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Sterling chess team fares well in state finals

STERLING – Aidan Munoz-Ripley and his fellow Sterling chess club teammates had longed for this moment since moving their first pawn in middle school.

Sterling finished at the top of its enrollment division Saturday at the Illinois High School Association state meet at Peoria Civic Center, winning the 2A Illinois Chess Coaches Association championship with four points and a tiebreaker score of 50.4. 

“This is a great marking point for us,” said Munoz-Ripley, a junior who was Sterling’s first board. “We’ve been doing this for 9 years now, and we’re already at the top of 2A. 

“It’s a great feeling, especially with our team being as strong as it is this year.”

Illinois’ best high school chess teams converged Friday and Saturday in Peoria to accomplish more than just an Illinois High School Association title. 

The ICCA championship, which has six divisions based on enrollment, is run concurrently with the IHSA championship, which does not have a classification system.

Sterling, who has the only high school chess team in the Sauk Valley, finished 37th in IHSA competition, won by Whitney Young Magnet High School of Chicago. Only one school smaller than Sterling placed higher than they did, and that was 35th-place finisher Manteno. 

“It was very difficult at this level,” senior Nathaniel Stout said. “When we get to the state tournament, they are the top teams in the state. It’s a lot different for us being a smaller school, than all of the Chicago suburban teams because they have much larger resources than we do.”

Of the 124 participating schools, 12 were in Sterling’s class. University High School in Normal was second in 2A with three points and a 39.6 tiebreak.

Sterling chess coach Joel Penne, who teaches math at the high school, knew early on that he was going to have a smart group of kids come through the high school ranks. He’s been the team’s coach for 9 years, and his first group of varsity kids went 2-16 that first year. 

This year’s team was 20-1 before the Jan. 26 IHSA sectional meet in Lombard, where they took seventh place.

“For them to do what they did [Saturday], it wasn’t easy,” Penne said. “It was a roller coaster ride at times, a lot of ups and downs. We didn’t win every single one, but we won enough and when it mattered to get us to this point.”

Sterling finished 5-2 against seven schools. They opened play Friday with a 68-0 sweep against St. Rita of Chicago, and followed with a 48-20 win over William Howard Taft, also of Chicago, with five wins, two losses and one draw.

Neuqua Valley of Naperville beat Sterling 56.5-11.5 to open Saturday’s session, going 0-5-3. They rebounded to beat Niles West 48-20 with five wins, but fell to New Trier of Winnetka 63-5.

Sterling’s penultimate opponent was Huntley, who finished runner-up to Sterling at the Northern Illinois Chess Conference meet on Jan. 12. With three wins, four losses and one draw, Sterling topped Huntley once more, 42.5-25.5. 

By luck, according to Penne, Sterling was paired up with eventual runner-up U-High for its final match. 

“We knew we couldn’t lose on tiebreak points,” Penne said. “We knew the last match, whether we won or not, was in our hands. We controlled our fate.”

The day ended with a 47-21 win over U-High, going 4-1-3. The team left Peoria and had a police escort through Rock Falls and Sterling on state Route 40 before arriving at the high school.

The bond of playing together for such a long time paid off, said senior Matthew Valentino.

“For five of us, it’s our fourth year playing on the varsity team,” he added. “Finally being able to win state means a lot.”

Seniors Tyler Hansen and Johnathan Verhulst led Sterling with 5-2 records. 

The junior duo of Isaac Jensen and Munoz-Ripley finished with three wins, as did Valentino. Seniors Jonathan Gottemoeller, Josiah Schmidt and Stout had two wins. 

Sophomore Jack Maxwell filled in for Gottemoeller during the dual with New Trier and came away with his team’s only win. Senior Andrew Ivarson competed once, scoring a draw against his Neuqua Valley opponent.

“It was really tough. There were a lot of great teams out there,” Munoz-Ripley said. “There were quite a few strong teams out there that we had to play.”

They’re not done yet. Sterling made plans to compete in a national chess tournament, and recently received that opportunity. The 2019 National High School K-12 Championship, a tournament that travels throughout the United States, will be March 15-17 at the Renaissance Hotel and Convention Center in Schaumburg. 

“I think it must be fate alone to have it land in Schaumburg this year,” Penne said. “We have our best team we’ve ever had, and now for them to get a chance to show what they can do at the national stage, it’s going to be exciting as well.”

Sterling's road to a 2A chess championship


Sterling 68, Chicago St. Rita 0

Sterling 48, Chicago Taft 28


Neuqua Valley 56.5, Sterling 11.5

Sterling 48, Niles West 20

New Trier 63, Sterling 5

Sterling 42.5, Huntley 25.5

Sterling 47, Normal University 21

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