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Olympia High School FFA wins battle of 'Pork and Pigskins'

A girl cooks a pork chop on a big grill
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Olympia FFA Alumni
The Olympia FFA program received the coveted Golden Spatula award for being voted the state’s top chop, along with various prizes from the Illinois Pork Producers Association.

In an epic battle of the griddle-iron, the Olympia High School FFA team emerged as state champions in a hotly-contested, multi-team elimination tournament to determine which Illinois High School Association [IHSA] school fries up the best game-night grilled pork chop sandwiches in the state.

As winners of the third annual Pork and Pigskins State Championship, sponsored by the IHSA and Illinois Pork Producers Association [IPPA], the Olympia FFA program received the coveted Golden Spatula award for being voted the state’s top chop, along with various prizes from the IPPA.

Olympia FFA advisor Bryce Hoffman said the school’s butterfly pork chop sandwiches bested pork product entries submitted by some four dozen IHSA schools across the state.

“We have entered the competition each of the last three years, and the first round is determined by fan voting. Our fans voted us through to what they call the ‘Savory 16’ [and the ‘Flavorful 4’], and this year we were selected as the state winner. We’re super excited,” said Hoffman, whose Olympia High School draws from eight nearby communities to comprise its student body of around 500, of which about 170 are members of the school’s FFA program.

It takes around 25 of those FFA members to grill up about 500 pork chops and staff the concessions tent during Olympia’s home football games. The cooking takes place on a massive, homemade, propane-powered rotisserie grill that allows team members to cook around 75 chops every 10-12 minutes. It is known as the Kyle Haning Memorial FFA Grill, named for a past Olympia FFA alumni who died in 2018 at the age of 43.

A lot of work goes into preparing and seasoning the meat before grilling and selling the chops, said Braxton Apel, a sophomore who serves on the chop crew.

“It takes a lot of time and effort, and takes a lot of teamwork,” said Apel, who along with Olympia FFA co-member Mallory Miller, attended the FFA National Convention in Indianapolis with Hoffman and others Nov. 1-4. “[The chop has] got to be well seasoned, and you’ve got to keep going until it’s [cooked] just right. We’re constantly cooking and rotating the chops.”

Miller, a junior, said that in addition to providing students with fun opportunities to interact and benefit others — as with the chop crew — FFA pushes its members to expand their boundaries and explore new opportunities.

“FFA forces you to get out of your comfort zone. Along the way you get the aspect of meeting new people and trying new things, and in the end having fun,” she said.

Before wrapping up his discussion with WGLT-WCBU, the Olympia FFA advisor was persuaded to reveal a couple of the chop team’s secrets to success in taking the vaunted Golden Spatula award for 2023.

“We use a custom barbecue pork spice. It’s the same stuff the [IPPA] uses down at the Illinois State Fair on the Pork Patio,” Hoffman said. “And we purchase our chops from Mackinaw IGA.”

According to IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson, FFA-prepared pork chop sandwiches are a staple of IHSA sporting events.

“The recipe for a great game day experience includes the bands, cheerleaders, fans, and of course, the aroma of a grill permeating throughout the stadium,” Anderson said in a news release.

In addition to the Golden Spatula, as 2023 champions Olympia FFA receives a $500 voucher to defray the cost of their pork purchases next season and a championship banner, according to the IHSA news release. Spring Valley’s Hall High School captured the 2022 Pork and Pigskins State Championship, while Normal Community High School’s A-Train crew won the first contest in 2021.

On Saturday, Nov. 11, the Olympia Spartans Class 3-A football team will be competing for a chance to continue its postseason quest for a state championship in football. This means Spartans fans will have at least one more chance to sample the school’s prize-winning pork chops, while seeing two of the best football teams in the state clash for supremacy in a 2 p.m. quarterfinal clash versus Roxana.

It also means the Olympia High School FFA chop team will have one last chance to show why it was crowned 2023 IHSA-IPPA Pork and Pigskins champions, while expanding their personal boundaries, learning valuable business and social skills and bettering their school and community.

“The gates will open at 2:30 and the fans can come in. We will have pork chops ready at that time,” Hoffman promised.

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.