How these Scales Mound basketball players stuck together and built a state power

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Collin Fosler shoots during Scales Mound's 55-41 victory over Chicago Marshall in the Class 1A supersectional at Northern Illinois University Convocation Center on Monday, March 7, 2022, in Dekalb.

Erik Kudronowicz inherited an 0-27 team when he took over in 2006 as Scales Mound boys basketball coach at age 29.

By the end of his sixth season, Scales Mound had won three regional titles — already one more than in its previous 60-plus year history. “But we hadn’t broken through at the sectional level,” said Kudronowicz, now in his 16th year.

The next step, Kudronowicz decided, was to play more in the summer. He and local parents started a booster program they named SMASH (Scales Mound Area Sports Headquarters). The coach also got his kids playing more in the offseason.

The coach's current group of eight seniors — including all five starters — joined the AAU circuit the summer before eighth grade. But they joined together. And that, Kudronowicz says, is a big part of why Scales Mound has a chance to become the smallest state champion in Illinois history with an official two-year enrollment average of 70.5.

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The No. 2-ranked Hornets (35-2) play at 11:45 a.m. Thursday in a Class 1A state semifinal against Liberty at State Farm Center in Champaign.

“Our kids have had opportunities, going back to their middle school days, where AAU programs reached out and wanted our kids to be part of their programs,” Kudronowicz said. “However, this group — and it was more of this group than the parents or anybody, it wasn’t my influence — they all felt, ‘We’re going to stay together. We’re going to represent Scales Mound. We’re going to do this as one. I don’t want to split up. I don’t want to play with one of my friends. I want to play with all of my friends.’

“This group stayed together and the proof is in the pudding with the season we have had.”

Scales Mound coach Erik Kudronowicz speaks with Ben Werner and his other players during the Class 1A sectional finals at Pecatonica High School on Friday, March 4, 2022, in Pecatonica.

'We had to stick together'

Scales Mound has won 30 games for the first time in school history. The Hornets have packed gyms all over northern Illinois with crowds five times larger than the town population for 454. If they win state — and that will be a tall order with No. 1-ranked Yorkville Christian, led by Duke recruit Jaden Schutt, having beaten every playoff opponent by at least 34 points so far — they will be even smaller than fabled one-class 1952 champion Alden-Hebron (98 students) and 1992 Class A champ Findlay (97 students).

And, unlike Alden-Hebron, which had three future Big Ten Conference starters in twins Paul and Phil Judson and 6-foot-11 center Bill Shultz, Scales Mound’s biggest college prospect is a football player, Division II defensive lineman Ben Werner.

But the Hornets have each other. United together. Always.

“A lot of us were asked by other organizations to play,” said Werner, the team’s 6-4 center. “But we knew we had to stick together. We couldn’t get better playing with other people. And it worked out. It really brought us close. You get a lot more games in during the summer than you can in a season.”

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The Hornets played as many as 80 games together during those summers.

“We have been playing together our whole lives, so when we got to high school it didn’t change at all,” Werner said. “It was definitely different as our own AAU team, though. We’d show up for AAU tournaments, and we had on our cute little practice jersey reversables and those other teams had kids from all different schools in their fancy uniforms and shoes and stuff. We were the small-town kids kind of out of place, but we ended up having had a lot of success at both the AAU level and high school.”

The only way, Kudronowicz said, they could have this much success.

“That’s one of the core values of our program,” Kudronowicz said. “It’s about we. It’s about us. It’s about how to win. The last time I checked, it’s a team sport, not an ‘I’ sport. It has always been about us as a group. If we are going to have success, it’s not one or two kids who are going to have success. With a school our size, it has to be collective. And that’s why you see when you watch us play.”

Scales Mound center Ben Werner passes to an open teammate against Sterling Newman at Pecatonica High School on Friday, March 4, 2022, in Pecatonica.

The smallest state champion?

What you see when you watch Scales Mound is unlike any other school this small. Catlin Salt Fork, with 153 students, is the smallest school to win Class 1A since the four class system was adopted in 2008. Scales Mound is less than half that.

The best Rockford-area comparison would be NUIC rival West Carroll before it became a co-op. Mount Carroll won its first regional title in 39 years in 2002 and finished second in the state in 2003, going a combined 59-3 those two years with an enrollment of 149 students.

This year, the only five smaller basketball-playing schools in the state are a combined 30-94.

Scales Mound is 35-2.

And trying to get to 37-2.

“I know comparisons will come up,, whether it is the Hebron team or Cobden or some other small school teams that have had some success, but this is uniquely Scales Mound and uniquely this group,” Kudronowicz said. “They are making their own little niche in history. They have stuck together. It will be interesting to see how this all finishes.”

Matt Trowbridge is a Rockford Register Star sports reporter. Email him at mtrowbridge@rrstar.com and follow him on Twitter at @MattTrowbridge. Sign up for the Rockford High School newsletter at rrstar.com.