Eight days ago, I emptied out my desk at Sauk Valley Media.
Fortunately – and unlike so many people in the newspaper business – I left on my terms.
I am wrapping up my first week as the sports editor for Unified Newspaper Group in Verona, Wisconsin. I am in charge of all things sports for three weekly newspapers – the Verona Press, Oregon Observer and Stoughton Courier Hub – and the monthly Fitchburg Star.
My first week has been a challenge adapting to a new email system and a vastly different editing system. I’ve found my mind drifting back to my days at SVM, 2½ years full of mostly good memories.
It feels like forever since December 26, 2016 – my first day at SVM. Months passed before I felt comfortable with my writing style and editing skills. Almost a year passed before I felt comfortable working on pages.
Yet, I never had to worry about feeling important at SVM. The sports department waited 8 weeks for me to graduate from Western Illinois University back in 2016, then sports editor Ty Reynolds encouraged me to take a week before I started my job. I joined two of my best friends on a trip to Arizona, a trip I’ll never forget.
I can’t thank Ty, assistant sports editor Eric Ingles, sports reporter Brian
turned-news-extraordinaire Cody Cutter, and photographers Alex Paschal and Michael Krabbenhoeft enough. The communities throughout the Sauk Valley are deserving of and spoiled to have each one of them.
My main goal in any job I have is to not necessarily go to the office and have it not feel like work – it’s just not realistic to go in thinking you’re going to love every single day on the clock. But for the most part, I truly enjoyed covering sports in the Sauk Valley.
I could not have asked for a better first job in the business.
Thus, I want to leave you with a few of my favorite memories and people I met in the past 2½ years.
Favorite team to cover: 2018 Sterling volleyball
The Golden Warriors were dominance personified. Two Division I recruits, two more likely D-I recruits, and a host of key role players combined to go 41-1 and win the second state championship in Sterling High School history.
In most cases, the Warriors already had the match won before the first whistle. While SHS coaches and players went through warmups, opponents worriedly watched spike after spike slam off the floor and bounce up to the rafters.
The atmosphere for Sterling’s supersectional matchup with Morton at Musgrove Fieldhouse was as electric as any I’ve seen covering high school
Favorite event to cover: IHSA State Track & Field Meet
I won’t miss the unbelievably slow elevator at O’Brien Field, or the run-down hotel in Mattoon that I used to stay at. But watching athletes work so hard in the spring and be rewarded in Charleston was always neat to see.
I covered the boys meet in 2017, as Newman’s Easton Bianchi won the Class 1A 100- and 200-meter dashes, Rock Falls’ Brayden Hamblen took the 2A 3,200-meter run, and Forreston-Polo’s Mason Wright leapt to victory in the 1A triple jump.
I watched Dixon’s Tayla Schwarz win her third straight 2A discus title at the 2018 girls meet, and also saw Fulton’s Chloe Lindeman win her first 1A shot put crown, and marveled at Bureau Valley’s 4x100 relay team that edged 1A competitor St. Joseph-Ogden by a nose at the finish line.
I never had a doubt Lindeman would defend her title this past May, and teammate Daekota Knott broke through as a senior to win her first 1A triple jump crown.
Favorite game: 2019 3A Baseball Sycamore Sectional final,
Dixon vs. Boylan
Perhaps no game in the Dukes’ run to their first Class 3A state tournament captured the nature of the team quite like their 5-2 victory over the Titans.
Payton Lawrence, who ultimately set the single-season strikeout record, struck out a casual 12. But it was his ability to bear down and grind out the win that was so impressive. Most pitchers would have crumbled after throwing their first seven pitches for balls, or after allowing five hits and five walks. But Lawrence gutted it out, helped in part by big hits from Tucker Cole, Andrew Long and Finn Brandon along the way.
Favorite coach: Rock Falls’ Donnie Chappell
Baseball is and always will be my first love. I grew up chasing foul balls in the cornfields of Dakota, where my father coached varsity baseball for more than a decade.
I occasionally served as the team’s bat boy, where I witnessed firsthand my dad’s infinite knowledge of the game. Chappell, in so many ways, reminded me of the way my dad used to coach.
Chappell has the ability to teach baseball to any player, regardless of skill level. He knows how to get the full potential out of his players, and talks so intelligently about all aspects of the game.
More than anything, Chappell hates sloppy baseball. He believes the game should be respected by throwing strikes, taking the extra step to get in front of a grounder, being aggressive and smart on the basepaths, and pouncing on 0-0 fastballs at the plate.
director: Eastland’s Scott Hartman
Having attended Aquin High School, I knew of Hartman well before I began my job at SVM. Witnessing just how much he does for Eastland athletics has been eye-opening in the past 2½ years.
He’s let me into the high school building at 9 a.m. for a summer basketball camp, and let me stay until 11 p.m. to file a football story. No matter when and what event I saw him at, he always had a focused smile on his face.
I’m a firm believer that athletic directors – like journalists and teachers – don’t get nearly enough credit for all the work they do. For as many hours of hard work athletes put in throughout a school year, ADs bust their humps at least twice as hard.
Eastland has been successful in seemingly every sport for as long as I’ve been alive. A consistent presence in Hartman has undoubtedly helped along the way.
I know this is a cop-out, but I can’t point to only one story as my favorite.
My most fulfilling story was the obituary feature I did on local motorcycle legend Bill Baird. I felt a responsibility to do right by Baird’s family with the story. Bill’s wife, Millie, sent me a thank you card a week after the article ran. I plan on keeping the card for as long as I live.
The most enjoyable story I worked on was the 2017 SVM Football Co-Players of the Year – Dixon’s Arthur Cox and Sterling’s Nyrel Sullivan. The two became best friends as kids playing on Marclare Street in Dixon, then played 2 years together for the Dukes. Even when Sullivan moved to Sterling before his junior year, the dynamic duo remained great friends.
Cox and Sullivan were far and away the best football players I covered for SVM.
I always tried to think of interesting angles to approach a story. So when I was given the 2019 SVM Softball Player of the Year story on Sterling pitcher Jayme Eilers, I figured my background as a former Division I catcher could be put into action.
My skills, as I learned the hard way, have not exactly aged well. Eilers was a good sport about my inability to handle her wicked four-pitch arsenal. I had never caught a softball pitcher, but came out with as good a softball story as I’ve ever written.
Unlike the Eilers’ story, I was not going to try to relate to Eli Pannell’s skills on the football field or wrestling mat for the 2019 SVM Male Athlete of the Year story.
There was absolutely no way I was going to be a tackling dummy or put on a singlet and match up against an undefeated state champion. Sitting on a bench in Fulton’s weight room and getting to learn more about Pannell’s senior season was just fine by me.
The Pannell story was the last feature I ever wrote for SVM – and I thought it was my best.
Really, that’s all I ever wanted to do as a sports journalist – grind out long hours, enjoy the process of my craft, and be proud of my work. I’m certainly biased, but I know for a fact that I accomplished all three of those things in a wonderful 2½ years at SVM.