Illinois town celebrates more than wins

AP Photo/Seth Perlman

The teachers and coaches at Washington High have tried to remove the association between winning and helping the town recover from a natural disaster, but it's no coincidence both are going on simultaneously.

On the morning her town and her neighbors were changed forever, Maggie Mose lay facedown on the floor of her church.

They all thought about that later, how many of them were in church that November morning when the EF4 tornado -- in the top 1 percent on the scale of violent twisters -- ripped through central Illinois with little warning. It killed seven people, damaged more than 1,000 homes in Washington, Ill., a town of 15,000 -- and skimmed past them.

"Washington is such a faith-based community, so many people were in church that morning and it ended up saving their lives," said Mose, Washington High's first-year girls' basketball coach and a former star player at the high school and later at Illinois State.

So close was the tornado's path to Mose and her husband, Matt, that their car, which was in the church parking lot, was destroyed.

"We were pretty clueless," Mose said. "Maybe we hadn't watched the news that morning, but it was a beautiful day for being Nov. 17, warm that morning and really nice. We were getting ready to leave church when they made an announcement, 'Everybody back in the sanctuary, nobody's leaving.' ...

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Three months after a EF4 tornado ripped through Central Illinois, approximately 120 Washington High students are still displaced from their homes.

"Our church doesn't have a basement, so all of us were laying on the ground. It was very scary. I don't know if my heart has ever beat that fast. They always say tornadoes sound like a train roaring through, and it's true. You couldn't just hear it, you could feel it in your ears. And then 30 seconds later, it was just calm."

Across Peoria, some 15 miles from Washington, junior forward Jess Learned was in the basement of her church with different thoughts on her mind.

"I'm thinking, 'Tornadoes happen, it'll touch down and go right back up again,'" Learned said. "So me and my friend were laughing and having a jolly old time. Little did I know that it was ripping through Washington. When we came up, my phone was blowing up with texts asking if we were all right."

The family -- the Learneds have four children, including one married daughter -- rushed back to Washington, but police had closed the roads outside their neighborhood.

"So we parked at a Goodwill a mile and a half from the house and walked, and it was no pleasant walk, let me tell you," Learned said. "We were in our church clothes, my grandma was with us, the wind was blowing 20 to 30 miles per hour and you could see houses in neighborhoods six roads away because there was nothing in between."

Without homes

Three months later, Learned is one of approximately 120 Washington High students still displaced from their homes, according to District 308 superintendent James Dunnan, some commuting to school from 30 or more miles away.

This past Thursday, Learned scored a game-high 19 points to lead her team to its first girls' sectional basketball title in 37 years, one more achievement in a year filled with success for Washington athletes.

While teachers and coaches have taken great pains to try to remove the association between winning on the athletic field and helping the town recover from a natural disaster, many of them say it is no coincidence that both are going on simultaneously.

"You look at some of these kids who have been affected and who have helped their friends, and you can see it," said athletic director Herb Knoblauch. "They don't compete with a chip on their shoulder, they compete knowing they can get through the toughest of times. Nothing rattles them; the maturity is there. It's 'Man, what happened to our town makes us mad, but we can get through anything and we can win.'

"But if we lose, they have perspective."

Six days after the tornado, it was in semi-shock that Washington's undefeated football team played in the Illinois Class 5A semifinals for the chance to compete for the state championship.

Most in the crowd of 2,000-plus in Springfield that Saturday, when temperatures dipped to 12 degrees by halftime, still did not have power or running water. Many had lost their homes and were living with friends and relatives. And the football players were emotionally and physically exhausted after a week in which, led by head coach Darrell Crouch, they supported friends and neighbors and assisted in the cleanup.

They were not alone.

"Our school's technical director can barely talk about it without starting to cry," Knoblauch said. "Her house was hit in a neighborhood with 100-year-old trees. I mean, big trees were twisted and laying in her yard, and she's sitting there thinking it would take her and her fiancé and dad months and months, and hundreds and hundreds of dollars just to clear the backyard.

"Then she looks up, and walking up are 20 wrestlers saying, 'Amber, do you need help?' They just went after it, and in three hours, they had the yard cleaned [with the help of wrestlers from Chicago-area schools, who came in to assist]. That's when you know we have some men."

Ten players on the varsity football team and 20 more in the program had lost their homes. The week leading up to the game was hardly about football, "it was about trying to take care of basic human needs," Crouch said.

His team ended up losing to a Sacred Heart-Griffin team that kept Washington -- an hour and 15-minute drive from Springfield -- supplied with food and bottled water all week, sent seven buses to transport Panthers fans to the game, fed their opponents a pregame meal and fed the entire town of Washington after the contest.

And maybe just as miraculously, the Washington fans all stayed.

"And stayed and stayed," Knoblauch said. "At least 80 to 90 percent of them. We didn't have cellphones, no TV, and it's not like we'd seen each other at the stores because the stores were all closed. So this was the first time everyone was together, crying and hugging and checking if everyone was OK. And not 10 to 20 people but 1,500 people-plus, sitting at those tables at Sacred Heart-Griffin for hours."

That same weekend, the girls' basketball team was getting ready to open its season with a game on Monday and a tournament the following weekend. It withdrew from both.

"I remember that Saturday night [before the tornado hit], I couldn't get to sleep because I was so excited," Mose said. "As a first-year head coach, I was worried, 'How were the girls going to execute?'

"Then Sunday night rolls around, and I couldn't sleep for completely different reasons."

Coaching life

After a day of trying to locate her players, Mose's job dramatically changed.

"One of my assistant coaches who has been doing this a long time said, 'Well, they don't train you for this,'" Mose recalled. "And no, they do not. And you can't prepare for it. ... Sports have always played a huge part in my life, and I probably put too much weight on the sports side of things.

"This gave us a chance to be vulnerable and transparent with the girls, to teach them things we typically don't get an opportunity to teach, about being the kind of person you want to be."

Learned was her team leader, "our rah-rah person who always encourages others," Mose said. She was also the only player on the team to have lost her home, which was leveled by bulldozers after it was determined the foundation was too badly damaged to remain standing.

The first thing the coach did was tell her other players there were going to be days when they would need to pick up Jess instead.

"They gave me clothes, nail polish, did my hair, anything a girl could possibly need, they were awesome," said Learned, whose family lived in short stints with her grandparents, her sister and in a hotel before renting a small apartment in town.

"Then, as the weeks went on and things went back to as normal as it could be, Coach made sure that basketball was a sanctuary, and there it was calm and peaceful and I wasn't thinking about anything else. ...

"When I'm playing basketball, I don't think, 'Oh, poor, pitiful me, I lost my house.' I'm like everyone else, I want to be as good as I can be, and it's working great."

Mose estimated that 90 percent of the crowd that filled both the upper and lower balconies for their regional championship and two sectional games was wearing Washington orange. She expects much of the same for Monday night's supersectional, which will be played two hours away. The winner will advance to the state finals at Illinois State, where Mose is sixth all time in scoring and seventh in assists.

This past weekend, Washington's wrestling team, the same boys who raced around tornado-stricken neighborhoods chopping and carrying away fallen lumber, reached the state quarterfinals before losing to the eventual state champs.

The previous weekend, in the individual state tournament, Washington wrestlers claimed two state titles, two second-place finishes and one third.

"I think our wrestling coach said it best at our pep assembly, that our kids have seen adversity but this is fun adversity," Knoblauch said. "They're going to work hard, but what they've lived through was devastating.

"We're making some pretty good citizens here. I just believe they're going to be better people because of this. They saw Kevin Brown, our [boys'] basketball coach, sleeping four hours a night those first weeks, relentlessly helping people. And they saw our football coach, Darrell Crouch, walking up to house after house after house, and those kids were with him."

Mose, who expects her first child in August, said the growing has not been limited to the kids.

"I'm 26 years old, so certainly I am not an experienced, mature adult," she said with a laugh. "I know I have a ton of growing up and learning to do. But I have learned a lot from the kids and people in town affected, my co-workers, too."

As a relentless winter has pounded central Illinois along with much of the rest of the country, repair and construction has slowed to a near halt. It will be next fall at the earliest before the Learneds will be in a new home.

But you will not hear her complaining.

"Houses are just stuff, but relationships are what really matter, and we've grown so much as family, as a school and whole community," she said. "When you walk through Wal-Mart or the [town] square, people smile more. It stinks that this is how it had to come, for neighbors to know each others' names, but it's a great outcome.

"In a way, it doesn't matter if we don't win every game. It's definitely what God has put in my heart lately, that basketball is just temporary. Yes, I love playing it and I play my heart out every single game, but life still goes on."

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