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

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Scales Mound players defend Chicago Leo in a matchup of the state's top-ranked boys basketball teams in Class 1A and 2A.

SHABBONA — No. 1 vs. No. 1.

Equals in a way, yes. But complete contrasts in other ways.

Scales Mound, population 454, vs. a team from the third-largest city in the United States. Class 1A vs. 2A. An all-white team vs. all-Black.

Illinois has never had a school as small as Scales Mound (70 students) win a state basketball title. And it has seldom seen a matchup as intriguing as when the Hornets played Chicago Leo in the Indian Creek Shootout on Saturday, with Leo winning 55-50.

"It was fun just to see what talent level we are," said guard Collin Fosler, who scored 14 points for Scales Mound. "A heck of an experience. Something we will probably never see again in our school history. Just amazing.

"They put our talents to the test. They really pushed us to our limits, made us see who we really are and what we need to work on.”

Indian Creek athletic director Ehren Mertz got even more than he bargained for when he scheduled this as one of the eight games in his sixth annual one-day tournament.

"We played Scales Mound last year, so I knew what they had," Mertz said. "And I knew what Leo had, so I thought I’d give it a shot. But I never thought it would be two No. 1s facing each other.”

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Chicago Leo has won four top-four state trophies — in classes 1A through 3A — since 1998, including the 2004 Class A state title. Scales Mound, one of the 10 smallest basketball-playing teams in the state, has never won more than a regional title. So Saturday was a rare chance for the Hornets to measure up against a big-time opponent.

“We have been wanting to get into a good tournament with these boys and see how we stack up against better competition,” said lifelong Scales Mound resident Bryan Krug, one of many fans to make the two-hour drive to Shabbona. “Ten years ago, the volleyball girls were down at state and got second, so we have seen this before. It’s awesome for a small school like this and how we support our kids.”

Scales Mound, loaded with players who have been on varsity all four years and led by 6-foot-4 seniors Ben Werner and Benjamin Vandigo, came out strong but struggled with Leo’s athleticism. The Hornets had nine first-half turnovers to Leo’s four and were outrebounded on the offensive end also by a 9-4 margin.

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Scales Mound (27-2) looked in trouble early when Werner left with his second foul less than four minutes into the game, with the Hornets already down 14-7. But Vandigo made a couple of baskets and Werner, who returned late in the quarter, added two more to pull the Hornets to within 19-18 after one quarter. Vandigo (10) and Werner (six) combined for 16 of those points and the Hornets shot 8-for-11 from the field.

Fosler drove to the basket and converted an old-fashioned three-point play to give Scales Mound its first lead since 2-0 at 24-23 midway through the second quarter, but the game changed for good a minute later. Werner was called for his third foul — an offensive foul when he supposedly threw an elbow on a spin move in the lane. After he went to the bench, Leo (21-3) immediately scored the next 10 points to open an 11-point lead.

"Every time he has done that, it has never been a charge," Fosler said. "But I am not going to blame the refs."

 "I have gotten a lot of charges just ramming into people, but dribbling in the lane anbd thebn a spin move back — I couldn’t believe it," said Werner, who finished with 10 points.

The Hornets never got closer than eight points after that until the final four minutes.

 "We needed a big guy in there," said Vandigo, who led Scales Mound with 17 points. "When he went out, we had trouble with rebounding, we had trouble with their traps. We just didn’t have the height once he was out.”

Still, the Hornets weren't quite down and out. An eight-point run brought them to within two points, 47-45, with less than two minutes left. Sam Cocagne started the run with a layup, followed by a basket by Werner and Vandigo scoring twice, the second time on a putback of his own miss.

That made it 47-45. Leo then scored four straight layups to go back up by 10, the first three uncontested breakaways after steals.

Even then, Scales Mound came back, pulling to within five and having the ball with 12 seconds left after a pair of baskets by Fosler.

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"It was just a great environment," Scales Mound coach Erik Kudronowicz said. "This is what we wanted.

"They may have been a little more athletic than us, but our kids are pretty athletic themselves. This is the kind of game we want to play. We just missed a few shots down the stretch and made a couple of mistakes in the last three minutes."

Kudronowicz also saw mostly similarities between the teams, not contrasts.

"There were differences, but if you ask the Leo team or our team it was just basketball," he said. "There were five kids on their team and five kids on our team competing as hard as they could to see who was the best."

"It was a ton of fun," Vandigo said. "We don’t get opportunities like that when you are in Scales Mound, out in the middle of nowhere."

Matt Trowbridge: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge