The Illinois High School Association’s Student Advisory Committee (SAC) turned nine years old during the 2017-18 school year.
What began as an additional piece of the IHSA’s general process has blossomed into an irreplaceable arm that continues to grow in scope and responsibilities, while impacting high school students statewide.
“Initially, it was about giving students more of a voice in the Association,” said IHSA Assistant Executive Director Beth Sauser, who works as the staff liaison to the SAC. “Whenever we institute changes, we hear from coaches, school administrators, contest officials and our staff, but we rarely received input from the students.”
The IHSA decided on a 21-student format for its group, derived from the Association’s geographic districts that divide the state into a 21-piece pie. In order to be part of the SAC, a student must first be nominated by a member high school administrator based on criteria that include being involved in at least two IHSA sports or activities, as well as displaying “strong character” and a “commitment to sportsmanship and integrity” among other values.
“The SAC has a family atmosphere to it,” said Mendota High School’s Preston Lewis. “It’s a lot of the same types of people, in terms of being involved in multiple sports, active in their schools, captains and leaders on their teams. So, it is easy to make connections with the other members.”
Currently, the IHSA only seeks freshmen and sophomores when adding new SAC members in order to provide continuity from year to year, while also allowing the younger members to develop into leaders within the SAC over time. While the geography of the divisions ensures statewide representation, Sauser seeks diversity from its nominees in gender and ethnicity, as well as in school size and type.
Routt Catholic High School’s (Jacksonville, Illinois) Ellie Abell, a senior in her final year on the SAC, believes that diversity has been vital in the development of the SAC.
"My favorite part about the SAC is meeting new people and seeing their views,” Abell said. “It is really interesting working with people who grew up and live completely different lives than I do, and I enjoy hearing their stories and opinions on life.”
One of Sauser’s initial goals of the SAC was the development of a statewide student leadership conference. The conference went through a few variations, starting as multiple smaller conferences held at high schools around the state, before evolving into its current version.
The IHSA Leadership Conference is now a semi-annual event that draws in excess of 700 students to a single location to spend a day learning about three core principles: Communication, Leadership and Sportsmanship. The conference curriculum is based off The Captain’s Handbook, another SAC creation, and the conference is led solely by SAC members and their high school peers.
“The leadership conference helps students from different places with different experiences to learn and gain new skills,” said Lemont High School senior Celine Ratulowski. “Sometimes, the best senior player on a team might be chosen as a captain by default, but they may not have the comfort level to speak to their teammates or handle some situations. I think our conference is really good about addressing that, as well as being able to learn from other current high school students.”
Bloomington High School alum Malik Helm, who served on the SAC before graduating in 2017, believes the Leadership Conference has an impact well beyond the day’s events.
“The Leadership Conference doesn’t just help the students who attend, it can impact an entire school and even conference,” said Helm. “One of the main ideas that we push is that the attendees need to take the things they learn back to their schools to share and implement them. There have been many schools who have instituted their own leadership councils as a result, and many conferences are now developing their own leadership conferences as well.”
While the SAC has achieved the IHSA’ s goal of developing a successful leadership conference and becoming an important voice for the Association, it’s work hasn’t stopped there.
“The SAC has really gone above and beyond,” Sauser said. “They have started several other initiatives and have countless ideas for new projects. Their energy and passion to get involved and make a difference far exceeded my initial expectations.”
Some of those initiatives include the development, administration and judging of the IHSA’s Student Section Showdown, which crowns the state’s best student section. SAC members are also routinely on-site at IHSA State Finals to judge sportsmanship, have written and recorded sportsmanship public-address announcements, and have taken a leadership role in the IHSA’s partnership with Special Olympics by encouraging participation by high schools in unified programs.
“Being on the SAC is one of my favorite experiences in high school,” said Marian Central Catholic (Woodstock, IL) senior Jake Pothoff. “I have made lifelong friends that I never would have met before and gained valuable experience that will help me in college and eventually in my job. SAC is a lot like being on a high school team. You want to honor the tradition set by the previous members, while also trying to raise the bar higher.”
Matt Troha is assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association and a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.