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By Emily Jankauski
Photo by Eric Potter: The Mahomet-Seymour High School chess team competed in its first-ever Illinois High School Association state sectional competition securing a place on the Peoria Civic Center’s floor for the upcoming February IHSA state finals.
Studying strategy and utilizing scholastic skill, the Mahomet-Seymour chess team competed in the Illinois High School Association’s first-ever chess sectionals last weekend.
Having grown from 96 teams in the 2001 IHSA state finals in Peoria, the recent IHSA chess sectionals featured 159 teams.
“State competitions grew too big,” said Eric Potter, Mahomet-Seymour High School chess team coach and math and science teacher. “Sectionals will limit it (the state competition) to 128 teams, which is the perfect number of teams for a seven-round chess tournament.”
Potter’s 15-member roster competed in the four-round sectional competition featuring eight boards of action. To qualify for state, Mahomet-Seymour had to score two points out of four as a team. For each match, boards one through eight are weighted in points varying from 12 to five points, respectively, for a total of 68 points per match. If more points are scored than the opponents, the team wins. A 34-34 draw is possible, but unlikely, giving each team 0.5 points toward qualifying for state.
“The goal is to get enough points as a team,” he said. “It’s (sectionals), different than basketball, our section has 19 schools and 12 to 14 of them will move on to state.”
During sectional competition, Mahomet-Seymour ended up winning two of four games, and Bryan Retallick and Nick Morrow won individual medals.
While IHSA has featured chess activities since 1974, Potter said Mahomet-Seymour’s participation in the activities are relatively new in comparison with other extracurricular activities.
“Chess just started within the last 20 years or so,” he said. “I started helping out about 15 years ago and I become a sponsor three years ago.”
The University of Illinois grad said his team practices two to three times a week and competes in league matches against schools in the Bloomington, Champaign and Peoria areas.
“It gets pretty intense some years,” Potter said. “Other years it’s more so just fun. We study tactics, openings and end games, such as mating with the queen or pawn and rook endings.”
The 18-year Mahomet-Seymour teacher said his passion for chess began during his high school career at Naperville North.
“We didn’t have a chess team,” Potter said. “My senior year I wanted to get a team started, so as a junior I started playing in tournaments in Chicago.”
Having set aside his chess ambitions after high school, Potter resumed his efforts once he began assisting with the school’s chess team. Now a ranked U.S. Chess Federation player, Potter said he appreciates the camaraderie of chess as he often gets together with friends over a thrilling chess match.
Changing his major from engineering to education, with a focus in teaching physics, Potter said he began his educational path by wanting to make a difference in the world.
“Even back in school, I enjoyed helping people who experienced a disconnect (in comprehending material),” he said. “I had some good teachers who I wanted to emulate, and I wanted to be one less bad teacher out there.”
Beyond assisting Mahomet-Seymour’s chess team, Potter is also the Math Team’s and Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering team’s coach.
“Academic competitions don’t always get the press,” Potter joked, “but Mahomet is really strong academically. We compete with anyone in the state, especially with the schools in the 100-mile radius.”
Potter added academic activities provide opportunities for students that they may not receive elsewhere.
“Kids need an activity,” he said. “They may not be the football player or the basketball player, but extracurricular programs are important for all students. Academic activities help improve SAT scores, utilize their scholastic skills and relate to what students are learning in the classroom.”
Potter also assured that the intensity of a chess competition is as riveting as any other sporting event.
“There’s nothing more thrilling than the last moments at the Peoria Civic Center (where state competitions are held) and there’s less than five minutes on the clock with three or four boards left with complicated positions,” he said. “Everyone gets silent. One little slip up or a great combination, just like a tie basketball game, will determine the winner.”
After qualifying for the IHSA state finals, Mahomet-Seymour will head to the Peoria Civic Center Feb. 9-10 to compete as one of the 128 teams. Team members include Aidan Trevellian, Brandon Bussman, Brody Nunn, Bryan Retallick, Clayton Burkhalter, Dalen Elliott, Jason Fox, Kyle McDermith, Logan Weiss, Nate Elliott, Nick Morrow, Sam Knight, Spencer Becker, Steven Underwood and Tony Huang.
Appreciative of Mahomet-Seymour High School’s support, Potter said he is grateful for the school’s willingness to assist with the team’s needs.
“When we need new clocks or equipment, or we need transportation to competitions, it’s not a problem,” he said. “At other schools, sometimes kids have to drive to competitions.”
Having seen several changes during his time in the Mahomet-Seymour district, Potter said he appreciates that Mahomet still has a “small-town feel” that still provides all the variety of opportunities for students that larger schools do, for both academics and extracurricular activities.
“For a small school, we have many good opportunities,” he said. “We have great kids and almost all of them are involved in sports or band, and they really split their time,”
With Mahomet-Seymour’s ever-growing school district, the chess coach said, he views M-S as one of the top downstate schools that often provide top-notch academics and extracurricular programs.
“There’s no better place to live and to work than Mahomet,” Potter said. “I can’t see myself teaching anywhere else.”
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