High schoolers provide week’s best matchup

Joe Ziomek Column

A remarkable event took place Friday in Welsh-Ryan Arena. At halftime of the high school boys’ basketball game between archrivals Evanston Township and neighbor-to-the-north New Trier, in front of 8,000 screaming fans, there was … a tug-of-war.

Four men and four women from each school, all teachers and staff members, lined up on opposite sides of the basketball court. They took up the 60-foot rope and, when the whistle blew, tried to pull the weight of a nearly 100-year-old rivalry to their side.

The fans were beside themselves. The noise was so intense that the press desk started shaking.

I’d never realized it before, but Welsh-Ryan has some stellar acoustics.

Evanston’s team of tuggers lost the war, just as the Wildkits basketball team lost a tight 60-54 decision to the Trevians, ranked No. 4 in Illinois. The New Trier girls, also No. 4, won the early game 51-46.

College sports are “pure” compared to professional sports, of course, but they don’t hold a candle to high school sports. At the game Friday, none of the players was on scholarship (though there were probably recruiters present). All the seats cost the same price. The superintendents made a joint (and futile) speech before the game reminding the students that “all school rules apply” (E-towners tend to get a little rowdy at these contests).

Instead of stoic reporters with laptops, the press desk was full of cheering siblings and parents of the players and cheerleaders. Three girls from the schools sang a perfect rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner that put Northwestern’s a cappella groups to shame. The sportsmanship, despite the fierce rivalry, was impeccable.

And believe me, a proud 1998 ETHS graduate, when I say it’s not easy to keep things under control when these two schools face off, in any type of competition.

How big is the rivalry? According to Jerry Murphy, assistant boys’ basketball coach at Evanston, “In our state, this is it. There’s no question. When you’re talking about high school rivalries in Illinois, nothing surpasses Evanston-New Trier.”

A little proof:

NBC-5 sent a camera team to the game and ran footage on its 10 p.m. newscast.

NU basketball players Tavaras Hardy, Collier Drayton, Jitim Young, Jason Burke, Melissa Culver and Michelle Zylstra were present, among others.

In recent years, the Evanston and New Trier basketball arenas sold out several hours before the game, which is why they opted to use NU’s facility this year.

The 8,000 fans in attendance for the boys’ game constituted the largest basketball crowd at Welsh-Ryan since Jan. 17, 2001, when the NU men hosted Illinois. The girls’ game Friday drew 6,000, the largest crowd ever to see a regular-season high school girls’ basketball game in Illinois. By contrast, about 5,000 fans showed up to the NU men’s loss to Ohio State on Saturday night.

Heck, even the Evanston and New Trier mathletes have extra motivation to outsmart each other.

But it was the electrifying atmosphere of Friday’s games that captured the rivalry, and moreover, the essence of genuine, untainted competition. In a classy move, New Trier boys’ coach Rick Malanti – who deserves a lot of credit for engineering a clutch victory over a far more athletic Evanston team – spent several minutes after the game consoling the star of the Evanston boys’ team, forward Stacey Moragne.

“This is great,” he told Moragne, gesturing to the thousands of fans exiting the arena.

Moragne and his teammates will get another chance Feb. 15, when Evanston and New Trier return to Welsh-Ryan for a rematch. With these two teams, the spirit never dies (go Kits!). And if the second game is anything like the first, these two teams will again show us what sports is all about.