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Associated Press
In this Tuesday photo, Washington Community High School football players practice at Illinois State University's Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill. (AP Photo/David Mercer)

While town cleans up, team prepares for a big game

Associated Press
In this Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013 photo, Washington Community High School football players finish practice at Illinois State University's Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., with instructions from head coach Darrell Crouch. (AP Photo/David Mercer)

– The home where Colton Marshall and his family lived is gone.

The 18-year-old's house was one of 250 to 500 that a tornado severely damaged or destroyed Sunday in the central Illinois town of Washington.

But Tuesday in Illinois State University's Hancock Stadium, Marshall and his teammates from Washington Community High School didn't let the disruption from the storm keep them from a routine they've had for years. They put on their helmets and pads, and started preparing for a football game. This one's a big deal: a state semifinal Saturday in Springfield.

"Yeah, this is something our town's been looking forward to. So, no matter what, we're going to go play," Marshall said, adding that it felt good to put the troubles waiting for him back home aside for a while. "We used to come here for team camps, so this is normal."

Marshall, the team's quarterback, smiled a little. The irony of escaping to the community of Normal wasn't lost on the high school senior. What he and his teammates left back home – 40 minutes to the west – is in no way normal.

Washington, a town of about 16,000, is 140 miles southwest of Chicago. The powerful tornado cut a path from one corner of the community to another – an eighth-mile-wide strip of homes and businesses that are in many cases flattened.

Authorities say they know of only one person who died, something that surprises most anyone who's seen the destruction.

But less than 24 hours before the storm, Marshall and the Panthers beat Normal University High 41-7 to advance to the semifinal, putting them a game away from a shot at the state Class 5A championship. Washington is undefeated, a perfect 12-0 going into Saturday's game at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield.

Under the circumstances, getting a team of teenagers to focus on football is a challenge. So first members of the team spent time Sunday and Monday helping start the process of salvaging valuables from homes. But then, coach Darrell Crouch said, it was good for the players to get back to football.

"Us missing these next four days, there's going to be plenty of work for the six months or a year of cleanup," he said. "Our town's very much a football town, so this will help our town, too."

Then came the more fundamental problems of getting a team that lives in a disaster zone back on the field.

About 10 of the players no longer have homes to live in. Crouch said some had their uniforms at home, and he figures about 10 of those are missing.

While the football field in Washington is fine, the high school – like the rest of the town – has no safe water supply.

And the cars and trucks that would have taken many Washington High families and fans to the game are sitting under the rubble of their owners' homes.

After a text and a call from one of Crouch's old friends, solutions to some problems started to come together.

The friend was Sacred-Heart Griffin coach Ken Leonard. His team, known as the Cyclones, wears T-shirts carrying the slogan "Our goal is to be Christ-like."

"We're going to walk the walk," Leonard said.

So Sacred-Heart Griffin, the Panthers' next opponent, chartered six buses to get Washington fans to the game. And there's a Washington pre-game ritual the Cyclones' moms will help with: providing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Crouch said there were too many offers to help with facilities to count. But Illinois State, where he played football in the 1980s and less than an hour away, made sense.

And with the practices in Normal, the team the Panthers had just beaten by 34 points – Normal University High – decided to buy the Washington players lunch on Tuesday. They even went a step further by offering to help with laundry.

"U High offered to wash stuff out for our kids who can't wash things," Crouch said.

With those tasks handled, Crouch turned to getting his team ready.

"We were on their butts just like any other week," he said after they finished Tuesday morning's practice. "We're not cutting them any slack."

And that's fine for players. Even with coaches being tough on them at practice, they were loose. They finished with a handful of field goal tries, the kicker surrounded by a rowdy circle of teammates.

"Money!" one shouted as the last kick went up and appeared to be headed between the uprights, only to clank off the crossbar to a collection of groans.

Marshall, after patiently doing a round of interviews with reporters, was the last player off the field.

Sunday morning, when the tornado hit, he was at work at a hardware store. He hid in the back break room as the tornado passed within a few hundred feet. Across the parking lot, an auto supply store was destroyed.

A few years ago, Marshall said, he saw a tornado while driving down a highway with his family. It tore through a cornfield and then was gone. Sunday was nothing like that.

"It's scary. You get knots in your stomach looking back at the pictures of it and everything, what it did," he said.

Now Marshall's family is scattered. He's living with a friend while his sister and parents are with another family in town. Space for four isn't always easy to come by.

He doesn't know much about what's ahead, except that Saturday afternoon in Springfield he'll play football.

"I love getting my mind off of it," Marshall said, choking up, looking away. "It's been awhile – feels like forever – since we've been on a football field."

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap

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