© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
A recurring series on WGLT's Sound Ideas about the central Illinois athletes who do incredible things, even after the game is over.

Bloomington-Normal’s top student-athletes focus on their teams as they accept individual awards

 Gracie Shaffer, Ali Ince, Cameron Thein holding plaques
Eric Stock
From left, Gracie Shaffer, Ali Ince and Cameron Thein pose for a photo after accepting their awards during the Bloomington-Normal Sports Commission Student Athlete Recognition Banquet June 20 in Bloomington.

Normal Community High School senior Ali Ince is one of the fastest high school runners in the country. She has won six individual state gold medals in track.

At last month's state finals in Charleston, Ince had to wait to receive her medal in the 800-meter run because she was busy running — and winning — the 400-meter race.

Ince has finished first in the 800 three straight years and the 400 two straight years. But it's Normal Community's gold medal in the 4x400 relay that means most to Ince because she shares the award with her teammates.

“If this sport was only me lining up on the (starting) line by myself, it would be pretty boring. My favorite events are the 4x400 and 4x800 because it’s with the girls. When you get to run for something that’s more than yourself, that’s what makes it really special,” she said.

The Bloomington-Normal Sports Commission named Ince its Female Student Athlete of the Year during its annual banquet that recognizes the top athletes and teams from Bloomington-Normal and the surrounding area.

In this edition of WGLT's Beyond Sports, the athletes honored for their individual achievements say the awards are not really about them.

Ince credits Normal Community's new track and field coach Kendall Keller for bringing in what she calls an amazing culture. Ince said the team focused on getting more girls to qualify for state this season — and it did.

“It was really fun to be on the team, go to practice every day. Just reflecting on it, I think more so this year I would say it felt like more of a team,” Ince said.

Ince may be all about the team. It's a trait she displays on the Ironmen girls’ basketball team, too. But her individual honors steal the spotlight. Her time in the 800 meters is a fraction of a second from the fastest in the country and has put her in contention for the Olympic trials. Ince said the idea sounded crazy at first, but now it's a goal.

“It would be really cool to get that (qualifying) time and go and race against some of the best in the U.S. It would be really cool to potentially race against someone who could go on to win the Olympics,” Ince said, adding she doesn't have a timeline for when she might pursue the Olympics.

For now, she's focused on her upcoming senior year at Normal Community and selecting a college — she's getting looks from Big Ten and SEC schools — and Ince wants to keep having fun doing what she loves to do.

“If you just have fun in the process, then the times will come,” Ince reasoned. “If you are to focused on having success and don’t have fun, what’s the point?”

Top male athlete

Alec Thomas of Lexington wasn't having much fun to start his junior year. The starting quarterback for the Ridgeview-Lexington football team broke his collarbone. Thomas said his role shifted from player to coach as he helped his successor step in.

“I tried to stay as glued to the team as I could and help him out even though I was out for a very long time. It was very, very hard on me,” Thomas recalled.

 Alec Thomas
Lexington High School graduate Alec Thomas was named Male Student Athlete of the year by the Bloomington-Normal Sports Commission.

Thomas got healthy just in time for the playoffs and led the Mustangs co-op team into the state semifinals.

His leadership skills carried over to his senior season where he won Male Student Athlete of the Year.

Thomas led the Lexington High School basketball team into the postseason. When the Minutemen were struggling, down 13 points at halftime in the sectionals against Decatur Lutheran, Thomas spoke up.

“I told them, ‘Listen here, this is it. This is the last half of basketball if we don’t win this game, so you’d better give it your all and focus and don’t worry about the crowd. Just focus on playing basketball, because we know we can beat them. We know we are a better team,’” Thomas told his teammates.

The Minutemen were indeed the better team by the time the final horn sounded, advancing to the sectional championship game.

Thomas was part of Ridgeview-Lexington's 4x400 relay team that won state and he qualified for three individual events in the state finals. In each sport, Thomas credits his success to his relationships with his teammates, regardless of whether they go to school in Lexington or at its co-op, Ridgeview.

“Growing up with them, we are all so close in such a small town,” Thomas said. “We all have the same passion for our sports and we’d all work out together, hang out and have a really close chemistry and relationship with each other.”

Thomas doesn't plan to play sports in college. He plans to enroll at Heartland Community College, where he will seek a paramedic license. Thomas said he wants to follow in his father's footsteps to become a firefighter so he can help others.

Scholar athlete winners

A passion to serve also is engrained in the two Scholar Athlete winners.

Gracie Shaffer of Farmer City was one of the Knight Buddies at Blue Ridge High School in northeastern DeWitt County. The program is named for the Blue Ridge mascot. Schaffer and other Blue Ridge High schoolers were paired with early elementary students to serve as mentors. Shaffer got to meet weekly with a kindergartner.

“We definitely did a lot more playing rather than helping with homework, but it was just a nice time for the kid to get away from his classroom and just have some time alone for the day without being around all the other students,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer doesn't need much help with her own schoolwork. She's the top-ranked student in her school. She's been involved with FFA and helps a neighbor with landscaping and cleanup. That sometimes involves cleaning their shop and washing and working on tractors, a skill she hopes to improve over time.

“I used to work with my brother, too, but I’m not very tractor inclined but hopefully I will get there one day,” Shaffer quipped, noting her father is a farmer.

Shaffer played volleyball and ran track at Blue Ridge. She owns school records in both sports. She plans to focus on volleyball at Millikin University in Decatur, where she will attend this fall.

Cameron Thein of Normal West focused on one sport in high school. He was trying to grow it. Thein was named the Male Scholar Athlete of the Year.

Thein has played lacrosse since the fourth grade, the last four years with the Bloomington-Normal Purple Iron Cats, West's co-op team with Bloomington and Normal Community high schools.

Thein said several of his teammates have been with him since the fourth grade when he recruited them to play. Thein said lacrosse draws from other sports many kids already play. It has the physicality of football and the play scheming of basketball, while the equipment is similar to hockey.

“I think the best way to recruit people is take their familiarities they may be already familiar with and more popular in other sports they have already played and find ways they can use lacrosse to benefit them in those sports,” Thein said.

Thein said the Bloomington-Normal high school team had 26 players last season, not enough to field a junior varsity squad. Thein said it will take more players, and more funding, to help the program grow. Thein also helped grow lacrosse by serving as a volunteer youth coach. He also served with Normal West Business Club and the school’s archive club that tracks various school artifacts. Outside of school, Thein gave his time to Midwest Food Bank and the Humane Society in Normal.

“I think it’s important to help the community and help other people. I think that’s a noble thing to do and something I get a lot of enjoyment out of. It makes me feel good to help people, animals, things who need it,” he said.

It's a lot to do while still being a standout student. Thein said he manages to juggle all these tasks by staying in the moment. That skill will help him when he heads to the University of Nebraska this fall. He will major in accounting and says he might go out for the school's lacrosse club team, too.

Other honorees

The Bloomington-Normal Sports Commission also named the state champion University High girls soccer team as Female Team of the Year and state finalist Cornerstone Christian Academy basketball its Male Team of the Year.

LeRoy softball coach Doug Hageman was named Coach of the Year for a Female Sport, Andrew Quain from Prairie Central football was named Coach of the Year for a Male Sport.

The Special Olympics Athletes of the Year were Adrian Nunez-Ceniceros and Tegan Trembley.

The Good Neighbor Award for school or community service went to Normal Community students Anna Dunne and Cort Welch and Normal West boys basketball assistant coach Ike Ohanson.

Corrected: June 27, 2023 at 6:33 PM CDT
The Bloomington-Normal co-op high school lacrosse team's mascot was misidentified in a previous version of this story.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.