Illinois Mascot Mania
Lions and tigers and bears and ducks and midgets and pretzels. Oh my!
By Les O’Dell
When it comes to high school mascots across Illinois, the names of sports teams range from the simple and natural to those with historical significance to others that seem to be, well, from Oz.
Many Illinois high schools have adopted team names that we might think of as very traditional. Wildcats, Warriors, Bulldogs, Panthers and Eagles are among the most popular monikers across the state. But other teams take the field or court with names that are, to say the least, very unique. Take the Rochelle Hubs for example. According to Rochelle Township High School Special Projects Director Vicki Snyder Chura, the name comes from the community’s role as a transportation hub.
“We’re located at the intersection of two major railroads, two state highways and two Interstate highways,” she says.
Other team names came about simply from the community or high school name. Vandalia Community High School Principal Randy Protz says its team name, the Vandals, as well as the town’s name, comes from the Germanic-tribe ancestry of the founders of the Fayette County seat. Argo Community High School in Summit is naturally called the Argonauts. It makes perfect sense that Buffalo Grove High School calls its teams, the Bison. The Farmers play for Farmington Central High School. Additionally, there are the Princeville Princes, the Springfield High School Senators, the Prophetstown Prophets and the Marcos of Polo Community High School.
Some mascots earn their name simply by the nearby geography. A number of schools located along rivers use waterway-related identities. Cairo High School’s mascot name is the Pilots, the name often given to steamboat captains. Havana High School is home to the Ducks. Fulton High School is the Steamers, and Ottawa Township High School competes as the Pirates.
Teams like the Kewanee Boilermakers earned their nicknames from local industry. The Morton Potters got their name from a local ceramic and pottery company. Galesburg became the Silver Streaks in honor of one of the first diesel locomotives to come through the railroad-centered city. Gillespie High School Principal Joe Tieman says the local labor force is honored by the title, Miners.
“Most of our school district sits above former underground coal mines. At one time, mining was the number one employer for our residents,” he says.
Local wildlife also is a source of team names. Kewanee’s Wethersfield High School is known as the Flying Geese and Hartsburg-Emden High School is home to the Stags, named for the large deer population in the area.
Given the community’s claim to be the Sweet Corn Capital of the World, Hoopeston Area High School’s teams have been known as the Cornjerkers since the early 1920s. The designation harkens back to the name given to laborers who manually harvest or shuck corn in the field.
Some schools used a local collegiate team as inspiration for their mascot name. University High School in Urbana goes by the name Illineks.
Carbondale Community High School’s Rick Moss says he’s heard that his school became the Terriers as a result of Southern Illinois University. “They’re the Salukis,” Moss says, “So the high school wanted to be a smaller dog.”
Two Fisher High School players each wore a rabbit’s foot on their basketball uniform belts during a 1933 holiday tournament. A few games later, the good luck charms adorned every team member’s uniform. Ever since, the Fisher Bunnies have sported one of Illinois’ most unique mascot names.
Canton sports historian Roy Hopper says for many years the high school’s teams were known as the Plowboys or the Purple and Old Gold. That is until a newspaper writer named James Murphy wrote about the “Little Giants” in a 1933 article. Murphy continued to use the new name through the 1930s until the previous names had faded from everyday usage.
A reporter also is responsible for naming the team from Atwood-Hammond High School as the Rajahs. “For many years we had a very successful coach with the last name of Rogers,” says Principal Ed Coller. The writer wanted a way to refer to Rogers’ players, so he coined the name Rajahs. “He apparently liked the way it sounded,” Coller says.
The Ironmen of Normal Community High School can trace their name back to a football team in the early twentieth century. According to Andrew Turner, current athletic director at NCHS, the team only had 11 players, forcing everyone to play both offense and defense. “They even had a pretty decent season, but had to play like Ironmen,” he says.
One night after an unexpected road win at a much larger school, a home team fan yelled for the visiting Cobden players to “go back home, you appleknockers”, claims former Cobden softball coach Josh Franklin. He says what was meant as a slur was embraced by the community.
“We have a large number of orchards in our area,” he says, “and technically, an appleknocker is one who gets rid of the bad apples so that the healthy ones can thrive.” Ever since the taunt, teams from Cobden High School have been known as the Appleknockers.
Sometimes the stories behind names develop lives of their own. Moss, who coached at Centralia for many years before moving to Carbondale, says there are several legends about how the Orphans got their name. One story is that during Centralia’s trip to the state basketball tournament in the early 1940s, the team’s uniforms and equipment turned up missing from the gymnasium’s locker room. Coach Arthur Trout resorted to calling other area coaches to borrow uniforms. Dressed in a variety of colors and described as looking like a bunch of orphans, the team went on to win the state title. Another explanation is that Coach Trout, a very frugal man, had players select their uniforms from a stack of shorts and jerseys left over from past years, often leading to teams taking the floor in mismatched uniforms. Yet another story relates that Coach Trout was a big fan of D.W. Griffith’s epic film about the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm, and he used the silent movie to motivate his players.
In many cases, today’s Illinois high school mascot names represent an area’s rich heritage. Players for Teutopolis High School are known as the Wooden Shoes, which recognizes the German heritage of the community and honors Teutopolis pioneer George Deyman who carved wooden shoes for a living.
The city of Freeport was founded by German immigrants with a love of pretzels. Eventually that snack food adoration led to the construction of a pretzel factory in the community and the adoption of the name Pretzels for all of the high school’s athletic teams. It’s a name so unique that it is believed that only one other high school in the nation uses the same mascot — and that high school is just 200 miles to the south: New Berlin High School. According to the NBHS website, many people believe that the name comes from a district basketball game played in the 1930s. The story is that during the second half of a game that wasn’t even close, New Berlin players on the bench began taking left-over pretzels (the half-time snack) and tossing them at one another. Not long after a newspaper reporter dubbed the team “Pretzel-Throwers” the name was shortened to just Pretzels.
“Our name came about as an insult,” Franklin says of the Cobden nickname, “but now we’re all very proud to be Appleknockers.”
The same claim can be made by the Illinois Central Valley Grey Ghosts, the Freeburg Midgets, the Plano Reapers, the Fairfield Mules, the Hampshire Whip-Purs, the Effingham Flaming Hearts and many other Illinois high schools with uncommon mascots. More than just logos and nicknames, Illinois high school mascots provide insight to the history and heritage of their communities as well as serve a source of pride for students, alumni and boosters.
© 2016 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
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