Who are the top athletes in Illinois high school history? Here are our favorites

We've shared our favorite high school rivalries. You know our favorite football stadiums and the state's most funky and fun high school nicknames and mascots, as well.

Now, we're talking athletes.

The state of Illinois has its share of great high school athletes — names like Red Grange, Dick Butkus, George Mikan and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Many of the names below are not on that level, but have proven quite memorable in the hearts and minds of the sportswriters in the Gannett Illinois family — including entries from reporters in Peoria, Springfield, Rockford, Galesburg and Macomb.

Illinois high school favorites:Rivalries | Football stadiums | Nicknames 

Tara Toepke, Metamora

Metamora volleyball coach Tara Ballard looks on during a 2019 match.

Metamora’s Tara Toepke was arguably the Peoria area's best female athlete in volleyball, basketball and softball in the early 2000s.

The four-year, three-sport starter was named all-Mid-Illini Conference first-team 10 times in 12 high school seasons from 2000-2004. She was a first-team Journal Star all-area honoree in all three sports as a senior, while being named player of the year in volleyball (2001) and softball (2004).

“In my years around high school athletics, I’ve never seen a girl who is as good at all three sports as Tara is,” then Washington softball coach Clint Reed said in ‘04.

Toepke, now Tara Ballard, went on to play volleyball and basketball at Illinois Central College, winning a national title in 2006. She then played volleyball at Winthrop and now is the Metamora volleyball coach.

Adam Duvall, Peoria Journal Star

Frank Williams, Manual

Frank Williams of Manual

I never covered Shaun Livingston in high school, or Sherrick McManis or David Booth — all terrific local athletes in my era.

But I joined the entourage covering the Manual Rams' four-peat in the IHSA Class AA state basketball tournament through 1996-97. 

That's where I saw a 6-foot-4, skinny point guard named Frank Williams lead a Manual team with Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin. He was named to the IHSA all-tournament team as he led Manual to its final two state titles in his sophomore and junior years. 

As a senior, Williams led a 27-3 Manual team and earned All-State honors and was named Illinois Mr. Basketball, then went on to play at Illinois, where he was Big Ten player of the year in 2001.

In 2007, Williams was voted to the "100 Legends of the IHSA Boys Basketball Tournament" and he went on to be inducted into the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame and reach the NBA, with the Knicks.

Dave Eminian, Peoria Journal Star

Ryan Considine, Byron football

Older brother Sean Considine, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens, and younger sister Megan Considine, who scored 2,077 points for Byron’s girls basketball team, got more press, but Ryan Considine was the most exciting high school athlete I’ve covered in my 31 years in Rockford. He was a 135-pound high school version of Barry Sanders and Garret Wolfe.

“He did things that nobody else did,” former Byron football coach Everett Stine said. “And he did them quick and fast and was impossible to tackle in the open field.”

“He was electric, not only in football, but in every other sport,” said Jeff Boyer, who coached Byron to this year’s Class 3A state football title and was the quarterback of the 1999 state champs that starred Sean Considine. “When we were younger, we would play football in the backyard. Ryan was four years younger than us, but he was always running around us. That elusiveness carried over into high school. He could score from anywhere on the field.”

Matt Trowbridge, Rockford Register Star

Deion and The McShane brothers

Northern Iowa Panthers wide receiver Deion McShane (1) stretches for extra yardage against Iowa State Cyclones defensive back T.J. Tampa (25) in the second half at Jack Trice Stadium.

Getting to cover the middle three McShane brothers of Freeport has been a stroke of luck — because of their athletic prowess, as well as their personalities. But because of the heights he soared in track and field, Deion McShane would be my pick to highlight. 

On the football field, the trio ruled the Freeport gridiron. Vance had the second-most yards in a single game with 268 in 2014. That came two years after his older brother Steve had the third-best game at 252 yards. Then younger brother Deion came along and had the fourth-best game with a 237-yard effort in 2016.

Steve went on to play baseball and football at Western Illinois, and Vance and Deion have one season left together on the football field at the University of Northern Iowa.

But what helped make Deion so unforgettable was the way he finished each high school calendar year — with eight state medals in track and field, including three state titles in the hurdles.

Jay Taft, Rockford Register Star

Ryan Held, Springfield's golden swimmer

United States' gold medal winner Ryan Held cries during the medal ceremony for the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay final at the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

I've had the fortune of covering four current NFL players during their high school days — Blake Hance, Daniel Helm, Albert Okwuegbunam and Malik Turner. I've also been there for countless other athletes whose performances left me bewildered, like when Southeast's Charday Crawford won two gold medals at the 2013 2A state track and field meet despite a torn labrum. 

Technically, I never covered a Ryan Held swim meet when he was at Sacred Heart-Griffin. The State Journal-Register is more than blessed to have part-time sports writer Trevor Lawrence, who is the local media expert on swimming and tennis. 

But the 2016 Olympic gold medal swimmer's story was amazing, getting word he would join Caeleb Dressel, Michael Phelps and Nathan Adrian in the 4x100 freestyle relay on the day of the finals. After the team took gold, Held broke down in tears of joy on the podium.

Despite being thrown into the spotlight and achieving the highest of heights, Held has remained consistently humble.

Ryan Mahan, The Springfield State Journal-Register 

Gavin Block, Lincoln basketball

Lincoln's Gavin Block (22) drives to the basket against Lanphier's Daryl Jackson (22) in the second half at Lober-Nika Gymnasium, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, in Springfield, Ill.

This may be purely sentimental, but I always like to reflect on my first year as a sports reporter at the Lincoln Courier. That just happened to be one of Lincoln’s best seasons in boys basketball history and featured the lengthy 6-foot-6 forward Gavin Block.  

Block, who went on to play at Ohio, scored 22 points in the season-opener and the Railsplitters rolled to the Class 3A state championship game with starters Max Cook, Joey Olden, Edward Bowlby and Tyler Horchem in tow. Lincoln ultimately went 34-3 and settled for state runner-up in 2014.

Block was the junior on the squad while the rest were seniors. But you couldn’t tell on the floor. In the first state-ranked showdown with Larry Austin and Lanphier, Block racked up 28 points in the loss. He could deftly handle the ball and attack the basket, and he never seemed to mind taking a charge.

He also tolerated all of those interviews throughout my first two years. 

Bill Welt, The Springfield State Journal-Register

Joey Range, Galesburg basketball

Joey Range drives to the basket during his time with the Galesburg boys basketball team.

Growing up in western Illinois in the mid 90s was a treat for any high school basketball fan. Western 6 schools featured some of the league's best players in the state for both boys and girls.

For me though, the best of the best was Galesburg’s Joey Range.

Range could do it all: Shoot, rebound, defend, block shots and — most importantly to someone in high school — dunk with authority. Whenever Range and the Silver Streaks were in town, it was must-see basketball.

My favorite memory was my junior year of high school. Range stole the ball near midcourt and with an Alleman player waiting near the basket to draw a charge, Range flew through the air, leaped over the defender and threw down the greatest dunk I’ve ever seen in person.

Our student section was in awed silence before nearly rushing the court to celebrate with Galesburg’s show-stopper.

Scott Holland, McDonough County Voice

Josh Eiker, Galesburg track

Former Galesburg High School track standout Josh Eiker, Class of 2016, gives his acceptance speech during Galesburg Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremonies Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in Galesburg High School.

Galesburg's Josh Eiker was fun to watch. He ran blistering times, and every step of the way he was humble. It was a true pleasure to cover his high school — and college — career.

Eiker's high school sprint exploits are record-setting. He is the first individual to ever win back-to-back IHSA state titles in the same track events in two different classes, winning the 100 and 200-meter dashes in both Class 2A and 3A. 

Eiker ran the fastest time (20.83 FAT) with a legal wind in the 200 in Illinois high school history. He also holds the IHSA state record in Class 2A in 100 (10.53) and the 200 (21.20). He also holds the Galesburg school records for the 100 (10.34), 200 (20.89), and 400 (48.39) and is listed atop the Western Big 6 Conference's record book in the 100 and 200. 

Eiker continued his track and field career at Illinois, where as a freshman he clocked a personal record 21.30 seconds in the 200, which ranks ninth in Illinois history.

Matthew Wheaton, The Register-Mail