Most Illinois high school coaches are either wrapping up the fall season or using their 20 practice days outside before the weather gets cold.
Loyola baseball coach Chris Ackels has a bit more on his plate; besides holding team practices at Loyola’s athletic campus, Ackels is also in charge of the school’s intramural program.
That may not seem significant, but Ackels notes it’s a lot more work than people realize.
“It’s organized chaos, but that’s not a bad thing,” Ackels said.
Ackels said more than 500 students have played in an intramural tournament this year, and the program continues to see a massive increase in student participation.
In September, a Spikeball tournament featured 276 kids vying for glory.
In early November, more than 350 kids will play in a football tournament, the program’s largest tourney ever. There have been video game and basketball tournaments in the past, and there are plenty of other competitions in the works for this winter.
Ackels, who started the program back up a couple of years ago, notes that Loyola’s fundamental mission is to educate the whole person. Intramural activities are a crucial part of that.
“We’re more than just academics; it’s more than just a place where you show up and learn some stuff then you go home,” Ackels said. “We want to be a place that provides kids with phenomenal athletic experiences, that provides kids with really great social experiences, that gives kids a chance to get involved and build a community.”
Intramurals have always been popular at Loyola, but the participation numbers have skyrocketed this year as a side effect of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The school is currently at 50 percent capacity, meaning students have in-person classes one day, then e-learning the next. On top of that, IHSA fall sports were either postponed to the spring or did not allow spectators.
Ackels believe students are looking for a way to show school spirit and spend time with their friends in a safe environment.
Masks are worn at all times and social distancing is implemented at intramural events, making those schoolwide tournaments an ideal option for the students.
“For our kids, the number one thing that they’re lacking and losing in this pandemic is social interaction,” Ackels said. “The number one thing that they miss when they go off to e-learning is they miss seeing their friends and hanging around people.
“These numbers are indicative that the kids are itching for community, a chance to have fun, a chance to run around. They really need that, and we’re happy to provide that for them.”
Sloan Trapp is a senior lacrosse player at Loyola and a member of the intramural program’s Leadership Board. She said the increased participation in intramurals has made for an amazing experience.
“It’s really great when more kids participate,” Trapp said. “I think it increases school spirit. It kind of gives kind an outlet and something fun, some school spirit that they’re not really getting so far.”
Six seniors are organizing members of the intramurals program: Trapp, Hayes Flanagan, JT Thomas, Brendan Wrenn, Jason Kusibab and Colin Kane. All six play varsity sports for the Ramblers, and Ackels said they’ve been crucial in helping things run smoothly this year.
Wrenn, who plays varsity basketball, helps run the program’s social media pages. He’s looking forward to the football tournament, where he’ll get to battle against classmates with whom he normally wouldn’t compete.
“It’s a lot of fun being able to play against different people,” Wrenn said. “Everybody loves it, and it’s competitive too, which is great. We’re going at each other because we want the bragging rights.”
The winners of each tournament even get championship T-shirts that they to parade around Loyola hallways. Ackels has had to give out a lot of T-shirts so far, and he hopes to give out plenty more this winter.
There’s a lot that goes into making intramurals hum, especially with increased participation. But Ackels said it’s been a blast so far.
Nick Frazier is a freelance writer primarily covering high school sports. He most recently was the sports editor of The Highland Park Landmark and The Lake Forest Leader. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @nikfraz14