Money Magazine last month named South Elgin No. 98 among the top 100 small towns in America in which to live. The village of approximately 22,000 residents probably would have finished higher had the judges waited to consider Saturday's events.
The criteria for Money's rankings include leisure activities offered by a given town. Well, the throng of approximately 3,000 students, parents and alumni on hand to celebrate the coming-out party for the much-anticipated South Elgin Stadium -- nearly 14 percent of the population, by the way -- can attest to the fact there's a great new way to spend leisure time in this Fox River town.
South Elgin principal Melanie Meidel, beaming like a proud parent, searched for the right word to describe the facility's debut, which went off without a hitch under sunny skies.
"Perfection, but it's better than that," she said. "I've been speechless all day. It's like a college atmosphere in a high school."
Part of the credit for that rollicking atmosphere goes to the student section, the South Elgin Superfans, who populated an entire face-painted chunk of the new stands. The Superfans always turn out in big numbers to support their teams, but their ranks were undoubtedly swollen due to the fact so many kids were simply able to walk to the game in town rather than worry about catching a ride to Millennium Field in Streamwood, where the Storm played their football and soccer games for the past five seasons.
"Going to Millennium was kind of a hassle, but coming home and playing here -- this is awesome," said Superfan Eric Stazy, a basketball and baseball player.
No offense to Millennium Field. It's a wonderful facility and District U-46 is lucky to have it. But it never belonged to South Elgin and the kids felt the disconnect.
"When we would go to Millennium, you really didn't have a sense of pride," senior drum major Simon Tehle said. "Having this stadium is quite a grand experience because it gives you a new sense of home, a new sense of spirit. It brings a level of pride, honor and tradition. This year alone we've started so many new traditions. It's really brought the band and the school as a whole together as one."
One new South Elgin tradition is tailgating at home games. The large parking lot, nearly full 45 minutes before kickoff, was brimming with students and parents alike grilling hot dogs and burgers. The school was abuzz shortly after sunrise.
"I got here at 6:30 in the morning and this place was already a beehive of activity," Storm football coach Dale Schabert said. "I caught myself a couple of times -- we tell the kids to never do it -- but I looked around up in the stands as we were waiting for kickoff, just taking in all the sights and seeing everything. What a great day for the people who have worked for this and the community that has waited for this."
One of the people who worked diligently on the stadium project was SEHS booster president Mike Bersani, who was among the many dignitaries honored before the game for their contributions.
"We were just a bunch of crazy parents with some crazy ideas," Bersani said. "Nobody said it could be done, but we did it with the help of our business community."
The varsity players prepared for their first home game by watching an ESPN documentary about high school football called "Boys of Fall." They wouldn't have had time to watch such a motivational film in past years because there was always a rush to get on those busses to Millennium.
"It was awesome from the start," quarterback Zach Gross said of the entire experience. "Just coming out of our own school to watch the sophomore game was great. Then to be able to walk to our own locker room to put our pads on to get ready to warm up was an amazing feeling."
The new stands were literally shaking as the dancing, full-throated Superfans welcomed the football team through the tunnel and onto their home field for the very first time.
"They really got us fired up," two-way lineman Jon Slania said of the support. "And it lasted, too. They were loud all day and kept giving us energy into the fourth quarter."
As if scripted, the Storm sophomore team opened the day with a 31-16 victory to improve to 3-1. The varsity followed suit with a 33-0 win over Metea Valley to improve to 2-2.
The boys soccer team won on the same field on Thursday, making South Elgin athletes 3-for-3 on their new home field.
"Soccer wins, the sophomores win, the varsity wins -- that's better than perfect," Meidel said.