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Herscher's Wetzel grateful for the town that made him

Dan Wetzel's resume for the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame wasn't the most traditional when he was nominated into the hall as a member of the Class of 2020.

He didn't have a bevy of state championships, or one state championship, for that matter. But for Wetzel, Herscher's head football coach the past 22 seasons, the wins off the field are what allowed him such a successful and respected head coaching career, one that ended when the Tigers exited Seebach Stadium for the final time last Friday night.

"Wins and losses, I was just OK there, but your state championship is when kids enter your program, your hope that they can leave a better person," Wetzel said. "That's always been my goal, and if I've accomplished that, that's great."

And even more, for Wetzel, he was able to do just that in the same town and same school district, Herscher, that raised the 1981 Tigers graduate.

THE BEGINNING

After playing linebacker at Southern Illinois University, where he helped the Salukis win the 1983 NCAA Division I-AA national championship, Wetzel spent a brief moment as an assistant coach at Cardondale High School before returning to the area as an assistant at Bradley-Bourbonnais under his former high school coach, fellow hall-of-famer Dean Cappel, while teaching at Shapiro Developmental Center in Kankakee.

"It was a different challenge, one I had never perceived...it was a different style of teaching and it opened my eyes," Wetzel said of his experience at Shapiro. "My goal was to get into the public school system [as a teacher], and that allowed me to."

That's also when Cappel realized his former pupil was headed towards becoming an excellent instructor in his own right.

"He took his expertise and things he learned at Southern [Illinois] and you could just see that he had developed into a technician, as far as what he picked up playing in college and transferring that to high school kids," Cappel said. "The kids worked hard for Danny but enjoyed being along with him, too.

"In coaching you have to demand a lot, but kids have to look to you as someone can lean on talk to, so for him to be able to have that player-coach relationship was big."

THE HIGH SCHOOL JOURNEY STARTS

While coaching at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School, Wetzel established relationships with other area coaches, including hall-of-fame coach Alec Anderson at Kankakee. That friendship led to Anderson informing Wetzel of a kindergarten-sixth grade PE teacher job in the Kankakee district, one Wetzel took in 1991.

After six seasons serving as Anderson's assistant, Wetzel was promoted to his first head coaching job, with Kankakee, in 1997. After a 2-7 campaign that fall, Wetzel's Kays teams in 1998 and 1999 went a combined 16-5, with a pair of playoff appearances.

Joeron Hill, a 2000 graduate who went onto a career at Northern Illinois University, said that when he tells his sons, Joeron, a 2021 Kankakee graduate and freshman on the Iowa State University football team, and Jyaire, a junior defensive back for the Kays, they can't even believe the stories.

"When I try to tell my kids some of the stories, they don't believe me — they think it must have been impossible, some of the stuff I tell them," Hill said. "We used to compete; it didn't matter if you were 8-foot tall, 3,000 pounds, we were gonna run into you."

FAMILY MATTERS

After three overall stellar seasons in Kankakee, Wetzel was presented with the opportunity to return home to Herscher, where he began teaching PE and served under yet another hall-of-famer, John Wakey, for one season before taking the reigns at his alma mater in 2001.

And for Wetzel, the idea for him and his wife and high school sweetheart, Brenda, to raise their daughters, Kayla and Abigail, in a manner where he could be actively involved in the same school district they were beginning their elementary days at, was too good to pass up.

"The thing that made me make the decision to come here is that I knew my daughters would be coming into the district, and as coach, it's hard to be at their events, but if I could get a job here, I could be right at their events after practice," Wetzel said. "The family thing pulled me out here and I don't regret that. Those were valuable times."

For Abigail, a 2013 graduate, the idea of being a high school student where her dad was a well-known teacher and coach wasn't the easiest one, but she quickly learned it was going to be an enjoyable experience.

"Going into freshman year, I wasn't quite sure how things would go as far as going to the same high school that my dad taught and coached at," Abigail said. "But it ended up being a lot of fun and I wouldn't change a thing."

Kayla, a 2010 graduate, wouldn't change much either, except for one day in her dad's athletic training class, when she tore her ACL during a game of handball in what Dan called "one of the lowest moments of my life."

"He came over to me, and he was like, 'you're fine, just get up and walk it off;' he didn't think it was anything serious," Kayla said. "So I got up and I ended up making it through the day with some crutches and an ice pack.

"Finding out that I tore my ACL was the worst news for both my dad and I; I was thinking, 'I can't believe this happened during a simple game of handball with my dad as the teacher.'"

A couple since their own high school days, Brenda got to watch her husband go from high school letterman, to college athlete, to assistant coach, to hall-of-fame head coach. And when considering how much of a family affair it became, it all happened way too fast.

"Time sure does fly when you’re having fun, and we had a lot of fun," Brenda said. "Some of our best times were when our kids,were actively involved at Herscher High School."

FINDING SUCCESS

During his daughters' high school years, each of the girls were in the stands for at least two postseason runs during the four-straight years the Tigers made the playoffs from 2007-2010.

But it was the five-year stretch from 2014-2018 that's perhaps provided the most on-field memories for Wetzel as the Tigers' coach. That stretch began in the 2014 season, when the Tigers had the rare opportunity to face an old rival from Wetzel's own playing days, Bishop McNamara, in a first-round Class 4A playoff game the Tigers won 21-18.

"Things fell into place and that whole week we had someone from Herscher come talk to the kids about the McNamara rivalry leading into the game," Wetzel said. "The kids were pumped up, and [McNamara] had a good team, so that was a great win for the program and the [Interstate Eight] Conference."

The Tigers bowed out in the second round that year, and the first round a year later, before back-to-back Class 4A quarterfinals appearances in 2016 and 2017 and a run as a 5-4 team all the way to the Class 3A semifinals in 2018.

Maxx Becker played on the 2017 and 2018 teams, and said that no matter the occasion, his coach always knew exactly what to say to rally the troops.

"That [2018] run is a top memory I have in high school and am glad to be a part of it," Becker said. "I would say his pregame speeches played a major role in the run; they were one of a kind.

"Wetzel always knew what to say to give us the motivation for the game ahead of us no matter the obstacles we were facing."

CLOSING THE CHAPTER, NOT THE BOOK

With everything Herscher has provided him and his family, Wetzel said he knew it was time to turn over the keys and allow a new, young coach the same opportunity that he was once given, while leaving the door open to finding a home on a new sideline in some sort of capacity next fall.

"It's a great program and a great school to work for, but I'm satisfied with where I am and where I want to go," Wetzel said. "It's been great to be at Herscher — I went to school here, I lived and raised a family here, it's time for something different."

And if he does indeed end up on a sideline that isn't his familiar post at Seebach Stadium, it may take some getting used to. But Dan Wetzel will always be a Herscher Tiger.

"It really will feel [strange], if that really comes to fruition," Wetzel said. "It would be different for sure, but I leave with no regrets and I just look forward to the future."


Local
House clears 'Conscience Act' amendment

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House passed a measure Wednesday night that would give employers greater authority to enforce COVID-19 vaccine or testing requirements.

The final vote came after 10 p.m. Wednesday, passing on a 64-52 roll call with two present votes. No Republicans voted for it, and enough Democrats peeled support for it to fail to meet the three-fifths majority that would allow it to become law before June 1, 2022. It still needs Senate approval before it can head to the governor, who supports it.

The measure, also backed by Attorney General Kwame Raoul, had become a flash point, with opponents calling it an infringement on personal freedoms and proponents classifying it as an effort to clarify existing law to close a legal loophole allowing people to flout COVID-19 vaccine or testing mandates.

More than 50,000 witness slips were filed against it on the Illinois General Assembly website.

House Floor Amendment 3 to Senate Bill 1169 would amend the Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which currently prohibits discrimination against anyone for their “conscientious refusal to receive, obtain, accept, perform, assist, counsel, suggest, recommend, refer or participate in any way in any particular form of health care services contrary to his or her conscience.”

The amendment would insert language stating that it is not a violation of the law for an employer “to take any measures or impose any requirements …intended to prevent contraction or transmission of COVID-19.”

Its proponents argued in committee and on the floor that it’s needed to strengthen vaccine mandates by allowing employers to enforce them.

Ashley Wright, chief of legislative affairs for Raoul’s office, said at a committee hearing Tuesday that there have been recent court decisions in Illinois, including one earlier Tuesday, in which judges have blocked employers from enforcing vaccine mandates, citing the existing HCRC Act.

The court decisions have also been used to forgo testing requirements.

After 8 p.m. Wednesday, Raoul was seen discussing the matter with Rep. Robyn Gabel, an Evanston Democrat and the bill’s chief House sponsor, outside of House chambers, but he declined a Capitol News Illinois interview request.

In floor debate, Gabel said the HCRC Act was initially passed “to preserve the ability of health care providers, including pharmacists, to refuse to perform or provide health services related to abortion and reproductive health care that violate their conscience.”

The reason for her bill was to clarify that existing law, she said, because it should not be applicable to mitigation measures aimed at slowing a deadly pandemic. Those with health care or religious concerns regarding mandate compliance can still access federal exemptions, she said.

“Contrary to rampant misinformation campaigns, this bill is not a vaccine mandate,” she said. “In fact, it does not require anyone to do anything. As the bill itself says, this is simply a declaration of existing law and shall not be construed as a new enactment.”

Gov. JB Pritzker spoke on the bill at a news conference earlier in the day, pointing to its use to skirt vaccine or testing mandates.

“Just yelling out ‘conscience’ and saying, you know, ‘I don’t want to do it’ isn’t good enough,” Pritzker said. “We have to keep people healthy and safe. That’s the whole purpose of the mitigations that we’ve put in place. Now, the Health Care Right of Conscience Act is being misinterpreted and used in court cases to try to allow people who just don’t want to get vaccinated, are anti-vaxxers, the anti-maskers, to avoid the rules.”

Critics of the bill, however, argued the language is overly broad and that the Health Care Right of Conscience Act actually was intended to protect an individual’s right to make his or her own health care decisions.

“This legislation is designed to lead to absurd results, where you can let an employer or any person employed by any unit of government in the state of Illinois to force a person to do things, even things your doctor thinks is medically contraindicated, wrong or harmful,” Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, said in floor debate. “And tonight, your yes vote means you’ve denied them a remedial claim.”

Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, said a decision on vaccination should be between a doctor and a patient, and the proposed change is a clear change to existing law, not simply a clarification of it.

“This is pretty clear,” he said of the existing law. “This is actually very clear, that people expect a right, they have a right right now. They have a right and this bill effectively changes that right when it comes to COVID-19.”


Local
County Dems seek new board map

KANKAKEE — The Kankakee County Democratic Central Committee would like the county board to make another attempt at redistricting the Kankakee County Board district map.

On Tuesday night, the central committee, following its meeting, issued a news release which called upon the county board to rescind what it termed an unfair county board district map, which had been approved at the Oct. 12 county board meeting.

Redistricting is required after census data is collected. The reshaping of boundaries is needed to balance population between all 28 county board district.

All 28 district representative seats will be up for vote in 2022. The primary election is June 28 and the general election will be Nov. 8.

Interestingly, the Oct. 12 redistricting map proposal was unanimously approved by the Kankakee County Board. The vote was 23-0.

Five members, Chris Tholen, R-10; Janis Peters, R-8; Aaron Dunnill, R-24; Jake Collins, L-13; and Michael Gowler, R-12; were absent.

If all 28 board members seek re-election, there currently would be three primaries.

On the Republican side, District 5 board member Tinker Parker would face District 8 board member, Peters, for the new District 8 seat.

On the Democratic side, Robert Ellington-Snipes, D-18, would face Kimberly Hudson, D-15, for the new District 5 seat.

The second Democrat primary would be Larry Kerkstra, of District 21, facing off against Heather Bryan, of District 23, for the new District 23.

The central committee in a news release stated: “It is clear the reason for the gerrymandered map is meant to reduce the number of either Democratic, African American, women or union members.”

The committee noted of the seven Democrats currently on the board, four will be forced into primary elections.

Further:

  • Of the five African-Americans on the board, two are forced into primaries.
  • Of the six women on the board, four are forced into primaries.
  • Of the four active union members on the board, three are forced into primaries.

Kankakee County Board Chairman Andy Wheeler declined comment.

Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe said all legal and fair electoral maps are not drawn to protect incumbent politicians.

Rather, he said, “they are drawn to ensure the most fundamental right of one person-one vote.”

He added what he labeled a “significant census undercount” in one area logically results in a map that reflects those shifting population numbers. The 28 districts, he noted, equally populated and meet all legal requirements.

He said the map information was in-hand and on-screen when the matter was discussed and voted upon.

“This is likely the most transparent redistricting process in the county’s history. Rowe noted federal and state officials complicated the process with moving deadlines and late census numbers.

If the census are found to have changed in the future, then the map, Rowe noted, will be adjusted accordingly.

“The energy put into this [re-vote] conversation would have been better spent on improving census turnout, submitting their own map or perhaps debating the map before they ALL voted in favor on them.

“You shouldn’t get to yell ‘no’ when you haven’t proposed a single better solution of your own,” he said.

The new map, the Dem central committee noted, was rushed through with no public input, unlike the original maps.

The group stated the true impact of these maps was never discussed at the Kankakee County Board’s Redistricting Committee, leading many to believe there were only slight boundary changes.

Steven Hunter, Kankakee County Democratic Party chairman and a Kankakee County Board member, said if people are upset with the map, then they need to bring those objections forward.

“These districts are not owned by any incumbent. If board members didn’t read the data, then that’s on them, but everyone will have an opportunity to run. We’ll see what happens at the next county board meeting.”


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