EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. – A couple of state lawmakers gave the East St. Louis boys basketball team an award on Monday. This came after FOX 2 reported that the team had to forfeit a state playoff game because of an issue beyond their control: transportation trouble.

The lawmakers are calling for changes in the bylaws that govern state-sanctioned school athletics.

In spite of protests from their parents, coaches, and even their school district, East St. Louis District 189, the Lincoln Middle School seventh-grade boys basketball team never got to play their state sectional playoff game. Still, the team walked out of the school gym feeling like champions. Players received certificates from the State of Illinois, congratulating them on their season.

“Just know we’re going to be back next year,” said Kenneth Brown, a Lincoln player, as he and his teammates celebrated their awards.

The team had a 21-2 record and won a state regional championship before having to forfeit the Jan. 31 sectional championship game in Pana, Illinois, about 90 minutes away. The roads still had icy patches from a winter storm (the game was pushed back by one day after the weather led to school closures on Jan. 30). The team was further delayed by mechanical issues with the first team bus, according to parents, coaches, players, and East St. Louis School District 189.

IESA (Illinois Elementary School Association) rules state that a team not ready to play “within 30 minutes of the scheduled game time shall forfeit.” The Lincoln Middle School team missed that window by three minutes, according to Dist. 189.

“Here’s why we had to come today, you won off the court,” said Illinois State Senator Chris Belt.

He represents East St. Louis in the state legislature along with State Representative LaToya Greenwood.

The two presented the players with certificates from the State of Illinois, congratulating them on their season. They highlighted the team’s sportsmanship: the Lincoln players applauded when their opponent, North Mac Middle School of Girard, Illinois, in Macoupin County, was crowned sectional champions after the forfeit.

“When it first happened, it felt like they were robbed,” said Erica Hopkins, whose son plays on the team. “The fact that they still had the energy, the heart, to cheer the winners on, that was amazing.”

“They teach us, adults, how to forgive and forget. I think that’s what they have done,” Greenwood said.

“These kids, these seventh graders, exhibited those very characteristics that you should learn from sports,” Belt said. “Even when they lost, they stood up and gave an ovation to the team that won through forfeiture. So that’s why we wanted to honor them because they didn’t win the game but they won in life. We really need to look at those (IESA) rules.”

The lawmakers are pushing the IESA to allow for more discretion. Lincoln’s athletic director alerted the IESA and the host school about the travel troubles. The other team and the referees were still in the gym when Lincoln arrived. Still, the game was not played.

Lincoln Middle School’s eighth-grade boys team will play for the state championship Thursday night.