Since its inception in 1900, the Illinois High School Association has provided numerous opportunities for not only its student-athletes, but its spectators as well.

Over the past century, millions of spectators have congregated in the stands and bleachers to show support for its student-athletes in IHSA competition. In fact, the idea of a “March Madness” postseason actually originated with the IHSA and not the college basketball society associates the phrase with today.

And up until COVID-19 came around last year, fans were able to do so without many limitations or restrictions. Due to the lasting effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic, fans and school athletic officials have had to adjust on the fly just as much as the student-athletes.

Ever since the IHSA decided to end its brief halt to the winter sports seasons in late January, spectators have gotten clearance to attend games in-person and inside for the first time in months. And although it’s different, fans are breathing a sigh of relief through their masks.

“I missed being able to see the kids play,” said Susan Tjelle, a Gardner-South Wilmington fan. “I was traveling all the way to Indiana just to see the boys basketball team play.”

With all 24 area high school athletic programs now in Phase 4 of the IDPH’s mitigation guidelines, each school has been granted a maximum of 50 spectators per contest. And it’s been up to each school to decide who can or cannot attend these events.

“We’re ecstatic to have the small group of fans in our stands,” Herscher athletic director Todd Schwarzkopf said. “So far the games we have hosted have gone well with people respecting the assigned seating and masks. It has definitely been a great shot in the arm for our school and our community for kids to be able to compete again.”

In order to make each home game feel like home, most local schools are giving student-athletes tickets on game days. Most schools give each player two of these tickets, although some schools have slight differences, such as Tri-Point allowing entire families of seniors only. Other smaller schools, like Milford, are able to expand their offering to as many as four tickets per player.

For the sake of safety and liability issues, most if not all area schools are making each fan fill out certification and tracing forms before each and every game and schools are generally limiting fans to the home team only.

“Having fans back has been great and they are very appreciative to be allowed to attend in-person even with the limited capacity,” Central athletic director Jeff Fenton said. “The oddest thing is only hearing cheers from one side.”

In order to have its fans properly socially distance, schools have pulled in their main bleachers, leaving spectators to sit in the higher balconies on either end of the basketball court. Furthermore, in between the junior varsity and varsity games, all of the bleachers, each chair of the benches and equipment are all sanitized before the varsity fans are allowed into the gymnasiums.

“It’s challenging to allow fans and follow all the guidelines,” Watseka athletic director Barry Bauer said. “Lots of cleaning before, between, and after games. I think our fans are excited about watching basketball games again.”

Unfortunately for some of the bigger families and regular students there aren’t enough tickets to go around. As a result of such limited seating, schools are live-streaming games on various outlets for the fans that aren’t able to secure a seat in the bleachers.

Most local schools are opting to use NFHSNetwork.com to stream its games. And the one’s who aren’t have decided to go another route by using either HUDL, YouTube, or Facebook Live as respective primary streaming options. Fans are encouraged to reach out to their own individual school for more details.

As for the student-athletes themselves, they have had to make plenty of adjustments as well, most notably the elimination of starting the game with a tip-off and the biggest adjustment — playing with a mask on.

“There were a few times our trainer [Phil Taylor] had to remind us to keep the masks on,” Bishop McNamara sophomore Jaxson Provost said. “It’s something we’ll have to get used to, but at least we get to play.”

Given the difficulty of breathing with a mask on while playing, the IHSA has added one “mask timeout” per quarter to help its players get a moment to hydrate and catch their breath. It comes after the first stoppage in play with 5 minutes remaining in each quarter.

Along with having to compete in masks, players are required to maintain 6 feet apart to allow for social distancing while sitting on the bench.

For many, the limitations and changes didn’t create an ideal situation when it came to resuming winter sports, but it’s one that the players, coaches and fans will take 10 times out of 10 given it provides them with an opportunity to play, coach or watch the sports they love.

“It is so nice to see our student-athletes back practicing and competing again,” Manteno athletic director Doug Wenzel said. “Even though it’s not an ideal situation, I think the parents and family members are thankful for the opportunity to get to watch their kids play in-person.

“It’s been great to get games and people back in the gym again.”

Cody is a sports journalist who's been with the Daily Journal since 2020. He's been a sports reporter since his days at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 2019.