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TAYLORVILLE — Justin Wright heard the rain pick up on Saturday, then the sleet. Then silence.

That's when he knew that a tornado was on its way, Soon, it had ripped a path of destruction through Taylorville. When it was over, Wright, a standout receiver on the Taylorville football team and a guard on the basketball team, and his father went out to survey the damage and immediately begin the cleanup efforts.

Those efforts continued Sunday and Monday, but Wright wasn't alone. He was joined in full force from the community which included the Taylorville sports teams. Wright and his father started out helping a few friends and then continued on from there.

“It’s something you have to do," Wright said. "You can’t just sit at home when you’re fine and other people aren’t in the community. We all thought it was really important. We definitely came together for it. It’s one of those things that you’ll never forget."

Taylorville head boys basketball coach Ryan Brown estimated members of the athletic programs walked upwards of two miles in Sunday's cleanup effort. Brown, football coach Jeb Odam, baseball coach Brian Sample and wrestling coach Lee Mateer helped organize athletes for a boots-on-the ground cleanup.

“I’m actually quite honored to be the athletic director for these guys," Taylorville AD Paul Held said. "There wasn’t any direction from me. They saw the need and they helped the community."

Brown said none of his players lost their homes, but they had classmates who did.

“I’m pretty proud of our guys, man," Brown said. "They worked really hard with not much direction. I didn't really know where to start, but we were starting. A lot of those kids didn’t need a coach telling them what to do. It was, ‘We’re just going to get this done.’"

The efforts continued through Monday, when school was cancelled. Taylorville is scheduled to host Charleston at 7 p.m. Tuesday in an Apollo conference boys basketball game, and Held said on Monday that the plan was for the game to be played. Monday's freshman game at Taylorville was cancelled, and the girls basketball game at Mattoon was still played.

Saturday morning, though, wasn't unlike most for the basketball team. They had practice after a frantic come-from-behind effort fell short on Friday night against Lincoln.

But by Sunday morning, that game, and the 4-1 start the basketball team is off to, felt like a lifetime ago. Basketball, and sports, took a backseat to real life.

“That seems like such a long time ago," Taylorville junior Jase Bergschneider said. "These last couple days have been so long. I really haven’t had time to sit back and think about the Lincoln game."

Bergschnedier said his house remained intact, but he had close friends who weren't as lucky. The responsibility fell on him to help however he could. Most of that help came in the physical form, but he also tried to help his friends take their minds off of the damage.

"I wanted to do what I could to help them out," Bergschneider said. "I kind of feel like it was my job to go out there and help them clean up their house."

On Sunday afternoon, Brown shared a photo on Twitter of the team out in the city — in neighborhoods that Brown had never previously stepped foot in before — cleaning up.

The teams found themselves spread throughout town, picking up fallen trees, walls, shards of glass — anything to help anyone.

"I remember (Wright) saying, ‘Man, there are so many people out here and everybody is just helping,'" Brown recalled. "Everybody kind of had their moment when you kind of had to stop and look around and see the damage, but then see all these people helping total strangers."

It's been a wildly successful school year for Taylorville athletics. The football team completed an undefeated regular season that ended in a Class 4A quarterfinal loss to Rochester. The volleyball team advanced to the Class 3A sectional championship game and the boys basketball team is off to a 4-1 start, with Bergschneider leading the way.

When the team takes the court again, basketball has a way of offering reprieve from a heart-wrenching weekend.

"People might just want to come to the games to escape what they have to deal with at home," Wright said. "That’s the way sports have always been — a little escape and a place for people to come together. It’s a hard time around here, for sure."

Players on the teams have received plenty of support from around the area. The Springfield Southeast baseball team came to town on Sunday to help in the cleanup efforts. Members of the Lincoln boys basketball team reached out via text message or social media to several players in the aftermath of the tornado.

Lincoln players including Jermaine Hamlin, Kaden Froebe, Kameron Whiteman and Noah Funk reached out.

“It’s really good to see that not everybody is caught up on sports and they can see in reality what’s really going on," Bergschneider said.

Several area teams, including Shelbyville, MacArthur, Sangamon Valley and Maroa-Forsyth at the Macon County Tournament, have set up donating efforts for the people of Taylorville.

On Saturday morning, Brown was organizing a practice after a tough conference loss, but by Sunday morning, he and fellow coaches were organizing cleanup efforts.

“You just get down there and everything changes," Brown said. "You see students walking around and you know you’re in their neighborhood. It just grabs you by the heart. It’s kind of the neat thing with Taylorville. We’re full of go-getters here. Our coaches were real go-getters. It’s a lot of people who just care for one another among the student athletes."

Said Held: "This is leadership that we talk about. The bigger things that come along with athletics. Some of these folks might not remember too much about their teams this year, but you''ll remember the way they helped community."


 

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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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