MINOOKA — Saturday was a sunny spring day, and I spent much of it scribbling notes on the work of high schoolers at an IHSA sanctioned sectional event.
That sounds like the way I spent probably a dozen Saturdays during my time as a full-time sports writer. But I haven’t gone back to sports, except for the occasional column or feature you might still see in the next section. I’m still a most-of-the-time page designer for the Herald, as I’ve been for a little over a year now, and I wasn’t at Minooka Community High School this weekend to cover anything for work.
It was due to my position at the Herald, though, that I got the chance to serve as a judge at the Minooka Journalism Sectional. Ten teams gathered inside MCHS to compete in 16 categories which ranged from news writing to info graphics to advertising for the right to advance to this Friday’s state final at Eastern Illinois University. It’s part of a state series that is quite similar to what the IHSA does for sports.
Going in, I had very little idea what to expect. For someone who’s going on a decade at the paper, and who went through 4.5 years of college studying the subject, I’ve had remarkably little in-person exposure to competitive journalism. Here at the Herald, we enter some of our best work from throughout each year in a statewide content staged by the Illinois Press Association. We used to do the same with the Associated Press. There were various contests in which I was entered at Lewis University. But for all of the competitions in which I’ve been involved, I’ve actually been present for the judging of very few and have judged none myself.
Matt Thomas, the Minooka adviser/coach who also took on the duties of meet manager with help from MCHS yearbook adviser Laura Erion, warned us prior to remember that we were judging high schoolers and to keep our expectations reasonable. I wasn’t very familiar with what the standards are high-school journalism. I went to a school (Seneca High) that didn’t have a school paper. I think I remember there being, at least some of the time, a paper at Mazon-Verona-Kinsman Middle School when I went there. I don’t remember being particularly interested in it at the time, nor do I remember much about the product we churned out.
My lack of experience seemed like less of an issue Saturday morning when I found the judges’ room Saturday morning, and soon found some familiar faces from other publications. Nobody else, it seemed, had ever judged a journalism competition before. If I was going to be the idiot in the room who didn’t know what he was doing — a role I’m quite used to —at least I wouldn’t be alone. Thomas gave us a quick rundown of what to expect once the first batch of entries started pouring in, and the gameplan seemed doable.
There was one major problem, it turned out, once the first of two categories I was to judge — newspaper design — was finally delivered. The kids made my job extremely difficult by doing their work too well. I was expecting the process of ranking a top six in order to be something akin to judging the lesser of several evils. Maybe there’d be a decent layout or two in the batch, but I felt sure that finding six designs I really liked would prove difficult.
Every entry had at least a minor flaw or two; some had more than a few. One had to be disqualified for breaking an explicitly worded rule. But for the most part, they were extremely well done, especially when you considered that these were done by high schoolers in a short amount of time. Choosing between the entries my partner and I ranked third and fourth — which only happens to be the divide between qualifying for state and not — was, naturally, the most difficult decision of all. Fortunately, after some discussion and a point-by-point review of our judging criteria, my partner and I came to the same conclusion.
It was more of the same in my second category, headline writing. Some of the kids struggled with some of the criteria — specifically that they not use a school name or mascot, and that they try to avoid hyphenation — but they wrote succinct headlines that fit the space they were allotted, with few exceptions.
When I talked with a few of the other judges, it seemed that the kids did struggle a bit in the writing categories, particularly when it came to properly constructing leads. That’s to be expected, I guess, at the high-school level. I know I saw a lot of talent in what I judged, and the sectional champion Indians from Minooka should be proud of what they accomplished. Just like the sectional titles MCHS has earned in baseball, cross country or wrestling, it is the product of a lot of hard work.
(And no, the Indians didn’t win due to a hometown bias amongst the judges — the majority of which weren’t even from the immediate area. Entries were given to us marked with a code number as their only identification, not with names of the schools or of the students themselves).
Then again, the Indians are seasoned veterans of the journalism circuit, having participated in each of the seven years that the IHSA has offered a state series. Thomas says that the overall number of schools competing grows each year. This was, however, the first home sectional for the Indians, though they did host a five-team invitational in February. Theirs was the only sectional in the state held at a high school rather than a college or university.
“I was very happy overall with how the sectional went,” Thomas told me in an email after the event. “Many of the judges commented on some of the high quality work of the students, and it’s affirming for the students to know their work is valued by professionals.”
They may have been seated at a table indoors instead of on a baseball field, but I can tell you that plenty of those students hit home runs on Saturday.