NORMAL — They came wearing face paint. They came wearing T-shirts. Sweatshirts, too.
Above all, they wore red. (Technically, it’s “cherry” — but that’s another story.)
Morton’s loud and proud student section filled nearly an entire corner of Redbird Arena on Friday morning as the school’s girls basketball team gave itself a chance for a fourth Class 3A state championship in five years.
As the game tipped just after 11 a.m., there were twice as many Potters fans inside the arena than anyone not affiliated with the Tazewell County school.
“I am having so much fun. Everyone’s so excited, has so much energy,” senior Gabe Younker said just minutes before tipoff, barely able to contain himself. He bounced as he talked.
“I love that I get to be part of this.”
Younker runs a Twitter account called Potters Student Section (@MHS_Fan_Section). He uses the social media account to coordinate the student section, like to announce what color the fans should wear. Friday was all about red.
“We just use it to get the word out, get everyone energized,” Younker said. “Part of the hype.”
Younker was an eighth-grader when he first came to Redbird for the girls state finals. Morton returned the next season, and he moved among the student section. Three years later, he sits front row center with other student section leaders likes seniors Clayton Anderson and Braden Brown.
“It’s a fantastic feeling to have that support,” Morton coach Bob Becker said after a 65-51 semifinal win against LaGrange Park Nazareth. “It says a lot about our community and our students.”
Morton junior basketball player Courtney Jones said fans were texting her early in the day, telling her they already were lined up outside Redbird.
“Then we saw them flooding in, and oh my gosh,” said Jones, “it was a sea of red.”
As soon as doors opened, that sea flowed in and filled out row after row. They spilled into the upper bowl and into the endzones. At one point, arena personnel had to take to the public address system to remind Morton fans to not fill seats reserved for other schools.
“Isn’t it something?” asked fourth-year Morton athletics director Scott Jones, a huge smile across his face. “Every year, it just seems like it’s more and more.”
Scott worked last at Dunlap and spent some time at Brimfield. He’s seen nothing like the fan fervor at Morton, which filled three fan buses for the 30-mile trip east to Normal. A total of 742 high school students received excused absences to attend the game. Morton only has about 925 kids.
Morton had a shootaround Friday morning at the school, and Becker remarked about the sparsely filled parking lot. He called the school “a ghost town.”
“We’re happy we could give them a day off school,” Becker said. “And I think they enjoyed it.”
With the sparse school attendance, it’s safe to assume not much learning got done back home?
“We have TVs set up in the cafeteria to watch the game,” Scott said. “They also can watch it in the performing arts center.”
So, about that learning.
“It’s an ‘attendance day’, ” Scott said. “In quotes only.”
Scott Jones did that endearing administrator thing by wearing one of the program’s state finals T-shirt over long sleeves. The school sold 620 of those shirts overall, and Jones said about 150 people already were lined up Thursday when they began sales.
The school’s allotment of 500 state finals tickets? Those sold out in less than a day.
Morton’s red sea wanes for a day but will return in force Saturday to Redbird, where the Potters program will attempt to bring the Peoria area its fifth consecutive state championship.
“I’ve always wanted," said Scott Jones, "to be the one who said ‘Last one in Morton, turn out the lights.”
WES HUETT can be reached at 686-3204 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesHuett.