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COVID-19 halts basketball in Southern Illinois, and the voices that announced games
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COVID-19 halts basketball in Southern Illinois, and the voices that announced games

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WXAN’s Richard Blakely would normally broadcast more than 100 high school basketball games each winter, but, due to the pandemic, there are no games for the foreseeable future.

For 41 years, Richard Blakely’s daily routine in the winter has mostly been the same.

Get up in the morning, do a sports update, then gas up the car and head to a gym somewhere in the area to call a basketball game.

Blakely’s called thousands of games the last 38 years for WXAN-FM in Ava, usually following Trico’s boys teams around the Black Diamond Conference. But his lifelong love has been halted since March 12.

“I was on pace to have the best year ever,” he said last Sunday. “And then it stopped.”

Everything stopped that day, at least in the sports world. COVID-19 wiped out every IHSA event for just over five months, starting with the Class 1A/2A state basketball tournament that Blakely was in Peoria to announce.

Spring sports became the next casualty, followed by the move of football and volleyball to February through May 1. And now basketball gyms around Southern Illinois sit idle. So does the equipment of every radio announcer in the area.

“I miss it drastically,” Blakely said. “I’m hurting. I’m miserable. I want one, maybe two nights a week at home to do the things I need to do around the house, and then I want to be out and going. I can’t do that now — you’re stuck at home.”

And there’s no telling when the gym lights, not to mention the microphones, will whir back to life. The IHSA said this week winter sports wouldn’t return until January. With coronavirus rates at levels still unacceptable to the Governor’s Office or the Illinois Department of Public Health, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said the state would stay in Tier 3 mitigations until further notice.

So there is no basketball on the radio, unless you count the broadcasts of SIU games or Illinois games. Or if you listen to WGGH-AM in Marion, you might run across one of last year’s games.

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That’s been a staple of the station since the pandemic hit, according to its main play-by-play voice, Tim Petrowich.

“I came up with the idea for the replays almost immediately after COVID-19 shut everything down,” he said Thursday. “Initially, it was because everyone was in a panic, and it’s also because my producer records all the games.”

The first replay to hit the air was Marion’s 43-40 football win against Rochelle to start the 2018 season, a game the Wildcats won on a Boston Zeigler touchdown pass in the dying seconds.

Petrowich’s recent library of games is as deep as an ocean. Between Marion, Johnston City and the occasional Goreville softball game, there are more than enough games so that he hasn’t repeated a repeat yet.

He even went back to 2014, when the Wildcats upset Carbondale in a regional final and reached a sectional title game despite finishing the regular season under .500. And games from last year, when Jackson Connor became the school’s all-time leading scorer as Marion won its regional, have taken their turn in the wayback machine.

Still, there have been losses.

“I did a revenue report for the first 11 months of 2020 and we were down more than 20%,” Petrowich said. “We’re a locally-owned station in a small media market, and when you take away the main revenue producer, it puts you in a crunch.”

Petrowich estimates more than half their main advertisers have stayed with the station. To give them return for their buck that can’t be spent on high school sports, he aired a variety of junior high baseball and softball games from mid-August through early October. Being an affiliate station for the White Sox, Blues and Illinois sports has helped, too.

However, he and Blakely can agree on one thing. No matter what you find to help you pass time, it’s not the same as setting up your equipment and then talking into a microphone while high school kids play basketball in front of a screaming crowd.

“I’m usually at a game almost every night,” Blakely said. “With this going on, I’m absolutely miserable.”

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