Harrisburg basketball team bounces back after tornado

HARRISBURG, IL (KFVS) - It's the first Friday in February, and the top-ranked Harrisburg Bulldogs boys basketball team is playing at home for the first time in six weeks.

Purple clad fans fill the gym by the JV game, waiting to watch their local celebrities.

"You got old guys at Hardees hanging out and talking about you all the time," said Harrisburg senior Dakota Upchurch.

"The older people in our town gather around and talk about the kids we have playing," said Harrisburg senior Ryne Roper.

This is what normal is like in Harrisburg.

A year ago, was anything but normal.

On Feb. 29, 2012, at 4:56 a.m., An EF-4 tornado tore through the town.

Eight people died. Dozens more lost their homes and businesses.

"You can see something on TV, but when you see it in person it looks totally different," said Harrisburg senior Capel Henshaw.

"In a small town like Harrisburg, no one really thinks that's supposed to happen," said Harrisburg senior Tyler Smithpeters

"You don't have a tornado in a town of 10,000 and have it not affect you," stated Harrisburg head basketball coach Randy Smithpeters.

Like how it affected Harrisburg senior Dakota Upchurch, who survived at his grandma's house, but discovered a family friend did not.

"It sucks for something like that to happen," Upchurch said. "It's made me a better person, I think."

Or sophomore cheerleader Morgan Burklow, who frantically passed the terrifying seconds in her apartment bathroom, to find it was the only room left standing.

"My first instinct was to get up and run out the door, and it kind of hit me then cause glass was everywhere and I realized my house was gone," Burklow said.

The boys basketball game that night was postponed until the next day.

It was then the team learned how much sports meant to the community.

"There was a guy, I couldn't tell you his name, but I was familiar with his face, he lived down the street, and so I stopped and rolled down my window and asked if he was OK," Randy Smithpeters said. "He said yeah, what time's the game tonight?'"

The game got pushed back to the next day, and Harrisburg won.

Then it won again.

In a time of unimaginable loss, the Bulldog basketball team seemed destined to win.

"Having that game the next day was just a way some people could get their mind off the storm, and in a way get back to the way life was before the storm," Roper said.

"I just couldn't miss it, it was an escape to get away from everything that had happened and it made me feel a lot better," Burklow said.

The Bulldogs' season finally ended in the State quarterfinals, but not before it, filled Harrisburg back up with hope.

"Even though it's just a sport, just basketball, bring some joy back to Harrisburg," Roper said.

A year later, they still are.

The Bulldogs are 28-1, the number one team in Class 2A, on a quest for the school's first state basketball trophy.

"It'd be the greatest feeling in the world to get that state championship," Upchurch said.

"It'd mean a lot," Henshaw said. "Our crowd and fans who come to support us are just great. They've been behind us 100 percent coming to every game. "

A year ago, basketball helped begin Harrisburg's healing process.

Today, it continues to lead the city back to normalcy.

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