BY MARY WICOFF
While the cheerleaders chanted, “Defense!” the young students stomped their feet and clapped their hands in time to the chants.
A group of third-graders from Armstrong-Ellis Elementary School especially got into the spirit, jumping up and yelling each time a player made a shot — no matter which team scored.
“I’d like to see a slam dunk,” said Phillip Hartke, who was attending his first basketball game. By halftime, he hadn’t seen one, but still was having a good time.
His classmates, Samuel Johnson and Logen Turner, also third-graders, had been to games before, and were enjoying the action, cheering on both teams.
Students from five schools filled the stands Thursday morning at the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Men’s National Basketball Tournament at Danville Area Community College. About 700 students from Armstrong-Ellis and Danville’s Liberty, East Park, Cannon and South View schools watched teams from Phoenix College (Arizona) and Cecil College (Maryland) compete.
Other schools attended games at different times during the week.
“It’s so much more fun when the gym is filled,” said Nancy Boesdorfer, a DACC employee who helped line up the tournament’s entertainment.
The students were being rewarded for getting through the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) earlier this month.
Kurt Thornsborough, principal at Armstrong-Ellis, brought 60 students in third through eighth grade. The school has been coming to the games for the past five or six years, he said, as a reward for doing well on the ISAT.
The smallest school in the county was honored by the state earlier this year with an Academic Excellence award, which is given to Illinois schools that have sustained high performance during at least three years.
“They take their time and do a good job, and if they do, they get the reward,” he said.
With school out today and spring break next week, Thornsborough said, “It’s a nice way to end school early before break.”
While basketball is a bit of a novelty to the third-graders, the eighth-graders at Armstrong-Ellis had been to games before or were involved as players.
“It’s fun to watch the other teams play,” said Riley Williams, who was cheering for both teams. A basketball player herself, she didn’t have trouble following the action.
Mikaela Robertson, also an athlete, said she was following the Phoenix team, and enjoyed watching the players and their techniques.
Courtney Fancil, also an eighth-grader, described herself as an academic and didn’t know which teams were playing. Still, she enjoyed following the cheerleaders and watching the action. Plus, it was a chance to get out of school, she added.
Liberty School brought about 180 students in grades third through fifth. The school offers basketball for the fourth-graders, so most students were familiar with the game.
“It’s nice that DACC invited us,” fifth-grade teacher Derrice Hightower said, adding it was the school’s first time at the tournament.
Not only were the kids being rewarded, but the college teams benefited from an instant cheering section.
“It’s nice to have kids cheer for the teams because they are so far from home,” Hightower said.
All of the students in the three grades were brought to DACC. “It was a reward for everyone because they worked hard during the ISAT,” she said. “We’re trying to reward the kids more and punish them less. We want to give them something to look forward to.”
When asked what he thought of the outing, Liberty fifth-grader Larry McCord said, “It’s cool.” He also liked sitting on the top of the bleachers.
He said he’s played the game before, but had never seen a college game.
Fifth-grader Lauren Shillo also had never been to a game like that, but she was able to follow it. “I like watching the cheerleaders and watching them play basketball,” she said.
The cheerleaders from Cecil College were a hit with most of the students.
Josie Heeren, a third-grade teacher at East Park, said the boys were rooting for the Seahawks “because they have hot cheerleaders.”
East Park brought 300 students from third through fifth grades who were present all eight days of the ISAT and on time, ready to take the test.
For the third-graders, it was their first time to see a college-level game, she said, adding, “They enjoy it.”
Student Che Dotson described the game as “awesome,” but shook her head when asked if she knew what was going on. Zariana Woods said she’d been to a basketball game before, but didn’t know what was happening on the court.
Despite a lack of knowledge or passion for either team, the students in the DACC gym cheered, stomped and clapped — just like real fans.