EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. – There is outrage after a middle school basketball team from East St. Louis is forced to forfeit a state sectional playoff game after their bus broke down.
The team missed a chance to play by just three minutes.
The Lincoln Middle School Tigers seventh-grade team was crowned regional champion after beating Vandalia. They were moving on to play North Mac Middle School from Macoupin County, with Pana Junior High School in central Illinois hosting the game on Monday. Pana is about a 90-minute drive from East St. Louis.
Icy conditions and school cancellations from this week’s winter storm pushed the game back to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The school bus taking the Tigers to the game broke down on the way. Another bus picked up the team. The players put on their uniforms so they’d be ready to play the moment they arrived. They made it to Pana at 7:03 p.m. The other team was still there, in uniform.
“Their five players were on the court, ready to play,” said Erica Hopkins, whose son plays for Lincoln. “The coaches were still right there. You had the three refs that were still right there. You had the people in the back ready to take the score. Nobody left.”
The IESA (Illinois Elementary School Association) by-laws state that a team failing to have the required number of players needed to start a game “within 30 minutes of the scheduled game time shall forfeit the game.”
The Tigers missed the deadline by three minutes. Still, the team cheered through tears as their opponents were awarded the sectional championship trophy.
“We did it because we didn’t want to seem like a non-sportsmanship team,” said Kenneth Brown, a player. “We wanted to keep good vibes … but when we went back to the locker room, it was very sad. We all were crying.”
“Just because we’re 3:00 late, we don’t play. It’s just … sadness,” said Emurion Jackson, a player.
Ramel Prince’s son, “Teddy,” is also on the team. Prince beat the Lincoln bus to the game.
“Boys come in fully dressed, ready to play. They go straight to the locker room,” he said.
Prince said he assumed the game was on when the team came out onto the floor.
“(My son’s) got tears in his eyes, saying, ‘No, we can’t play.’ As a father, that tears me up inside, because I know how hard my boy works,” he said. “I know how hard all of these boys work.”
The East St. Louis School District sent the IESA an urgent request Thursday to reschedule the game.
The Lincoln Middle School seventh-grade team is still practicing. IESA Executive Director Nicole Schaefbauer said the by-laws do not allow exceptions for bad weather or bus trouble.
Kyle Hacke, a superintendent for North Mac Schools, wrote in an email: “This game was not held at our school, nor was it our call. Our team was not involved in the decision to cancel.”
Pana School Superintendent Jason Bauer said in an email that “Schools that host postseason tournaments are mandated to follow all rules, policies, procedures, and by-laws as set forth by the Illinois Elementary School Association (IESA).”
“They get penalized for something nobody can predict? That’s wrong,” Hopkins said. “Three minutes late? That’s wrong!”
“If I have to pack all of the kids into my car and drive to wherever that team is from, I’ll do that,” Prince said. “I know we’ve got dedicated parents on the team that will do that. Give the boys a fair chance. That’s all we’re asking for.”
Without that chance, they wondered what kind of message the people in charge were sending to their children.