Champaign will again host boys state basketball tournaments
The crown jewel of Illinois high school state tournaments is returning to the city and the venue that helped make it just that.
The Illinois High School Association board of directors voted Monday to move the boys state basketball tournaments to State Farm Center in Champaign for at least the next three years, ending a 25-year run at Carver Arena in Peoria.
Peoria hosted the state finals tournament since 1996. Champaign hosted the tournaments from 1919 to 1995.
"We see this as the passing of the torch from Peoria to Champaign-Urbana," said IHSA executive director Craig Anderson. "It is bittersweet because there is incredible passion for high school basketball within these two communities, and both have done so much to elevate the state final experience as hosts. The State Farm Center is one of the best arenas in the country, and we are excited to crown state champions there once again. The timing simply felt right to make a change as the tournament format shifts in 2021."
Local coaches reacted to the move with mixed emotions.
"It's kind of bittersweet," said longtime Fremd coach Bob Widlowski, whose 2016-17 team took fourth place at state. "Peoria definitely did a great job and welcomed the IHSA and boys basketball with open arms. Peoria was a first-rate experience. I'm hoping this move and the change of format will help with the attendance issues."
The 2021 state tournaments will also take on a new format as all four classes will play on one weekend, from March 11-13.
"I love the move of the state tournament back to Champaign," said West Aurora coach Brian Johnson. "U of I is the state school of Illinois and the tournament needs to be played on the Illini floor. Peoria was a great host and where West won a state championship, but being in Champaign brings a fresh new feel to making it downstate. This is a great step toward bringing back fans. The next best move I would love to see is going back to two classes. The state tournament would be at full force if that would occur."
Larkin coach Deryn Carter, whose team finished fourth at state in 2018, echoed Widlowski's thoughts on the move.
"I know the experience our players and program had was great and something they will remember forever," Carter said. "Peoria was a great host when we were there. As the tournament moves to Champaign I believe it will continue to be a great experience. If the move enhances the players' and programs' experience when they make it downstate then that's even better."
Benet coach Gene Heidkamp said his teams also enjoyed their Peoria experience.
"We had two great experiences in Peoria," said Heidkamp, whose teams finished second at state in 2014 and 2016. "The people there couldn't have treated us any better. If we're ever fortunate enough to get down there again, I'm sure Champaign will offer us an awesome experience as well."
Geneva made it to state in Peoria in 2015.
"The community of Geneva has great memories in Peoria because of the 2015 state team," said current Vikings coach Scott Hennig who was an assistant coach on the 2015 team. "Peoria was a tremendous host. But it was time for a change. It got a little stale. The new State Farm Center will be a great host for the state finals due to the excitement surrounding University of Illinois basketball."
At their peak in Champaign, the tournaments sold out the 16,000-seat venue, then known as Assembly Hall, on a regular basis.
In 1995, the last year Champaign hosted the event, 47,726 fans attended the Class A and Class AA tournaments.
The University of Illinois athletic department was instrumental in helping Champaign's proposal.
"We are thrilled with today's news that the Illinois high school boys basketball state finals will return home to the campus of the University of Illinois," said Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman. "We are grateful to the IHSA and its leadership for choosing State Farm Center and Champaign-Urbana to host the state finals. The relationship between the IHSA and the University of Illinois extends back more than 100 years, and we are excited to continue this long-standing, positive partnership many years into the future."
The State Farm Center is fresh off a $170 million dollar state-of-the-art renovation that was completed in 2016. The building has also been home to IHSA individual wrestling state finals each winter since 1973.
The first several years in Peoria drew sold-out crowds as well to the 11,000-seat Carver Arena, which also hosts Bradley University's men's basketball games.
Attendance started falling off and the IHSA has not released attendance figures since 2002. When four-class basketball began in 2008, attendance suffered even more.
The IHSA board also voted Monday to keep the girls state tournaments at Redbird Arena in Normal, where those tournaments have been held since 1992.
• John Lemon and Kevin Schmit contributed to this story.