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First National Challenge returns to NIU, raises $42K for DeKalb, Sycamore booster clubs

“This year COVID wise, I think we are going to see a little bit of a decrease as far as attendance goes, but we are making the best of it.”

DeKALB - The 22nd annual First National Challenge match returned to Northern Illinois University’s Convocation Center Friday, pitting rival basketball teams from DeKalb and Sycamore to raise $42,000 for booster clubs for each district.

A year ago, the First National Challenge basketball game was being played inside Sycamore High School with a live stream for others to watch, one of many changes made necessary for scheduled events due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Last year we only had a basketball challenge game, but there was no events besides it being just a game because you couldn’t have fans,” said Ron Bemis, event co-chair. “This year, we rescinded around the fall and have raised $42,000 which primarily comes from sponsorships.”

The twice annual event is hosted by the First National Bank of Omaha, which operates regionally to support athletic programs throughout several counties. The girls’ match saw a Sycamore Spartan win, at 56 to DeKalb Barb’s 51. in the boys’ game, the Barbs took home the trophy with a 47 win over the Sycamore Spartans’ 30.

Though the money raised will undoubtedly help provide resources, equipment and other items to both Sycamore District 427 and DeKalb District 428′s booster clubs, attendance for Friday night’s match wasn’t what it once was, Bemis said. Another likely side effect of the ongoing pandemic.

That doesn’t mean the twice-annual fundraiser hasn’t been successful. In the fall, the First National Challenge football game raised about $43,000 for Sycamore and DeKalb booster clubs.

“A co-worker and myself started it 22 years ago, and it has been very successful for those 22 years,” Bemis said. In the past 22 years, the challenge has raised $1.28 million for the two district’s booster clubs, Bemis said.

He said organizers prioritize three things for each event: how to make the games a big community event to garner support and cheer on each team, raise funds for each district’s athletic programs, and promote booster clubs to encourage more active members.

“With COVID, it’s been different, but we have still been able to plug ahead and raise funds for the schools,” said Dave Coovert, member of the Sycamore booster club’s board of directors. “It’s nice to be somewhat normal. Last year, we had the game in Sycamore and you had to stream it.”

Laura Powell, in her first year as the DeKalb booster club president, said she has been involved with the booster club for about six years.

“I was vice president the last two years, and took over this year,” said Powell. “This year COVID wise, I think we are going to see a little bit of a decrease as far as attendance goes, but we are making the best of it.”

Though Friday’s event was different than in previous years -- no half time dance show in between the girls and boys games, for instance -- Powell the spirit of the game continues.

“It’s still a great event,” she said. “We appreciate everything FNBO does for the community, we also appreciate everyone coming out.”