With 52 seconds remaining in the 2015 Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Class 1A Girls Basketball State Championship game, Central A&M High School (Moweaqua, Illinois) guard Ryan Dooley calmly sank a pair of free throws to lift her team to a 49-39 advantage over Calhoun High School (Hardin, Illinois).
As Calhoun in-bounded the ball moments later, the background of the TV broadcast showcased the Central A&M student section, outfitted in all black, falling into a collective state of euphoria over the realization of what was about to happen. Moments later, again in view of the broadcast cameras, the group was still chanting in unison until the final second ticked away and jubilation resumed.
Those 52 seconds captured the very essence of a high school student section: a group bonded with and by their classmates in full support of their success, as opposed to rooting for the failure of its opponent.
Normally, a student section’s story ends with the final buzzer of the season, but not for the students from Central A&M, who one week later found themselves back on the basketball court at an IHSA State Final event. This time it was the boys championship in Peoria, and they were in attendance vying for a crown of their own – the first-ever IHSA Student Section Showdown championship.
The IHSA Student Section Showdown was started as a result of the IHSA Student Advisory Committee’s (SAC) desire to become more involved with students around the state, and is built upon the concept of the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s “Battle of the Fans” competition. It was contested for the first time during the winter of 2015, with the second edition to conclude this March.
“The IHSA’s Student Advisory Committee is relatively new and had been looking for ways to engage with schools and students around the state,” said IHSA Assistant Executive Director Beth Sauser, who administers the IHSA’s Do What’s Right! Sportsmanship program, in addition to overseeing the SAC committee. “I was well aware of the MHSAA Battle of the Fans program from the Let’s Connect meetings held each winter in the Midwest. The SAC loved the concept and was able to tweak it and make it their own.”
The IHSA Student Section Showdown seeks to recognize the student sections with the best spirit and sportsmanship in two classes – Class 1A/2A and Class 3A/4A – based on the classification their school competes in for IHSA sports. After school administrative review and approval, the student groups uploaded a video of their student section in action (limited to three minutes in length) to YouTube and sent a link to Sauser.
The IHSA received entry videos from 40 high schools in the inaugural year. Some consisted almost solely of footage shot on phones and tablets, while others upped the ante in post-production by adding interviews, graphics, music and more.
“There was a fairly tight turnaround in our first year between the announcement of the contest and the deadline,” Sauser said. “We were happy with the 40 entries and think it is a good starting point and gives us something to build on.”
Following the deadline, the SAC allotted time during its normal meeting to review each video and grade it on a rubric that included categories like sportsmanship, spirit, student body participation and the originality of cheers.
The SAC whittled its list down to a top 4 in each class. Representatives from each of the finalists then attended the IHSA Boys Basketball State Finals in March, where the winner was announced on the court during a break in the state championship game.
“I thought the SAC students did an excellent job of selecting the finalists and winners,” Sauser said. “They didn’t let the production value dominate their choices. They looked deeper at the messages being conveyed and for the true community feel among the student sections.”
“Community” proved to be a good way to describe Prospect High School’s student section, The Underground (also known as ”The U”), which won the inaugural Class 3A/4A crown.
Student leader Katie Olson said in the group’s audition video that its goal was to “change the culture” at Prospect. The Student Section Showdown championship was just one of several tangible rewards for those efforts during a school year in which The Underground raised more than $11,000 for charity.
After being named the winners, Olson reflected further, “It means a lot to us. We have planned so many things and it has been a lot of time for us leaders, but it means so much to the school because The U has made a huge impact on our school.”
A look at The Underground’s Twitter account (@PHS_Underground) shows a blueprint for how social media can positively impact a culture change in a student section, a component that has proved very valuable for the IHSA in promoting the Student Section Showdown. The initial tweet from the IHSA’s Twitter account (@IHSA_IL) announcing its formation was one of the most popular in the account’s history with more than 100 re-tweets. In addition, the IHSA has a growing list of about 100 student section Twitter accounts they use to help directly encourage participation.
“Some of our schools have seen real change in the culture of sportsmanship within its student section, and it carries over into the hallways and into the community,” said Andy Frushour, MHSAA director of brand management , on the impact of the Battle of the Fans in Michigan. “Most importantly, the message is continuing to spread that students can have a blast rooting on their classmates in a positive way.”
As for Central A&M, their students continued to have a blast in Peoria, walking away with the Class 1A/2A Student Section Showdown title.
Matt Troha is assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association and a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.