Who has the best high school gym in Illinois? Here are our 8 favorites

·8 min read

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

Now, we're talking gymnasiums — those palaces of Illinois high school hoops.

There are countless quaint or cathedral-like places to watch high school basketball, but we tasked the sportswriters in the Gannett Illinois family to pick their favorite spots — including entries from reporters in Peoria, Springfield, Rockford, Galesburg and Macomb.

Illinois high school favorites: Rivalries | Football stadiums | Nicknames | Athletes

John Thiel Gymnasium, Galesburg

John Thiel Gymnasium is the home of Galesburg High School's Silver Streaks
John Thiel Gymnasium is the home of Galesburg High School's Silver Streaks

Thiel is the home of Galesburg's boys and girls basketball teams, volleyball squad and wrestling team. The facility has been my home away from home for a long time now and, in my eyes, is one of the top gyms in Illinois.

In July 2016, about 40% of the floor in Thiel was damaged during a storm when winds up to 65 mph blew off a protective covering on the gym's roof, which was being replaced. In turn, District 205 had to install new hardwood and while the school district was at it the bleachers were replaced. They had not been upgraded since they were installed in the mid-1980s.

In the last two years, Thiel's lights were updated to LEDs. It's a lot brighter in the place now, and the future is bright for the Silver Streaks. Their fans have a great place to watch an event.

— Matthew Wheaton, The Galesburg Register-Mail

Wharton Field House, Moline

Wharton Field House in Moline, Illinois
Wharton Field House in Moline, Illinois

For me, it does not get any better in the state of Illinois, and maybe the country, than Wharton Field House in Moline.

The historic home to Moline High has hosted NBA, CBA, high school and college basketball games since its opening in 1928.

The history, venue and the noise that comes from that arena for a big game are unlike any other place.

To be in the same locker rooms as Red Auerbach, George Gervin and so many basketball greats is a feeling all high school players should get to enjoy.

The raised floor, old bleachers and the balcony that shakes when full made going to Wharton feel like a next-level experience for a player or a fan.

— Scott Holland, McDonough County Voice

Robertson Memorial Field House, Peoria

Robertson Memorial Field House on Nov. 1, 2007. The former home of Bradley basketball also housed numerous Peoria-area high school basketball games over the years, including years of sectional matchups and the Manual-Central rivalry.
Robertson Memorial Field House on Nov. 1, 2007. The former home of Bradley basketball also housed numerous Peoria-area high school basketball games over the years, including years of sectional matchups and the Manual-Central rivalry.

My favorite place to see a high school basketball game wasn't a high school gym at all.

It was Robertson Memorial Field House on Bradley University's campus.

Built in 1949 with two surplus WWII airplane hangars put together, it was home to BU back in the day, with its iconic 3-foot-high raised floor and ear-splitting acoustics.

But it was also home to elite high school basketball games, regionals, sectionals, supersectionals, and more. None were better than the annual rivalry games between state powers Manual and Peoria High School (Central, as we knew them then).

They played eight times there from 1986-87 into 1989, and those games were so big they drew 51,200 spectators. No. 2-ranked Central beat No. 5 ranked Manual 54-53 in front of 5,500 there in 1989.

I didn't cover much basketball, but I saw games in places like Manual, Elmwood, Notre Dame and Peoria High (which still has its wooden bleacher seats).

But the high school game was amplified, larger than life, in Robertson.

— Dave Eminian, Peoria Journal Star

Manual gymnasium, Peoria

Manual High School
Manual High School

History oozes from the black-and-orange striped walls of the Manual gymnasium.

The six state championship teams — five boys and one girls — are honored with banners, street signs and team pictures throughout the gym. Reading through the accolades of those half-dozen squads, as well as the Illinois Mr. Basketball honorees, makes for a memorable trip.

On a Friday night, the cozy gym nestled on Griswold St. heats up especially quick with a big and loyal crowd cheering on the Rams, especially against Peoria High. It’s almost chilling to think of the number of legendary Peoria hoopers who have run up and down the court.

There are too many River City players to name, but the list certainly includes all-Americans, Mr. & Ms. Basketballs, players of the year and countless Division I players who cut their teeth in that gym as legendary coaches roamed the sidelines.

Pretty darn cool place.

— Adam Duvall, Peoria Journal Star

History: Homegrown leadership for Manual basketball helps youth navigate surroundings

Jacksonville High School Bowl

Kristan Becker-Hoffman, one of The Jacksonville High School Bowl's caretakers, is photographed at the venue on Monday, June 30, 2014.
Kristan Becker-Hoffman, one of The Jacksonville High School Bowl's caretakers, is photographed at the venue on Monday, June 30, 2014.

The 1952 landmark is a timeless treasure in central Illinois.

What makes it quite unique is that the basketball floor descends below the surface as you enter the building, and the bleachers closely circle the floor. This special design helps convey the aura of a classic, old-school basketball gym that has remained unchanged since its doors first opened.

There have been changes, of course.

A pipe burst destroyed the historic floor over the summer in 2020 and a new one was installed by the end of December. Insurance covered the repair costs, but supporters bought pieces of the original floor to help maintain the building's future condition.

I hear from a reliable source it has perhaps the best popcorn of any venue. Maybe I can confirm this on my next trip.

— Bill Welt, The State Journal-Register

West gym, Taylorville

The Taylorville High School west gymnasium.
The Taylorville High School west gymnasium.

This won’t come as a surprise for those who know I’m from Taylorville, but that gym (built 1937) is my favorite; not because I am from Taylorville, but because it’s the best gym. Period.

Granted, there are places with obstructed views to the Dolph Stanley Court and — at times — some of the seat and chair backs have been broken. However, it is easy to close your eyes and picture the 1943-44 Tornadoes running off its magical 45-0 season to win the single class state basketball championship.

There is a black and white photo somewhere of fans dressed in their Sunday’s finest suits and dresses, even packed on the floor, during a postseason game. Fans normally sit in the seats which begin 5 feet above the court. I am too young for the days of Orr and Bontemps, but I got to watch Allison Curtin’s teams in the 1990s.

— Ryan Mahan, The State Journal-Register

History: Springfield area has some hallowed hardwoods

Dakota High School gym, Dakota

Dakota assistant coach Josh Alber, left, new head coach Matt Jacobs, center, and former head coach Pete Alber pose in the practice room on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, at Dakota High School.
Dakota assistant coach Josh Alber, left, new head coach Matt Jacobs, center, and former head coach Pete Alber pose in the practice room on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, at Dakota High School.

While this gym may not be anything out of the ordinary when it comes to architect or aesthetics, it houses a whole lot of tradition inside those walls.

"There's no frills, nothing state-of-the-art or anything," assistant coach, and former four-time state champ for Dakota, Josh Alber said. "But it's about the atmosphere. The practice room is just a hot, padded room where the guys know it's time to work, and then they're just 50 feet from the gym for the meets...And for meets, the fans are right on top of the wrestlers, it's a great feeling. You can hear every word."

The Dakota wrestling team has crowned 43 individual state champions and has qualified for the team state finals 10 times, finishing on top as state champs six times. Dakota has also won 12 regional titles and four sectional titles.

And much of the training, and a lot of dual wins, have come inside the Dakota High School gymnasium.

Dakota will host Lena-Winslow/Stockton this Thursday in the most anticipated dual match of each year.

— Jay Taft, Rockford Register Star

Boylan High School gym, Rockford

A look at the Boylan main gymnasium in Rockford, during a youth basketball event last year.
A look at the Boylan main gymnasium in Rockford, during a youth basketball event last year.

Boylan’s 62-year-old gym has an old-school feel to it. It features retractable wooden bleachers on the lower half on the west side and permanent balcony seating on the east side and above the bleachers on the west. It is also one of the largest gyms in the area with an official capacity of 3,034 — although Boylan usually limits ticket sales to 2,500 because of fire code regulations.

What makes the place opponents call “The Church” truly special is it houses the Titans, a team that won at least 20 games 24 times in 25 years from 1984 to 2008. Boylan has won 26 of the last 38 NIC-10 titles. That makes every game at “The Church” a big event for rivals. Boylan’s gym is also home to the most famous game ever played in Rockford: The night Boylan upset a Chicago King team ranked No. 2 in the nation with two 7-footers in front of a sold-out crowd in 1992.

In 2008, NIC-10 teams voted Boylan as their favorite place to play — even though it gave them the least chance to win. "We have never beaten Boylan on their home floor during my tenure here, and not for a long time before that, either," Auburn coach Byran Ott told the Register Star 14 years ago. "Despite the record, I have to say that Boylan probably remains my favorite place to play. I think it provides a great atmosphere for high school basketball."

— Matt Trowbridge, Rockford Register Star

This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Favorite Illinois high school gyms in Peoria, Springfield, Rockford

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