Trail Conference and South Central was broken up when a pair of NTC-member school principals voted not to accept the longtime MTC-affiliated program into the league for the following reasons:

The possible consolidation of St. Elmo and Brownstown in the near future.

Excessive travel for a few schools.

The feeling that South Central was too strong a program for some to compete with.

The latter rationale left some scratching their heads, including South Central athletic director Rick Simmons.

‘Like most people, I was not surprised by the first two reasons,’ Simmons said. ‘But I was a bit perplexed by the last reason.

‘You would think they would be interested in making their conference more competitive, but apparently this was not the case.’

As a result of the vote, South Central will remain in the recently expanded MTC, meaning it can look forward to three-hour plus round trips to Grayville in the near future.

Specifics as to exactly who voted against South Central joining the NTC were never released to the press.

9. VCHS gymnasium gets major facelift

For the first time since it was constructed in 1950, the VCHS gymnasium underwent major renovations, as nearly every square inch of the 57-year-old facility was either replaced or remodeled.

The project kept Vandal teams off their home court during the fall sports season, but the reward for their inconvenience proved to be well worthwhile.

The new-and-improved VCHS gym proved to be a major upgrade from the old facility, featuring new bleachers, a new court, new team banners and, most importantly, something that was sorely missing prior to the renovation – plenty of red.

10. Brownstown cheerleaders win state title

The Brownstown High School cheerleading squad is proof positive that perseverance pays off.

Early in the school year, the Bombers set an ambitious goal of advancing to the 2008 Illinois Cheerleading Coaches Association state finals.

But it looked like they might not even get a chance to compete in the prelimary competition necessary to qualify for state, as the first two regionals the Bombers signed up for were canceled.

Undeterred, the Bombers finally found a venue to showcase their talents at the Highland Regional.

The judges were impressed, as Brownstown finished in first place, qualifying for the state tournament in Springfield.

The Bombers left for state Friday, Feb. 8, not knowing what to expect.

They came back to town with a police escort and a state-championship trophy in hand.

‘When they announced it, all the girls were jumping up and down and crying,’ said Bombers coach Deb Hunter, whose team competed in the game-cheer division of the tournament. ‘It was an exciting day.’

The first state title in BHS history earned the girls signs along U.S. Route 40 on the east and west entrances of town.

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