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Thursday, Sept. 16, 2004 07:52 am

Best of Springfield Sports & Recreation

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Best picnic spot, best public park & best tennis courts: Washington Park
Photo by Nick Steinkamp

BEST BINGO HALL

Caritas Hall
909 E. Converse St., 217-523-3021
There may come a day when the governor docks a boat on Lake Springfield and loads it with slot machines and roulette wheels to help balance the state budget. Until then, bingo will continue to serve as the city's most prevalent form of legalized gambling. And from the looks of the giant parking lot on North Ninth Street that overflows with cars every night, it comes as no surprise that our readers picked Caritas Hall as Springfield's best bingo hall. Inside the former Jewel-Osco supermarket is an electronic bingo board, suspended television monitors that show the numbers as they are called, and a glass-partitioned room for smokers. Armed with an array of colorful daubers, scores of people congregate at the hall for three hours every evening -- plus afternoons on weekends -- in the hopes of buying that lucky card worth hundreds of dollars and the chance to yell, "Bingo!"
Runner-up: Victory Hall

BEST BOWLING ALLEY

Strike N Spare West
2660 W. Lawrence Ave., 217-787-6111
Bowling over its competitors this year to become Springfield's top spot for 10 pins is Strike N Spare West, located on Lawrence Avenue just east of Veterans Parkway. Owned by AMF -- the world's largest operator of bowling centers -- Strike N Spare West offers 36 lanes and a full bar that attracts a core group of seasoned bowlers to its regular league nights. But you don't have to be a pro to play: There's also a "lousy bowler" league for hapless gutter-ballers. A favorite spot for families and kids' parties, the bowling alley also has a miniarcade and snack bar. And if the nachos and Foosball aren't incentive enough, how's this for an enticement? On most afternoons you can bowl 10 frames for a buck.
Runner-up: King Pin Lanes

BEST FISHING SPOT

Sangchris Lake
Our readers picked Sangchris Lake over Lake Springfield as the best fishing spot in Sangamon County by a 2-1 margin. These lakes are about as colorful and pretty as their names, but the fishing is good, with plenty of bass, bluegill, and catfish. You can eat the fish caught in Sangchris Lake, which is maybe one reason it fared better in the voting. Watch out next year, though -- Lake Springfield is now off the Department of Natural Resources' fish-contamination advisory.
Runner-up: Lake Springfield

BEST GOLF COURSE

The Rail Golf Club
1400 S. Clubhouse Dr., 217-525-0365
On Jan. 2, 2003, the Rail Golf Club sold 198 games of golf, making the most of the unseasonably warm day. That's the advantage of having a course at which the pro shop is open every day of the year and, weather permitting, so is the course. Every September, the Rail hosts the annual State Farm Classic, an LPGA golf tournament that draws nearly 30,000 participants and fans from all over the country. A course maintained at tournament-level conditions is an obvious draw for local golfers. The fact that the Rail is privately owned shouldn't deter duffers from teeing off, says general manager Jim Johnson: "As a privately owned course, our fees are a little higher than city courses', but there are ample opportunities for low rates, especially with early-bird and twilight rates."
Runner-up: Piper Glen Golf Club

BEST LOCAL ATHLETE

Andre Iguodala
Springfield still remembers basketball sensation Andre Iguodala, who signed this year with the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA. In his senior year at Lanphier High School, Iguodala helped take his team to a second-place finish at the state tournament. "I think he was voted one of the top five players in state that year," recalls WICS (Channel 20) sports anchor Steve Bridge, who has followed Iguodala's career. "He really got his chance to shine his sophomore year at University of Arizona-Tucson last year." Iguodala's mom, Linda Shanklin, explained his decision to make himself eligible for the pro draft: "They say when it's your time, it's your time, and you've just got to go. They draft on potential. He was drafted No. 9, and that showed a lot of faith in him. In some situations, if you stay in school it can hurt you. You can come up hurt or they start to pick your game apart." As a rookie, Iguodala's role is uncertain, she says: "They may use him as a practice player for a year or bring him into the game to relieve some of the other players." Shanklin is proud of her son, and so are Illinois Times readers.
Runner-up: Jason Werth

BEST CUBS FAN

Gov. Rod Blagojevich
Sure, Springfield has its share of diehard Cubs fans, cursed each year with the unwavering faith that the lovable losers will break out of the slump that has sidelined them from the World Series since 1908. But the fanaticism of a central Illinoisan can't compare to that of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who forsakes a mansion filled with bling to live on Chicago's congested North Side, perhaps just to be near Wrigley Field's crumbling stadium. As a testament to his devotion, Blagojevich contributed a column published by the Sporting News in May declaring that the governor "bleeds Cubby blue" and "wouldn't wear a White Sox cap even if they made the World Series."
Runners-up: "There are no good Cubs fans," "No such thing," and "They are all losers."

BEST CARDINALS FAN

Gov. Rod Blagojevich
Huh? Blagojevich is a Cards fan, too? You might ask how the gov can be loyal to both sides of a bitter Midwestern rivalry. Well, that's politics. "I'm going to finally assert, right now, that I'm a Cardinals fan," Blagojevich told a crowd of Metro East voters in 2002 after they helped make him the Democratic nominee for governor. To further confuse matters, Blagojevich said after the aforementioned Sporting News column came out that he was only joking when he said he was a Cards fan. And though he vowed to never wear a White Sox cap, on opening day last year he wore a White Sox jacket while throwing out the opening pitch at the old Comiskey Park. So which is it already? Is Blagojevich for the Cubs, the Sox, or the Cards? For now, he swears that he's a Cubs fan. Scout's honor. That is, until election time.
Runners-up: "Cardinals suck," "No such thing," and "Who cares?"

BEST COACH

Ken Leonard
Head football coach, Sacred Heart-Griffin High School
In his 24 years as a high-school coach, Ken Leonard has become as much an icon in his game as some guy named Knute at a certain faith-based Indiana institution of higher education. As he started his 21st year as a coach at SHG, Leonard's win/loss record was chalked up 210 victories and just 56 defeats. Before coming to SHG, Leonard coached for four years at Gridley High School, in a small town north of Bloomington. "When I left Gridley, there were 88 students," he says. "Today, at SHG, we're in the low 800s." As SHG's boys athletic director, Leonard teaches no classes, but his presence is felt in his supervision of study hall, lunchroom, and all athletic events. His tenure at SHG has been productive, to say the least: "We didn't have boys swimming when I arrived. We've also brought in cross-country and wrestling." Though many students come into his program with NFL dreams, Leonard downplays exceedingly high hopes. "Our primary goal is to make better citizens of the young men I coach," he says. "We have a lot of kids who go on to play college football, but that's probably the least important [goal]." Leonard attributes his success to the fact SHG is a private Christian school: "We can pray before the games. Spiritually, we're not afraid to stand up for what we are. We are also the first downstate sport team that I know of that has established random drug testing."
Runner-up: Steve Torricelli, Springfield College

BEST PICNIC
SPOT BEST PUBLIC PARK
BEST TENNIS COURTS

Washington Park
Springfield has no shortage of attractive places in which to stroll, picnic, and play tennis. But the hands-down best place to engage in all of these recreations is the expansive and beautifully landscaped grounds of Washington Park. Designed by renowned Chicago landscape architect O.C. Simmonds, the century-old park attracts scores of people each day who come to exercise or simply seek peaceful refuge. Trails that wind through its hilly, forested areas offer a surprising sense of seclusion. Picnickers can spread out their blankets and baskets of food in the lawns that surround a duck pond or dine on one of the park's many inviting wooden benches. The park offers 12 well-maintained tennis courts and four courts for platform tennis. It's a great place to work on your serve or simply to watch as the University of Illinois at Springfield's men's team practices. Washington Park is also home to a botanical garden and the Thomas Reese Memorial Carillon Ñ the third largest bell tower in the world. And by as soon as next spring the park will be a child's dream come true: The current playground area's swings and slides will be augmented by new state-of-the-art equipment that includes climbing walls, a canopy-covered sandbox, and water-play area.
Runners-up: Lake Springfield (picnics), Lincoln Park (public park), and Springfield Racquet & Fitness Center (tennis courts)

BEST PLACE TO HIKE

Lincoln Memorial Garden
2301 E. Lake Shore Dr., 217-529-1111
Springfield can't boast the bluffs and boulders of southern Illinois or the steep sandy dunes along parts of Lake Michigan. But hikers can still work up a sweat and find inspiration on the meandering trails that lead out from Lake Springfield and make up the Lincoln Memorial Garden. Laden with symbolism, the nearly 70-year-old garden was grown from acorns and seeds of plants native to the three states where the Abraham Lincoln once lived: Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. Intended as a living memorial to the 16th president, it was designed by prominent prairie-landscape artist Jens Jensen, a Frank Lloyd Wright associate responsible for many outdoor oases in Chicago. Expanding over the years from 63 to more than 100 acres, Lincoln Memorial Garden is at once an ideal spot for introspection and Springfield's best place to hike.
Runner-up: Carpenter Park

BEST PLACE TO SHOOT POOL

Break Time
2937 W. White Oaks Dr., 217-698-0918
Chalk up your cues, powder your palms, and head to Break Time for the capital city's best place to shoot pool. Located in the same complex as the popular Funny Bone Comedy Club, Break Time features 10 green-felt tables in a large, open setting. On Sundays, you can shoot stick for just $1 an hour. The place also has a rockin' jukebox and walls lined with dartboards and arcade games. In an adjacent room there are a full bar and restaurant with a stage for karaoke and a dance floor that heats up on weekends.
Runner-up: Mowie's Cue

BEST WEEKEND-GETAWAY DESTINATION

St. Louis
St. Louis shows up in first place on many lists. Last year, it scored a trifecta of dubious wins: Most dangerous city. Least healthy place for women. Most environmentally toxic city. Oh yeah, it was also named the nation's best sports town. Understandably, residents of this fiercely provincial metropolis spend a lot of time making excuses for the place they call home. They shouldn't: After all, the people of Springfield love the Lou. Springfieldians zip down I-55 to see a world-class zoo, art museum, botanical garden, dog museum, and bowling museum, plus the eclectic, kid-friendly City Museum. St. Louis has professional hockey, football, and a group of redbirds with the best record in baseball. Don't forget ethnic restaurants, alternative-music clubs, theaters, and -- drumroll, please -- a free brewery tour with free beer. Sure, Chicago has everything St. Louis has in spades -- but it's twice as far and more than twice as expensive.
Runner-up: Chicago

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