Scales Mound overcomes Chicago Marshall to reach IHSA boys basketball state finals

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Scales Mound’s Ben Werner and Collin Fosler celebrate a supersectional win over the Chicago Marshall Commandos at Northern Illinois University Convocation Center on Monday, March 7, 2022, in Dekalb.

DEKALB — The bigger they are, the more Scales Mound goes right at them.

Even when they shove the ball back in the Hornets' face.

Really?

Yes, really. Going against the biggest team it has faced all year, Scales Mound stayed away from the 3-point line and instead attacked Chicago Marshall in the paint, time after time. It wasn’t always pretty, but that relentless attacking fueled a 55-41 victory Monday that will send one of the 10 smallest basketball-playing schools in the state into the Class 1A state semifinals on Thursday.

“Our mentality is if you get blocked you get blocked,” guard Zayden Ellsworth (11 points, 4 rebounds) said. “At some point they are going to foul us. So that didn’t scare us.”

More Scales Mound basketball coverage from rrstar.com

State preview:5 things Scales Mound must do to win the title and make IHSA boys basketball history

Lifelong friends:How these Scales Mound players stuck together and built a state power

Sectional title:How 70-student Scales Mounds moved one win away from boys basketball state

1 vs. 1:How Scales Mound matched up with Chicago Leo

Easy for him to say. He wasn’t the one getting blocked. Ben Werner was. The 6-foot-4 star senior center got his first two shots blocked on Scales Mound’s first possession of the game.

“I wasn’t prepared to get blocked that much,” Werner said, “so I utilized the rim a little more instead of stopping where they can get a hand on it.”

That helped some. Still, Marshall — with a starting front line of 6-7, 6-5 and 6-4 — reached around the rim to keep blocking shots. The Commandos blocked four of Scales Mound’s first eight shots. And 11 for the game.

But the Hornets kept coming. And when their shot wasn’t blocked, it often went in. Or, even better, drew a foul.

“Their big guys had four or three fouls and had to sit on the bench,” Benjamin Vandigo (14 points, 10 rebounds) said. “If we keep attacking them, we know eventually they are going to call some because they are aggressive. That was our plan and it worked out.”

Shutting down Chicago Marshall

Marshall’s two biggest players each picked up their third foul early in the third quarter. But No. 2-ranked Scales Mound (35-2) had already begun to pull away by then, leading 27-17 at the half.

By the end of three quarters, it was a blowout. The Hornets led 46-22.

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

Werner (20 points, nine rebounds), Vandigo and Ellsworth combined to shoot 15-for-32. The team made only two 3s, one by Ellsworth for the game’s first basket and another by Vandigo to open the third quarter and give the Hornets their biggest lead at the time, 15-8.

But Marshall also only made two 3s. On three times as many tries, shooting 2-for-15 vs. the Hornets’ 2-for-5. Sam Cocagne and Collin Fosler, who tag-teamed Marshall’s leading scorer, held Darryle Smith to 17 points on 5-for-24 shooting.

“I knew he wanted to shoot the 3-ball all day long, and if I guarded the 3 more than the 2, I had my teammates behind me to help if he blew by me,” Fosler said.

Everyone on Scales Mound defended so well that Marshall shot 25 percent from the field (16-for-63).

And now a school with only 77 students is going to state, where the Hornets will play Liberty (28-5) at 11:45 p.m. Thursday at the University of Illinois. Monday, once again, they played in front of a crowd that far exceeds the population (454) of their hometown.

“It’s so surreal right now,” Ellsworth said. “It just feels amazing. Playing in front of my family, my friends, my best friend’s friends, my mom’s dad, it’s so awesome playing in front of them.”

Scales Mound's Benjamin Vandigo shoots the ball against the Chicago Marshall Commandos during the Class 1A supersectional at Northern Illinois University Convocation Center on Monday, March 7, 2022, in Dekalb.

Finals appearance 10 years in the making

While other teams talk of how much work they have put in during the four years of high school to get here, the team that is trying to become the smallest state champs in history always talks about working for this for over a decade.

Coach Erik Kudronowicz said his five seniors starters have been working for this since second grade “when we were pitching basketballs to them and telling them to go do this and do that.”

He said they didn’t even know what the game was about then, but all that work over all those years has brought an impossible dream to life.

“It’s the work they put into the empty gyms and empty weight rooms,” Kudronowicz said. “All the little things they do day in and day out that allowed them to get here. Schools with 75 kids, people say it’s not going to happen there, but we have always believed. We have never wavered from that.”

IHSA boys basketball:Rockford-area postseason schedules, scores, pairings

Although Scales Mound has an official two-year enrollment average of 70.5, there are 77 students this year. That includes 21 seniors. Seven of those are on the basketball team. And they have played hundreds of games together, with Vandigo’s dad and Fosler’s mom coaching them in the summer.

“In our sixth to eighth grade years, we were playing 80 games a year,” Werner said. “We would walk into some random gym three hours away in Wisconsin and now we play up there every weekend. The fans are great, but we have been playing in empty gyms our whole lives.

“Nobody else (from Scales Mound) played that much, but we knew we had a good group of boys. We had seven boys in the class that played basketball, so we had to make something work out.”

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.