BASKETBALL

It's not in the water. Secret to tiny Illinois town's storybook season runs much deeper

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

SCALES MOUND — There are few basketball-playing towns like Scales Mound left in America.

Only five of the 403 basketball-playing public schools in Indiana, the home of legendary small-town teams, are as small as Scales Mound’s 69 high school students. Illinois has seven others, but six of those have combined to win two regional titles in the last 40 years. Schools this small aren’t supposed to win.

But basketball lives in Scales Mound now the way it used to live in Alden-Hebron, the famed home of Illinois’ 1952 one-class state champions, who had only 98 students in the two schools but three future Big Ten starters in the Judson twins and 6-foot-11 Bill Schulz.

Scales Mound finished third in the state in the smallest of Illinois’ four classes last year with a starting lineup that had all been on varsity for four years, including stars Benjamin Vandigo and Ben Werner, who had led the team in both scoring and rebounding for three years in a row. The Hornets should have disappeared again this year without those five special players. Instead, the Hornets trotted out an entirely new lineup and started 7-0 and were ranked No. 5 in the state before losing 81-76 last week to undefeated Pecatonica, which returns several players from a team that won a school-record 27 games last year.

More:How 70-student Scales Mound matched up with Chicago Leo in battle of No. 1 basketball teams

How is this possible?

It’s because Scales Mound is not like other small towns. Or big towns. Or any towns. In some ways, it is an anachronism, a throwback to the past where everyone in “Hoosiers” grew up dribbling a basketball or Larry Bird shot baskets at a basket attached to the barn at the end of his family’s dirt driveway in French Lick, Indiana.

Basketball is the only boys sport Scales Mound has, with all other sports a co-op with nearby River Ridge. That makes basketball the town sport.

“Here in Scales Mound, basketball is a sport where everyone’s parents have played and grandparents have played and most of them have played in this town and community,” athletic director Dave Wiegel said. “Any time these kids are out and about in this community — it doesn’t matter what time of year it is — basketball is sure to come up.”

Here is why Scales Mound is so different.

Scales Mound attractions

Like several other sports powers in the toughest Class 1A conference in the state, Scales Mound offers things that keep many of its best and brightest in town. Or gets others to move here. Eastland and Dakota have lake resorts. Lena-Winslow, which just won its fourth state football title in five seasons, has two golf courses and an old school converted into an apartment complex. Galena, ranked No. 1 in the state in girls basketball, is perhaps the top resort town in Illinois.

Scales Mound boasts the highest spot in Illinois (Charles Mound) and two resort areas are part of its school district, which encompasses both a piece of the Galena Territory and Apple River Canyon State Park. That can make the town hard to find. Pecatonica’s bus arrived late last week because the driver’s GPS took him on a shorter — but winding and narrow — route through Apple River Canyon.

“I was just happy it wasn’t snowing,” Pecatonica coach Bobby Heisler said. “There is quite the view over the side.”

The 170-year-old town is primarily a farming community, but nearby resorts provide other career choices for area residents and a good tax base to support the school.

“We sit with two lake resorts close by,” assistant coach Kevin Duerr said. “We have a lot of businesses in town. From Wisconsin, this is the way everyone gets to Apple River Canyon. Most of them will stop and have a burger or shop and get gas. It keeps us alive.”

The town even has its own annual festival, Stagecoach Trail Days.

“It’s a very beautiful place with a beautiful lake and a nine-hole golf course,” Wiegel said.

All those things help Scales Mound retain a lot of its best and brightest.

“We have a lot of familiar last names at Scales Mound,” principal Matt Wiederholt said. “We do have kids who decide to move on, but the Scales Mound school and community offer a great place to raise a family.”

A school with its own cow

Behind the school is a new, stand-alone agriculture/science building.

“We’re still a farming-based community,” says Wiegel, who besides being the AD is the head coach of the River Ridge/Scales Mound girls basketball team, which was state-ranked last year and is off to a 10-2 start this year.

The building has six self-enclosed welding pods where students are currently taking apart a tractor. Another section of the building has a room for Nutmeg, a cow students are raising.

“We have her for the whole school year,” Wiegel said. “The kids get to get their hands dirty. They take turns feeding her on weekends.”

"We get to go through programs with the cow," junior guard Max Wienen said. "Animal science and vet tech. She is like a pet. She will come right up to you. Some days we have goats in there. Some days we have chickens. Or dogs out there. We have freedom to do whatever we need to do out there."

Close to 80 percent of Scales Mound students are involved in Future Farmers of America. They excel in that even more than they do in basketball. Lisa Oellerich, who leads the school’s FFA team, said close to 70 percent of the seniors at Scales Mound in FFA graduate with a FFA State Degree, the state’s highest individual award. That is 30 times greater than the 2.5 percent state average.

The Scales Mound FFA chapter has earned a Gold ranking at the state level for 10 years in a row. Last year, five Scales Mound students advanced to state in FFA competion — including two players from the basketball team. Two were named state champs.

And like the other two lake communities in the NUIC, Eastland and Dakota, Scales Mound students excel in everything, not just agricultural studies. Wiederholt said more than 10 percent of Scales Mound’s graduating class the last five years have been named Illinois State Scholars. The school’s Academic Challenge team has sent students to the state finals in 15 of the last 19 years.

Last year’s third-place team in boys basketball had five members on the Academic Challenge team. This year’s team has six. Last year’s starting five had two Illinois State Scholars. This year, four out of five have been inducted into the National Honor Society.

“It goes far beyond basketball,” Wiederholt said. “It’s about a great community coming together to help our kids.”

The school is the focal point

Like many small towns, the school in Scales Mound is the focal point of the community. But Scales Mound ups the ante even more. The town’s day care, for instance, is in the basement of a new addition to the school.

“It’s a cool opportunity,” Wiegel said. “There are not a lot of day care options in a small town.”

Scales Mound recently built a new weight room. The old one wasn’t much, built in a pair of converted class rooms. The new one features not only weights but three huge flat-screen TVs. And while many local high schools around Rockford lock their doors to the public — and even lock their tennis courts and other outdoor facilities — anyone in town can work out in the new Scales Mound weight room for $50 a year.

“The taxpayers bought it, so we think they deserve to reap the benefits of it,” said Wiederholt, whose office is right next to the new weight room, which he frequently uses alongside students and members of the community. “It ties into the community and the school being one big family.”

All for one, and one for all

When a town has only one boys sport, that sport can quickly become the town's sport, bringing everyone in town together to root for the home team.

You've heard of school spirit. Scales Mound has town spirit.

“Every business has signs for the basketball team up,” assistant coach Jeff Korte said. “It’s all over town.”

Today’s players were yesterday’s fans.

“When we were little we were always at every game, wearing the green, yelling as loud as we can,” said senior guard Thomas Hereau, the team’s leading scorer at 17.6 points a game. “That’s how the whole community is. Everyone wants to be at the games, and everyone is cheering for us.”

That’s because they grow up on basketball at Scales Mound, which again is not like most high schools. In cities, high schools are grades 9 through 12. It’s not unusual in small towns for a school to be grades 7 through 12. But Scales Mound is a K through 12 building.

That breeds basketball fans from a young age. The River Ridge/Scales Mound co-op teams are the Wildcats, but you won’t see a Wildcat logo anywhere within the school walls. Instead, there is a Hornet statue just outside the main entrance and Scales Mound Hornet logos in practically every hallway.

“You don’t have to be a basketball fan here," said senior guard Jacob Duerr, "but everybody is."

“We take basketball more to the heart. It’s our sport. Our school. We bond all day at school.”

They bond with each other. And they bond with the kids as young as 4 and 5 they see in the hallways.

“When I was a kid, going to the games was my favorite thing,” said Duerr, who averages 6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 steals and a team-high 5.3 assists. “When I was a preschooler, I would come home from school. My mom would ask me how school was. I would say I got to see the basketball players. That was the highlight of my day: seeing the basketball players in the hallway.

“I always looked up to them. And when I got into elementary school and started playing ball, those kids were the ones who were coaching us. I idolized them my whole life.”

Today, Duerr is on the other side of that adoration.

“They are all yelling your name, giving you high fives, wanting to talk to you,” Duerr said. "It makes you feel good about yourself that those kids are looking up to you because you are doing great things.

“That is something important about small schools that not everybody gets to experience.”

The dream season

That still doesn’t make it easy to win.

Scales Mound won 20 games only three times in 70 years before 2020. The town went 20 years without a regional title until coach Erik Kudronowicz, who went 2-22 in his first year in 2007, built his first strong team, winning three regional titles in four years from 2009-2012.

Then came last year’s special group. A group that was marked for greatness from the start. Then delivered, being ranked No. 1 in the state for much of the year and finishing 36-3 and third in Class 1A.

Basketball, always so important to Scales Mound, now meant everything to Scales Mound.

“Those three losses had to be like somebody shot your dog,” said Mark Risser, who has a grandson on this year’s JV team.

Scales Mound sold out Pecatonica’s gym for its two sectional wins, with fans from all around the NUIC rallying around their conference rivals.

“It was just a dream season,” assistant coach Kevin Duerr said. “Anywhere the kids went, other towns knew them. They put Scales Mound on the map.

“Every step we took last year, the crowd would grow,” Wiegel said. “We are extremely grateful for the backing we received.”

Scales Mound usually draws little notice outside of Scales Mound. There are not daily papers that cover the Hornets, although the Rockford Register Star, 80 miles away, has followed them when they have a special season. When the Hornets made their run last year, the radio stations that covered their games used their principal as the color commentator.

“That was a neat experience taking that role,” Wiederholt said. “Us being so small, I see all these guys during school, at lunch and sometimes even working out after school. I get to be part of their daily lives. My favorite memory last year was getting to interview them on the radio.

“It didn’t seem weird that the principal was doing this. Everybody does things in a small school. It would be weird in the NIC-10, but to us, it’s just a way of life.”

The next chapter

And it doesn’t seem weird that Scales Mound is still winning. Not to the folks in Scales Mound.

“The past few years everyone has had basketball fever,” Wiegel said. “These groups were in junior high and upper elementary school waiting for their opportunity. They absolutely have a ton of love for the class that graduated before them. That has to be the most skilled class to walk through these halls. But they also saw the amount of work and effort that went into it. That has had a trickle down effect.”

This year’s team isn’t as tall as those 36-3 Hornets. They aren’t as gifted. But they have put in as much work as that group, also playing a lot of AAU ball in the summer, a trend that began with last year’s senior class.

“We usually don’t have seven or eight kids who know the game as well as these guys do, but we have been blessed with it three years in a row," assistant coach Kevin Duerr said.

In last week’s first loss to Pecatonica, Scales Mound led until midway through the third quarter. The Hornets then looked dead, trailing by 12 points with two minutes left, but made five 3-pointers in those last two minutes to get within one basket with six seconds left. That shows their determination to remain strong.

“We hit some tough shots,” said senior guard Charlie Wiegel, who averages 11 points and 5.1 assists. “I am proud of these guys. There was no one out there on the court that was in that situation last year. It’s a learning process, but we never once put our heads down. There is a lot to take away and learn from this game.

“We lost all five senior starters. We watched those guys our whole lives. We know what to do, what they worked on. We obviously don’t have the same team. We don’t have anywhere near the same team. Our playing style, our height, our depth — it’s totally different this year.

“But, this group, we’ve put in the work, too. We’ve been in the gym. We’ve been up early. Up late. We’ve been playing as a team.”

They’ve been carrying on a Scales Mound tradition that grew to new heights a year ago.

“Last year’s chapter,” principal/radio color man/grade-school basketball coach Matt Wiederholt said, “wasn’t the end of the story. We still have some great players trying to live up to last year’s reputation.”

Contact: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com, @matttrowbridge or 815-987-1383. Matt Trowbridge has covered sports for the Rockford Register Star for over 30 years, after previous stints in North Dakota, Delaware, Vermont and Iowa City.