EAST PEORIA – I would've guessed, just from the sheer number of fans in red shirts at EastSide Centre over the weekend, that there were very few people left in the town of Amboy on Friday and Saturday.
But it wasn't just wave after wave of red that caught my attention – or that of my fellow sports reporters. The volume of the Clipper-clad faithful easily drowned out that of any of the other 1A teams in East Peoria – all of which, like Amboy, were at the state softball tournament for the first time in their programs' history.
And don't think for a second that the Amboy players and coaches didn't realize the support they were getting … or that they didn't appreciate it.
"We might not have gotten first," senior Kelsie Thurman said after the Clippers' 4-0 loss to West Prairie in the third-place game Saturday morning, "but we definitely placed first in fan support."
"It felt awesome to be out there," senior Destinee Oenes added, "and that support means more to us than I can put into words. We made history, and we brought the town along with us."
It wasn't just that the stands were filled with Clipper fans, both behind home plate and next to whichever dugout Amboy was occupying. There was also a solid row of red, at least three or four deep, down the entire foul line and around the corner behind the outfield fence.
"This is a pretty big deal," former Amboy teacher Tom Full told me Friday afternoon, in the understatement of the weekend.
"The whole town was here," added former Amboy standout Rick Considine, who now lives in Byron, but has plenty of family and friends' family represented in Clipper athletics. "So many people turn out because it's such a close-knit community, and people have so many relatives – and relatives of close family friends – to support."
As expected several former softball players could be seen taking in the game. Among them was 2012 graduate Kiara Kaleel, who pitched the Clippers to their first two regional titles in program history, as well as Brooke Lovgren, who was an integral part of the Clippers' first three regional crowns before graduating last year.
"This is so exciting, and I couldn't be happier for my former teammates," Lovgren said. "Obviously every athlete dreams of getting down to state, and it was a year too late for me, but just being able to see Amboy play at a state tournament is just so amazing."
But it's not just amazing for the former softball players. It's been 30 years since Amboy won the state football title in 1984, and they have never had a team play in a tournament-style state event … until now.
And there were plenty of former Amboy boy athlete standouts showing their support as well. I spotted Travis Nauman hugging his younger sister Hallie, a freshman call-up for the postseason. Another former multi-sport star, Tyson Powers, was there to watch girlfriend Kaitlyn Liebing, and liked what he saw from this band of spunky softballers.
"This has been a fun ride," Powers said, "and you see what it means to the whole town. They say there's a sea of red at Amboy games; well, we brought that whole sea down to East Peoria this weekend, and the girls represented the school, the town, and all of us so well."
And to think, the softball program has only been around a decade-and-a-half. That fact isn't lost on the current members of the team, who couldn't stop smiling as they posed for photos with family and friends with their fourth-place medals and trophy.
"We're so proud to be the first to have this success," senior Micaela McCoy said, "and I think we as a team – and the whole town – made the most of it."
Watching over the whole scene was Amboy athletic director George Schwamberger. A longtime assistant football coach, he was smiling almost as wide as the girls as he leaned against the fence.
As AD, he was proud of the softball team, but also thinking about what it could mean to the entire Amboy sports program.
"This is great for softball in Amboy," Schwanberger said, "but this kind of thing helps everybody. The other athletes get a taste of this big stage, the whole town gets a taste, and every team is going to build off this."