By POWELL LATIMER
MT. VERNON —
The closeness makes noise.
The drumline, the pep band playing the same songs before every game, the 1,700-plus screaming, sweating bodies that perpetually threaten to overflow onto the court — the sounds reverberate off walls placed too close together and create an assault on the ears in Mt. Vernon Township High School’s cramped, 74-year-old Changnon Gymnasium.
Within the next 30 days, the MVTHS Building Committee hopes to pick from four plans ranging from renovation of the existing facilities to a completely new campus, but all involve extensive renovations to Changnon.
Built in 1934, the gym is a fixture in the community. It has seen local heroes like Max Hooper and Kent Williams and has played host to a boys basketball program that has racked up 1,733 wins all-time — good for third-best among Illinois High School Association teams. The gym’s antiquated design allows for a raucous atmosphere found few places elsewhere in the state.
But Changnon also prohibits the boys basketball program from hosting postseason games, and the historic gym’s space limitations place a strain on a school with needs bigger than Changnon’s dimensions can hold.
‘History and tradition’
When FGM Architects representative Augie Pataglia pitched his company’s feasibility study to the MVTHS Building Committee June 17, he said “schools are about history and tradition.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in Changnon Gymnasium. The name carries the legacy of coach Stanley Changnon, who won 229 games and three state titles (including the first back-to-back titles in Illinois history) from 1943-1952. Changnon also recorded the only perfect season in MVTHS history, a 33-0 state title campaign in the 1949-50 season.
Changnon has seen its share of great games, great players and great coaches. Howard Ross, Harold Hutchinson, Keith Law, Lee Emery and Doug Creel each have more than 100 wins sitting on the bench for the Rams. Longtime girls basketball coach Sara Rennie retired recently with more than 600 wins at Mt. Vernon.
Then there are the moments. Kent Williams, the all-time leading scorer for Mt. Vernon, is the most recent in a long line of star players to come through the school. As a senior, Williams scored 49 points in a game against Carbondale at Changnon. Prior to Williams, Hooper ran the court at the gymnasium before it was named after his coach. Walt Moore, a teammate of Hooper, played at the gymnasium before breaking the color barrier on the University of Illinois men’s basketball team.
But the gym is best known for its atmosphere on game night.
With the ancient lacquered wooden bleachers pulled out almost onto the floor, fans are close enough that opposing players can feel spit on the back of their necks. Students and the pep band even pack shoulder-to-shoulder on the stage behind the far goal to create what looks like a barely controlled riot.
“There’s nothing like running out at Changnon,” Rams head coach Scott Gamber said. “The crowd just seems like they’re right on top of you. It does not get any better than that.”
Few understand the history of Changnon Gym better than Gamber. His father, Terry, played for Mt. Vernon in the 1960s and he played on the teams with Williams in the late 1990s. Gamber sat the bench as an assistant for all-time wins leader Creel before taking the head job when Creel stepped down.
“It’s just a great atmosphere for basketball,” Gamber said. “And to have the four state championship teams have played in that gym, and the players that have played there and the fact that it’s been there for so long, I think that would be impossible to replace.”
There are also logistical problems with replacing Changnon’s bleachers. The current system of season ticket distribution has been in place for years with around 900 seats reserved. But, if the gym were renovated or rebuilt, that system would have to change.
“Until you die or you don’t want them anymore, or you move out of the county, you have those seats,” Creel said. “That will be a mess, too, when we change gyms, because seating won’t be exactly the same.”
‘From 1926 to 2010’
But while Changnon provides an electric game night experience, the gym falls short on many of its other uses.
That same close-packed seating chart that makes the Snake Pit such a tough road trip for opposing teams also precludes the Rams from hosting postseason games.
Fans are so close to the floor that throw-ins have to be taken from the restraining line around the court. Changnon is one of the few remaining gyms in Illinois still sporting a restraining line — something that IHSA bylaws say makes Mt. Vernon ineligible to host postseason games.
“We desperately need to get rid of that restraining line,” Gamber said. “And maybe make it a little bit more aesthetically pleasing.”
And the inability to host postseason games has hurt the Rams. Since 2001, Mt. Vernon has advanced past the regional stage of the IHSA playoffs only twice — in 2001 and 2008.
Changnon’s structural problems are numerous. The floor has dead spots, the locker rooms are antiquated and the bleachers are in need of repair. But the banners in the rafters are powerful cultural anchors for the gym, and the crowds and quirky floor are often viewed as a home-court advantage for Mt. Vernon.
But the fact remains that many of the rest of Illinois’ high schools are playing in newer, more modern facilities.
One of those high schools is the Rams’ chief rival, Centralia. In 2007, Centralia High School moved to a new campus and abandoned its revered Trout Gym for a more modern model.
On paper, the Orphans haven’t missed a beat, going 68-21 in the new facility, but Gamber said the atmosphere just isn’t the same.
“It’s a beautiful gym,” Gamber said. “It’s one of the nicest gyms we play in all year. But it’s not the same as their old Trout Gymnasium. You go in there and it just felt special.”
“I don’t like the atmosphere of the new gyms,” Creel said. “It’s just not the same. Centralia’s got a really, really nice new gym but it does not have the same atmosphere as playing in Trout.”
Looking outside of the purely basketball aspects of the gym, the athletic demands of MVTHS have also grown exponentially since 1934. Changnon Gym is currently home to three boys basketball teams, two girls basketball teams, a wrestling team and two volleyball teams. Not to mention a daily round of P.E. classes.
Creel admits that Changnon has its limitations.
“I also know that things change and times change,” Creel said. “We do need a whole lot of new things. It’s not great for practice, it’s not great for P.E. — it’s great for game night.”
District 80 Superintendent Mike Smith said the plethora of activities forces practices to be held on Saturdays and late at night.
“Even with the existing facilities, we’ve got to answer questions about space and timing that we need to have additional facilities,” Smith said. “One or two more gymnasiums, or at least floor spaces.”
Most of the plans for potential renovation involve adding smaller gyms to the existing complex, according to Smith.
“It’s something we talked about: bringing us to 2010 or 2012 as opposed to 1926,” Smith said. “Just trying to see what it takes to meet our needs 75 years later. And some things need to change and some may not.”
But it appears, barring some new development in the building plans, that Changnon is one building in need of change.