Top 10 Ford County Record sports stories of 2017

No. 1 -- GCMS football wins state title
The yell permeated over a flock of Falcons and over the roar of their supporters.
 
“Where’s Coach Allen?” an official wondered amid the din of celebration.
 
Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley football coach Mike Allen needed to stand on the podium just beyond one end zone at Huskie Stadium to receive his medal after the Falcons defeated Maroa-Forsyth 38-32 in last November’s Class 2A state championship game for the school’s first-ever crown in any sport.
 
But Allen was conducting an interview farther down the field. It led to GCMS’ Falcon mascot comically running at Allen while flapping its arms and more or less dragging the 17th-year coach to his team.
 
It only delayed the inevitable.
 
GCMS (14-0) received its medals, garnered its state championship trophy and the party was officially on.
 
“It’s all our team has talked about since we lost against Kewanee last year in the second round,” said Mitch McNutt, the Falcons’ senior running back who gashed Maroa-Forsyth for 139 running yards and three scores on 32 carries. “I’m still in shock. It means everything.”
 
“It’s surreal is what it is,” senior lineman/linebacker Luke Freehill added. “It won’t hit me until Monday, probably. Monday is gonna be a good day, too.”
 
***
While it was senior Mitch McNutt who carried the offense (32 carries for 139 yards) for the majority of the contest, the game-winning play came through the air. Junior Nathan Garard, who completed 3 of 8 passes in the game, as well as a pair of two-point conversions, connected with classmate Bryce Barnes for a 23-yard touchdown with 1:08 left in the game.
 
“That was a great high school football game between two really good teams and two really good programs,” GCMS coach Mike Allen said. “Our kids fought just like they have all year. They never got down (on themselves). We played as a team for 48 minutes, and that showed at the end.”
 
Garard’s pass to Barnes was the second time the two hooked up on the drive. Facing a 3rd and 7 from their own 28-yard line, Garard found Barnes for a 35 yard reception. After the crucial conversion, GCMS went back to its ground game, running seven straight plays.
 
“We knew that we could put together a drive and take some time off of the clock,” Allen said. “We have an outstanding kicker in Ben Freehill. We were only down by two, so if we had to kick it, we were going to. We were going to ground and pound until we needed (to pass).”
 
Then, when the junior duo’s numbers were called, Garard and Barnes were ready.
 
“It was great blocking by our line,” Barnes said. “He threw it up, and I just made a play on the ball.
 
“It was pretty amazing, but we had to go back out on defense and shut them down,” he added. “The defense did its job.”
 
The Falcons defense, which only gave up 81 points through 13 games, allowed 32 to the Trojans. And, for the second week in a row, GCMS entered the halftime locker room looking up to their opponents on the scoreboard.
 
“They were a very good team, a very good offense,” Falcons senior linebacker Luke Freehill said. “In the first half, we didn’t break down or wrap up very well.”
 
The poor tackling was evident on Maroa-Forsyth’s first scoring play, a 55-yard catch and run by Aaron Inda, who caught a short slant pass and accelerated through the Falcons defense to the end zone.
 
McNutt, who scored his first of three touchdowns on the ensuing Falcons possession, said he knew there was a good chance the game would be a high-scoring affair.
 
“We knew it was going to track race,” he said.
 
After a 3-and-out on the opening possession of the second half, Maroa-Forsyth increased its lead to 26-15 when Trojans running back Deondre Gregory sliced through the Falcons defense for a 36-yard touchdown.
 
Despite the double-digit deficit, Allen kept feeding McNutt. GCMS responded with eight-straight runs (six by McNutt), and on two of those runs, McNutt was hit late out of bounds. Those penalties helped the Falcons eat up big yardage quickly to get back within one score after McNutt punched the ball over the goal line.
 
“Our line did great,” McNutt said. “I just tried to bounce some runs and get as many yards as I could get.”
 
After Garard ran in the two-point conversion, GCMS was down only three, 26-23.
 
As the clock hit zero in the third quarter, Maroa-Forsyth received a GCMS punt at the 49-yard line. Trojans quarterback Ian Benner connected with Kameron Boline for a 13-yard gain on first down, and it looked as though the Falcons defense might not have enough left in its tank.
 
Then, Freehill planted Benner for a three-yard loss on the ensuing first down. On second down, McNutt knocked down a wide receiver screen. Finally, GCMS senior safety Brooks Schmitt broke up a third-down pass to force Maroa-Forsyth’s third-consecutive punt.
 
With the Trojans defense keying on McNutt, Allen dialed up a run by Jared Trantina. The junior fullback bounced the run outside and sprinted down the GCMS sideline for a 49-yard gain to put the Falcons at the Trojans 17-yard line.
 
After McNutt picked up six on first down, Allen again went away from the workhorse, calling Schmitt’s number. Schmitt took the jet sweep around the left side of the line to cross the goal line.
 
That score put GCMS up 30-26, but the lead was short-lived. On third down near midfield, Maroa-Forsyth went back to Inda — this time on a reverse. Inda, who scored three times in the game, weaved through the Falcons defense to put the Trojans back up 32-30. 
 
Knowing the importance of the extra point, GCMS put extra pressure up the middle of the Maroa-Forsyth line and got a hand on the kick. With the block leaving their deficit at only two points, Allen said it took some pressure off of the offense, knowing they had the wind and a kicker with the ability to put it through the uprights.
 
The final scoring drive took 5:16 off of the clock. And, after Garard and Barnes put GCMS up on the touchdown, the two hooked up a second time on the conversion to give the Falcons the six-point lead they would not relinquish.
 
***
GCMS gave up just 81 points across all 13 of its games heading into the final contest of the season. And while the Trojans scored often, they didn’t do so as much as the Falcons.
 
“We knew that they were going to be tough, but as they started to get those (scores), we knew that that’s not the big play we needed,” GCMS junior linebacker Austin Spiller said. “We didn’t need to worry. We’d stop them when we needed to.”
 
That wound up true, but it was preceded by a bevy of offensive successes for both clubs, punctuated by Barnes’ catch that will live in GCMS lore.
 
Trailing 32-30 with a little more than six minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Falcons started a program-changing drive, methodically picking up yards on the ground and relying on a 35-yard completion from quarterback Nathan Garard to Barnes that put the ball in Maroa-Forsyth territory.
 
Garard thought he had an 11-yard scoring rush to cap the drive, but it was called back on a holding penalty.
 
“I had no idea,” he said. “I mean, it got really quiet all of a sudden, and I thought, ‘Our fans should be going crazy right now.’”
 
They did.
 
Just two plays later when Garard attempted his seventh and final pass of the night. The 6-foot-2 Barnes fully extended his body in the back of the end zone and came down with a 23-yard score to put the Falcons ahead 36-32.
 
“That’s a one-time thing, I think,” Barnes said. “I just said, ‘Bryce, you’ve got to make the play if we’re going to win this thing.’ Nate put the perfect pass, and I just went up and caught it.”
 
Barnes also caught the following two-point conversion to put GCMS up 38-32 with 1:08 to play.
 
All of this predated a game that saw seven lead changes and the Falcons claw back from a 26-15 deficit midway through the third quarter after Maroa-Forsyth’s Deondre Gregory (128 rushing yards) sprinted for a 36-yard touchdown.
 
That’s when GCMS got fired up. McNutt, who was struck twice by late hits on the next drive, pushed in a touchdown from 1 yard to cut the Falcons’ deficit to 26-23.
 
“We knew it’d kind of be like a track race,” McNutt said. “We score-they score kind of thing. We stop them, they stop us. Our line did great, and I was just bouncing runs to get some yardage.”
 
Then, after a heavy diet of McNutt and Jared Trantina (132 rushing yards on 14 carries) to start the fourth quarter, GCMS keyed up senior Brooks Schmitt for an 11-yard touchdown run and a 30-26 edge. It was one of Schmitt’s three carries on the day.
 
“Brooks is a good reader,” Allen said. “He cut up, cut back in and cut back out. He’s an outstanding athlete and a patient kid. We felt confident every time we ran him.”
 
The Trojans didn’t need long to respond, though. On their next possession, Inda turned a simple end-around into a 52-yard touchdown jaunt and a 32-30 Maroa-Forsyth lead.
 
But that was more than enough time for McNutt, Garard, Barnes and the rest of the Falcons to churn out one more memorable drive in a season full of memories before handing it over to a stout defense that was a key reason why the Falcons had a chance to win a state title.
 
After Barnes’ game-winning touchdown catch, Maroa-Forsyth could hardly move from its own 20. The Falcon defense found its form, with Barnes jumping in on the game’s final tackle.
 
“I was trying not to lose it,” Barnes said. “I was already getting emotional.”
 
The Falcons can let out all their emotions now. They’ve accomplished something no other GCMS program has ever done.
 
“Our kids never panicked,” Allen said. “What an awesome feeling when the clock struck zero.”
 
***
Full-blown press conferences are the exception rather than the norm in high school football. That’s especially true among smaller schools.
 
But every team that qualifies for Illinois’ state finals — held this year at Northern Illinois’ Huskie Stadium — gets the celebrity treatment after their respective games.
 
Win or lose.
 
Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley brought a coach and six players to last November's press event after the Falcons posted a 38-32 win over Maroa-Forsyth in the Class 2A championship game. And the reigning theme among them was extreme happiness.
 
Smiling. Giggling. Poking fun at one another. This small segment of GCMS’ first-ever state champion in any sport was enjoying the moment.
 
Junior Jared Trantina responded to a question about his running efforts in a very succinct manner. It elicited laughter from his teammates and a comment from his coach.
 
“See Jared run,” coach Mike Allen said to more chuckles.
 
Senior Luke Freehill began to turn red mid-quote as he muttered under his breath, “I’m not very good at this.”
 
More laughter.
 
Allen turned to senior Mitch McNutt at one point and asked the Falcons’ ground-game leader if he was the strongest player on the team. McNutt shrugged, so Allen went ahead and gave him the title anyway to much guffawing.
 
Yes, this was GCMS’ moment in the sun. And Allen made sure his players knew they could always turn back to it.
 
“People can take your house or car away from you,” he said, “but they can’t take this away from us.”
 
***
Catchphrases, cliches, slogans. Whatever you want to call them, many athletic programs make them a rallying cry before, during and after competition.
 
The Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley football team has chosen “Answer The Call” — a mantra that followed the Falcons (14-0) into last November's Class 2A state final against Maroa-Forsyth (12-2) at Northern Illinois’ Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
 
Senior linebacker Alex Rosenbaum said it comes from the players delivering that phrase to one another during max-outs in the weight room.
 
But, the Falcons have taken those three words to a new level thanks to the power of ingenuity and technology.
 
“After (the players) wanted to do ‘Answer The Call,’ I thought we needed to have phones,” Falcons coach Mike Allen said.
 
Phones? Yes, phones.
 
Picture this: A long, wooden board painted black, with two large GCMS Falcon logos plastered on the top corners and the words “2017 GCMS Falcon Football Answer The Call” in red lettering between.
 
Simple enough.
 
Now, the phones.
 
Below all the decoration is a row of 14 bright-red analog phones — although the team was waiting for No. 14 ahead of last Friday’s contest. Each phone represents a Falcon win this season, with the first 13 opponents and results in red text above the phones.
 
An undetermined result remained for No. 14. That was realized today with a state championship win.
 
This illustration of a team phrase would be different on its own.
 
Here’s the kicker: The phones ring.
 
“We ... wired them up and used a Bluetooth adaptor to sync with your phone, so we can call (the analog phones) and they would ring,” GCMS assistant coach Todd McNutt said matter-of-factly.
 
McNutt and videographer/booster club president Blake Warren are behind the tech efforts. They followed a previous motivational invention: A ladder GCMS used the last two seasons to symbolize the climb to a state title game.
 
“I like the phones a lot better, personally,” senior lineman Luke Freehill said. “Especially because they ring and I get to answer it.”
 
Freehill had picked up the corresponding ringing phone — without a result above it yet, of course — before each of the Falcons’ first four postseason games this year.
 
It’s an action that fires up GCMS’ players — although not necessarily because of its unique nature.
 
“Especially when he misses when he hangs it up,” senior lineman Ryan Shambrook said.
 
“I made it last week,” Freehill countered.
 
Regardless, Freehill had one last call to answer last Friday.
 
And that was the goal all along with this display, Allen said.
 
“The whole idea is a great thing, but it wouldn’t have been complete if we wouldn’t have had one on there,” Allen said. “They’re all going to be filled. It’s going to be something to have forever.”
 
***
Mike Allen, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School’s head football coach, made a point last week of wanting to make up for what he perceived as a transgression back in the day.
 
In 2009, Falcon supporters packed the downtown area to greet the arriving GCMS buses after the team’s Class 2A semifinal loss to Morrison.
 
The Falcons stayed on their buses as adoring fans showed appreciation for a two-loss season. Some wouldn’t think much of that maneuver. Allen is not some people, though.
 
“My biggest regret was not making those kids get off the bus and thank everyone,” Allen said. “(This year) we’re going to walk around town and thank everyone.”
 
No doubt his athletes were glad to hobnob with their rooters after Friday’s 38-32 state title win over Maroa-Forsyth as they walked along Sangamon Avenue and received high-fives and hugs from fans.
 
“That’s something I will never forget,” Allen said at a victory reception held Saturday at the high school’s football field. “There were a lot of people downtown last night, a lot of former players. They laid the foundation, and we want to say thank you to you. You do an excellent and are great role models for these younger players.” 
 
The reception was planned for 10:30 a.m. Saturday at GCMS Middle School, but it was instead held at the football field.
 
“People are going to be excited and proud of these kids either way,” Allen said Friday. “The way they handle themselves in the community, people are going to be appreciative.”
 
No. 2 -- Lives remembered
ROY ROEMER
Every game, every practice. Every team banquet, gathering and event. Roy Roemer attended them all.
 
Roemer, 67, a longtime Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley sports fan, died Thursday, Oct. 26, after a short battle with esophageal cancer.
 
More commonly known simply by his first name, Roemer spent countless hours watching GCMS athletes in all of their contests, encouraging the athletes throughout the game. He was well-known not just in Gibson City, but surrounding communities as well.
 
“I’ve been in Gibson City for 25 years and just found out his last name within the last few years,” said Susan Riley, GCMS High School math teacher. “Like Cher and Oprah, when you said ‘Roy’, everybody knew who you were talking about.”
 
Roemer spent his early years in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park where his father was a farmer. In 1970, Wesley and Marion Roemer moved their family to ground they had purchased southeast of Elliott, near Pontoppidan Lutheran Church.
 
Around that time, Roemer began attending Gibson City High School athletic events. He remembered watching the 1971-72 Greyhound boys’ basketball team, led by Dennis Graff, which played in the state tournament at the Assembly Hall.
 
From the time he arrived in Gibson City until his diagnosis in January, Roemer attended over 3,600 sporting events, including all of the football and boys’ basketball games. Sporting an Illini cap, Falcon shirt, khaki pants and black Velcro shoes, he was a fixture at GCMS games, supporting every athlete—win or lose.
 
“It didn’t matter how good or bad the season was going,” GCMS head football coach Mike Allen said. “He was always there cheering the athletes on and being positive.”
“He was such a positive person for our kids,” Riley said. “Although he’d acknowledge and didn’t sugarcoat errors, turnovers or penalties, he always left you with ‘we’ll get ‘em next time.’”
 
Roemer also kept a multitude of statistics. At football games, he could be spotted with a clipboard and pen in hand, writing down various things during the game.
 
During basketball games, he could be spotted writing something down on a piece of paper. Frank McCullough, a former Falcon basketball player who now broadcasts the games on the radio, said Roy kept a number of different stats over the years.
 
“Points, rebounds, assists,” McCullough said. “He had his own code, and only he knew how to decipher it. He had stacks of notebooks full of games he’d kept stats of.”
 
Roemer was not just a part of high school athletics, but also in the community’s activities. He spent many a day at the basketball court at the North Park, rebounding the ball and encouraging the youngsters as they competed. When school let out in the summer, Roemer attended youth baseball and softball league games and practices.
 
Tim Leonard, a Gibson City physician who runs the summer youth baseball league, said Roemer always treated the players with respect.
 
“The thing I remember about Roy was that he was there for kids of all ages, sizes, shapes and ability levels, rooting them on and never criticizing them,” he said. “He never criticized the coaches, officials or the players.”
 
“Roy was not only a great supporter to any youth who was involved in an extra-curricular activity, but the example he set as being a fan for everyone and for doing it in a positive way is one of the things I will remember Roy for the most,” Allen said.
 
The first year of GCMS softball was in the spring of 1994. Judy Weber-Jones had coached the softball team at Melvin-Sibley for about a decade, but Gibson City High School never fielded a softball team of its own.
 
“I remember the first high school softball game Roy attended when we met 25 years ago,” Weber-Jones said. “He had left the game early. The next day I asked him where he went. He said he went to watch the boys’ baseball game. I said ‘Roy, we need to talk. You can watch the whole softball game and still have plenty of the baseball game left to watch when the softball game is over. Then you can see both teams win.’”
 
“He never missed another softball game from start to finish,” she said.
 
When his mother was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and became a resident of the Gibson Area Hospital Annex in 1993, Roemer began volunteering at the home’s activities, calling Bingo cards, helping staff and residents, continuing long after his mother’s passing two years later.
 
Recognized by hospital staff for his commitment to the Annex, Roemer was also named Citizen of the Year in 2003.
 
Leonard, who first met Roemer as a visiting Blue Ridge basketball player in the early 1990s, said his treatment of both the Falcons and their opponents was hard not to miss.
 
“Roy was a gentleman till the day he died,” Leonard said. “’Please and thank you’ were the norm, and shaking your hand or giving you a fist bump greeting was the norm.”
 
In January, Roemer became ill and eventually found out that he had cancer. His diagnosis came just as the GCMS boys’ basketball team was about to host the class 2A regional tournament. Early that week, Roemer was hospitalized. The school and community banded together, selling white T-shirts bearing the hashtag “#RoyStrong”, and raised funds to help with his fight. Marketing students designed and created shirts featuring his likeness, which sold out. As the Falcons hosted Paxton-Buckley-Loda in the regional championship that Friday, the school honored Roemer by inducting him into the school’s athletic hall of fame.
 
Despite the initial scare, Roemer eventually returned to Gibson City, watching spring and summer sporting events. He received a standing ovation at the formal hall of fame induction ceremony at halftime of the Sept. 30 football game, and was presented with a plaque by cheerleaders and football players.
 
During a radio interview the next day, Roemer was asked about his favorite memories of Falcon games. He recalled the 41-40 four-overtime football win against Momence in 2004 as one of his favorites.
 
As his health continued to worsen, Roemer was unable to attend many games, though he kept up with the football contests on the radio. Several GCMS staff members drove him in a golf cart to the football games this past month, letting him enjoy the undefeated football team in its glory.
 
The football team learned at its weekly dinner that Roemer wasn’t likely to make it through the night. In a tribute to the program’s biggest supporter, they walked to the window of his apartment and sang the school fight song.
 
Roemer passed away shortly afterwards.
 
“It has been an emotional season. He was these kids’ biggest supporters from tee ball on up,” Allen said. “He was a big impact on our program and on our lives.”
As tributes were pouring in, a common sentiment was Roemer’s commitment to the athletes.
 
Weber-Jones recalled Roemer for his positive attitude, regardless of the team’s performance.
 
“Roy was always positive—win or lose,” she said. “I never ever heard him say anything negative to anybody. He always showed positive support to every coach and athlete.”
 
“Roy was about building people up,” Riley said. “We definitely need more Roys in the world.”
 
During the team’s first-round playoff game against Eastland/Pearl City, fans were encouraged to wear white in honor of Roy. The football players wore sport special stickers on their helmets.
 
Weber-Jones, who visited Roemer in the hospital several times, said his legacy will not be forgotten.
 
“Roy will be dearly missed by all of us that knew him,” she said. His legacy of how to treat people with kindness and compassion will live on forever in our memories. Roy was loved by all.”
 
Before the GCMS football team's first-round playoff game against Eastland-Pearl City, Allen told his players they will have an unseen advantage, with Roy on their side.
 
“The officials don’t know it, but we’re playing with 12 guys today,” Allen said.
 
At GCMS High School's Fall Sports Awards Night held Wednesday, Dec. 13, Vera Bunting, an LPN at Gibson Area Hospital who was the power of attorney for health care for Roemer, spoke to the football team. 
 
She referred to the kids as being “very respectful and caring” and said, “I know (Roy) was, and still is, smiling” at the GCMS football team’s run to the state championship.
 
CAITLYNN RIBLET
Through her four-year battle with cancer, Caitlynn Riblet always kept a positive attitude.
 
"She never stopped smiling," said Rick Riblet, Caitlynn's father. "No matter how much it hurt, she never stopped."
 
The journey came to an end at 5:40 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, when Caitlynn passed away.
 
It started in December 2013, when she fell on her buttocks during a Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School basketball practice.
 
After some preliminary scans were done, Caitlynn was sent up to Chicago to do more scans, and that is where she learned she had a form of bone cancer called Ewing's Sarcoma. 
 
The Sarcoma in Caitlynn's sacrum would soon be 95 percent dead, and in the Facebook account Caitlynn's Journey, it was posted in April 2016 that all scans were clear.
 
After it was posted in September 2016 that Caitlynn "has been having lots of pain in her Sacrum/Tailbone lately," she took two more trips to the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, where it was confirmed in October that a Ewing's Sarcoma-like cancer occurred.
 
At the Cleveland Clinic, doctors performed a cryoblation on Caitlynn, which killed 90 percent of the tumors. The remaining 10 percent, according to Caitlynn's Journey in a Feb. 21 post, "will be left up in the air for radiation, chemotherapy or another cryoblation."
 
It was declared in August that "there is no treatment" for her tumors.
 
Caitlynn then spent the rest of her life at the home of her mother, Kelly Jo Watson Fessler.
 
"From the time she got sent home from Cleveland to the time she passed away, it was two weeks," Rick Riblet said. "It went pretty quickly. The cancer progressed so much. It was growing so fast. It was crazy."
 
Still, Rick said Caitlynn kept her upbeat attitude. 
 
"There's a lot of people going through that house -- a lot of girls, a lot of parents. She was always smiling, always happy. Everybody who came to see her, she was always happy to see them. She never acted like she was sick," Rick said. 
 
"That was one good thing about it. Through her last days, she didn't need anything. Most people in hospice need oxygen or other means to keep them going, but she was comfortable and died peacefully -- no more needles, no more poking and prodding. It's a blessing that she went peacefully. She suffered too long."
 
Caitlynn's upbeat attitude, Rick said, should serve as an example for others.
 
"When we get an ache or a pain, we've got to remember that Caitlynn didn't complain about hers, so we probably shouldn't complain about ours."
 
Caitlynn's smile was well-known to many of her acquaintances, including the hospice nurse who saw Caitlynn at her mother's home during her final weeks. 
 
On an evaluation of 1-10, the hospice nurse, according to Rick, said Caitlynn was at an 8-9 on pain. 
 
"She was laying there talking to me smiling and laughing, and we said, 'Yeah, that's Caitlynn,' Rick said. "She would never tell anybody she was in pain. She always cared about everybody else and put her problems aside. That's what everybody says -- she was always smiling."
 
It was also well-known to Alex Goudy, Caitlynn's former swim coach when she swam for the Paxton Aquatic Wildcats. 
 
"It was kind of a hard loss because she always had that contagious smile," Goudy said. "Everybody keeps saying that, but it's true. When you think of her, she's always smiling. It's too bad that her life had to end so soon. She was a wonderful kid, and it's a shame that she's not going to be here."
 
No. 3 -- Happy retirement
The Paxton-Buckley-Loda school board voted unanimously to hire Brock Niebuhr as athletic director at PBL High School during a special board meeting on April 26. 
 
Effective July 1, Niebuhr replaced longtime AD John Overstreet, who retired after serving as the school's athletic director since 1999.
 
John Overstreet has received some accolades of his own during his time as athletic director.
 
In 2012, at a ceremony in Fargo, North Dakota, Overstreet was honored by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association for his quality work in the past year and his career as a whole. He was one of the eight finalists from across the country who was up for the national athletic director of the year award handed out by the NHSACA.
 
In 2011, he won Illinois Athletic Directors Association Class A athletic director of the year. He was nominated for the award in 2010 as well.
 
Overstreet also served as the Sangamon Valley Conference's secretary since 1997, and was praised for his work at the job by Iroquois West athletic director Hanns Meyer put it a 2010 letter in support of John’s nomination for the Illinois Athletic Directors Association Class A athletic director of the year. 
 
"As executive secretary and the longest-serving athletic director in the association, his commitment to the SVC has sustained the stability of the conference through many changes in membership and principals over the years," Meyer's letter stated. 
 
Overstreet was hired for a teaching position in 1983 by Charlie Wood, who served as the school district's superintendent when Overstreet was still in high school and kept that position until the early 1990's.
 
"He definitely gave me so many opportunities in all my 34 years here at Paxton/PBL," Overstreet said. "Charlie was major influence in my life. I owe him a lot."
 
While teaching at the PBL Junior High School building -- located at what is now PBL Eastlawn Elementary School -- for 11 years, Overstreet coached junior high boys basketball during nine of those years. He also started a 29-year run as the high school boys' track and field team.  
 
In his final year as the head track and field coach, the team won what was believed to be the program's first ever sectional title in 2012. The Panthers tied for first with Tri-Valley with 84 points apeice.
 
"I knew it was going to be close. It was a good feeling," Overstreet said. "I didn't know at that point in time that I wasn't going to be coaching next year because of some changes, but it was a good experience."
 
Overstreet also served as a coach for football team for 12 years -- and for a 12-year run that ended in 2012, coached boys' and girls' high school cross country.
 
Two of Overstreet's boys cross country teams -- in 2006 and 2007 -- that qualified for the IHSA's state meet.
 
"His web-based publication of the SVC has made it a model to other conferences throughout the state of Illinois. His leadership and commitment to the SVC is irreplaceable." 
 
Niebuhr previously served as an assistant football coach and volunteer baseball coach at PBL. He landed at PBL in 2011, after being hired as a P.E. teacher at the high school.
 
In June, PBL approved Brock Niebuhr of another job previously held by a retiree. He was hired as the high school's head baseball coach. 
 
Niebuhr succeeds a 22-year run in which Pat Prina and Rick Johnson led the Panthers to a combined 453 wins. Johnson's PBL squads won a IHSA Class 2A regional championship in 2016 and last spring.
 
Johnson arrived at PBL as both a junior high science teacher and basketball coach, as well as an assistant baseball coach under Pat Prina, in 1995. In that first year,  the PBL High School baseball team went 32-5, losing 2-1 in the sectional championship to eventual state-tournament qualifier Normal University High School.
 
After Prina retired in 2006, Johnson applied to his position as junior high physical education teacher as well as head coach of the PBL Junior High and High School baseball teams.
 
Under Johnson, the PBL Junior High baseball team posted a record of 157-58 since 2006. From 2007-16, the high school team went 204-110, with the 2007 season being the only one in which the Panthers finished under .500.
 
In Johnson's time as a coach with the PBL High School baseball program, including his 11 years as an assistant under Prina, the Panthers won 453 games.
 
In his final year as the PBL Junior High School coach, his team won a 2016 regional championship. The following spring, his high school Panthers went 29-4, winning their third consecutive Sangamon Valley Conference championship and second straight regional title.
 
Niebuhr served as a volunteer assistant for the high school baseball team for what he estimated to be four years. He also has spent more than a decade as a member of the Eastern Illinois Baseball League's Buckley Dutchmasters.
 
With Niebuhr as the team's player/coach, the Dutchmasters won EI League Tournament titles in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
 
No. 4 -- PBL-GCMS boys basketball regional title game
Ford County rival boys basketball teams Paxton-Buckley-Loda and Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley took it down to the wire in last February's IHSA Class 2A Gibson City Regional championship game.
 
In the end, PBL pulled away with a 43-40 victory over the Falcons to clinch a second consecutive regional championship.
 
The Panthers' regional championship was their second consecutive title and their sixth regional title in 11 years.
 
As the final 8.7 seconds ticked away, GCMS's Mitch McNutt and Tucker Cribbett each had a chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer, but both missed.
 
The Panthers started the fourth quarter with a 36-32 deficit before Ryland Holt recorded a steal with 7:32 remanining and McNutt grabbed an offensive rebound, but Holt missed a shot attempt, on which Dalton Coplea grabbed a defensive rebound before getting blocked on a transition layup attempt by Holt with 6:56 remaining. 
 
Seven seconds later, however, Andrew Zenner made a jump shot to cut PBL's deficit to 36-34.
 
Barnes then made a basket to extend the Falcons' lead to 38-34. 
 
A 3-pointer by Colton Kleinert with 6:01 remaining in the fourth quarter cut the Panthers' deficit to 38-37. 
 
It was not the first time Kleinert hit a big fourth-quarter 3-pointer. During the previous Tuesday's regional semifinal game against St. Joseph-Ogden, his trey with 1:05 remaining extended PBL's lead to a two-possession one at 52-47.
 
Eshleman missed a 3-pointer, but with Luke Fitton guarding him, Holt was called for traveling with 5:20 remaining in the game. 
 
Kleinert — who scored 10 points for PBL — then scored on a driving layup to put his team ahead 39-38 on Friday against GCMS after a Holt block a Fitton shot attempt resulted in a loose ball.
 
After McNutt — who finished with a team-high 14 points for GCMS — scored on a driving layup to put the Falcons back up 40-39 and he and Cole Eshleman exchanged missed layups, Eshleman was fouled on a transition layup attempt following a missed shot by Barnes with 2:11 remaining. 
 
He made two free throws to put the Panthers up 41-40.
 
After Dalton Coplea forced a GCMS turnover via deflection from McNutt and Ben Freehill and Barnes each missed a 3-point shot attempt, Coplea — who led all scorers with 16 points — made two free throws with 11.5 seconds remaining to make the score 43-40. 
 
In the final seconds of the third quarter, Dalton Coplea made a jump shot to cut PBL's deficit to 36-32. It was his third field goal of that quarter.
 
The buzzer-beating shot stopped a 6-0 run by the Falcons that followed a game-tying driving layup by Colton Kleinert with 3:17 remaining in the third quarter that made the score 30-30.
 
The environment that night in Gibson City included a white-out of shirts on the GCMS fans' side of the gymnasium.
 
The fans wore white shirts in honor of in honor of Roy Roemer, a GCMS sports fan who was inducted at halftime as a member of the GCMS Athletic Hall of Fame in a special ceremony. With 1:31 remaining in the game, the GCMS fans could be heard chanting, "Win for Roy."
 
Roemer could not make it to the game — he is at Carle Hospital in Champaign with throat cancer. 
 
With its loss, GCMS ended its season with a record of 22-9. Meanwhile, PBL would eventually move on to the Monticello Sectional championship game after a victory in the sectional semifinals over Warrensburg-Latham. The Panthers (21-8) would lose 41-32 in overtime to Monticello in the sectional title game, making it the second straight year that they would be knocked out of the postseason in the Sweet 16.
 
No. 5 -- PBL football team reaches playoffs after rough start
Paxton-Buckley-Loda overcame some adversity en route to its fourth consecutive playoff berth. 
 
PBL entered the playoffs on a six-game winning streak after starting the season 0-3. It was one of only two teams in this year's group of 256 playoff-bound squads to accomplish the feat.
 
"One of the main themes that this team kind of portrays is a never-quit and never-give-up attitude, and I think that was shown from the beginning of the season," PBL head coach Jeff Graham said after the season ended
 
The 2017 started with a 39-7 loss to PBL's Ford County rival in Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley. In week two, PBL lost 22-16 to Westville.
 
The Panthers' third straight loss came at the hands of Clifton Central, the eventual Sangamon Valley Conference champion, via 27-7 score.
 
"After that Clifton game, we continued our dialogue about the importance of doing the right things," Graham said. "We continued talking about working hard and playing hard, and eventually we started winning."
 
"I said to my players, 'I just want you to play as hard as you possibly can and give the best effort and do the right things on and off the field, and we will start winning,' and our kids did. The credit to that goes to our kids. They never stopped and pointed fingers. 
 
"They never wanted to play the blame game. They continued on and came out to practice and played hard and practiced hard and never gave up, and I'm just proud of them for that."
 
The winning streak started with two victories on the road -- a 45-6 victory in week four in a 44-20 triumph over Momence in week five -- before PBL won 57-0 in its homecoming game over Iroquois West and 51-19 away from Zimmerman over a an Oakwood team that entered the week-seven game with a 4-2 record.
 
The Panthers went into week eight needing two wins to clinch a playoff berth, starting with a Saturday evening game against a Watseka/St. Anne team that entered the week with a 6-1 record.
 
"After going 0-3, all of the games were obviously big for us, but I think that was a game that was very important for us, confidence-wise, because we knew Watseka was good," Graham said.
 
The Panthers won 13-12 in overtime after the Warriors blocked a potential game-winning field goal at the end of regulation and took a 12-6 lead with a passing touchdown. 
 
After Will Pound intercepted Watseka's Brendan Fletcher on a two-point conversion attempt, T.J. Jones scored on a 5-yard touchdown run and Keyn Humes made the game-winning extra point.
 
"That was a big win for us," Graham said.
 
After winning 53-0 over Dwight/Gardner-South Wilmington in its regular-season finale, PBL was selected as a No. 13 seed in an IHSA Class 3A bracket that had no 5-4 teams. 
 
The Panthers fell behind 21-0 to Peotone in their first-round playoff game before they rallied back with two touchdowns to cut their lead to 21-14 midway through the second quarter.
 
The rally would not be enough, however, as the Blue Devils scored 20 straight second-half points en route to a 41-20 victory.
 
"Our kids never gave in. They never quit. They never stopped," Graham said. "I think that's a main theme with this group."
 
No. 6 -- Area girls basketball coaches depart
There was a shakeup in Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School athletics,  and not just due to the retirements of athletic director John Overstreet and head baseball coach Rick Johnson.
 
The PBL school  board accepted Rachel Hurliman’s resignation as junior high math teacher and high school head girls basketball coach last June.
 
Hurliman posted a combined 30-27 record during her two years as PBL High School's head girls basketball coach. 
 
After a 16-11 campaign in 2015-16, the Panthers finished last season with a 14-16 record after defeating Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley 38-31 in the IHSA Class 2A Clifton Regional quarterfinals and upsetting top-seeded Iroquois West via 41-36 score before losing in the championship game 42-35 to Clifton Central.
 
That same June, Nathan Lawler was hired as Hurliman's successor.
 
Meanwhile, at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School, Mindy Whitehouse was terminated in May after posting a record of 32-54, including a 10-18 mark in 2016-17, through three seasons as the head coach of the GCMS girls basketball team.
 
The following June, Keri Dornbusch was hired as Whitehouse's successor.
 
No. 7 -- PBL HS XC goes to state
The Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School boys cross country team earned a trip to state with a third-place finish in the IHSA Class 1A Lisle Sectional.
 
That was the Panthers' first trip to the state meet as a taem since 2007.
 
According to Franckey, each of his seven runners set at least a grass-course personal record at the state meet en route to a 20th-place finish. He estimates that six of them set lifetime personal records.
 
Kody Harrison finished 53rd in the state meet to lead the Panthers.
 
No. 8 -- PBL Junior High School's Ryder James wins state medals
Ryder James of the Paxton-Buckley-Loda Junior High School boys cross country finished second individually in the IESA Class 2A state cross country meet last October.
 
Last May, James placed third in the 1,600-meter run and 11th in the 800-meter run in the IESA Class AA state track and field meet last May.
 
No. 9 -- GCMS High School track and field athletes earn state medals
Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley girls track and field runner Delanie Dykes finished sixth in the IHSA Class 1A state meet last May.
 
In the boys' state meet, Caleb Bleich finished ninth in the long jump and Nick Schultz finished ninth in the triple jump.
 
No. 10 -- Dutchmasters win third straight EI League Tournament title
With a 7-5 victory over the Champaign Dream in game two of the Eastern Illinois Baseball League Tournament championship series last August, the Buckley Dutchmasters three-peated as the league's postseason champion. 
 
By winning in game two of the best-of-three championship series on Sunday, not only did the Dutchmasters claim their third straight tournament championship victory, but they have more postseason titles (15) than any other team in the EI League.
 
Buckley also won the regular-season title with a 16-5 record, five more wins than three teams that finshed in a three-way tie for second place.

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