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

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Benjamin Vandigo, shown scoring against Chicago Marshall in the supersectionals, is Scales Mound's leading scorer and equally adept at scoring outside and inside.

Seventy-seven kids in four grades. Twenty-one seniors. A school so small it only fields two sports by itself, boys basketball and girls volleyball.

But 11 years ago, the greatest player in school history almost led the town to two state titles. Whitney Kieffer had 12 kills and 22 digs and along with Nicole Winter (17 kills and 17 digs) had Scales Mound within one point of the Class 1A volleyball title before the Hornets lost the final six points to lose 26-24 in the third set. And in a basketball co-op with River Ridge, RR/SM lost 29-26 in the state finals to Westchester West Central in a game where Kieffer shot 7-for-12 and the rest of her teammates were 2-for-21.

That was the greatest sports year in Scales Mound history. Until now.

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

A group that set the school record for wins (24) two years ago as an all-sophomore starting five and smashed it to smithereens as seniors (35-2 and counting), won their first sectional and supersectional titles in the program’s 79-year history.

Here is how a classic small-town basketball story can finish off its three-year run with a state title:

Flex some NUIC muscle

Nobody plays small-school football like the NUIC, which has won 14 state titles in the last 16 seasons. Or girls basketball, where the NUIC has reached the state title game four years in a row. Or volleyball, where NUIC teams have reached the state title game nine times since 2009. Or wrestling, where Dakota and Lena-Winslow have won seven state titles since 2013.

You get the idea. So why not boys basketball?

“The NUIC is a tremendous basketball league,” Scales Mound coach Erik Kudronowicz said. “They force you to be a half-court team in the postseason. I liken it to Big Ten basketball. You have to learn how to play basketball in the half-court.”

That goes for defense as well as offense.

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“We are half-court man-to-man. We don’t stray from that,” Kudronowicz said. “If need be, we will press, but that’s not anything we want to do. We will lock up in the half-court man-to-man and keep you from scoring that way.”

That makes them a good match for Thursday’s 11:45 a.m. semifinal opponent. Liberty (29-5) averages barely two 3-pointers a game, getting most of its points by going inside to a front line that stands 6-foot-6, 6-5 and 6-4.

“We have had success getting to the basket with our size,” Liberty coach Greg Altmix said. “We have good shooters. but why force up a 3 when you can get a layup?”

Handle the press

Scales Mound surprised Chicago Leo, ranked No. 1 in Class 2A at the time, with how well it handled the press in a game last month. Still, Leo pulled away from a tight 47-45 lead with three straight steals that led to fourth quarter layups to win 55-50. Protecting the ball will be huge at state. Scales Mound doesn’t want to press, but its opponents depend on it.

“We want to get after you,” Liberty’s Altmix said. “We are going to play 84 feet for 32 minutes. We’re going to throw a couple of different looks at you to keep you off balance.”

If the No. 2-ranked Hornets win their semifinal, their likely title opponent in No. 1 Yorkville Christian has an even more fearsome press. The Mustangs have scored more than 90 points 11 times this season despite playing a schedule laden with Class 4A and 3A powers.

“Some of the teams in the state tournament haven’t seen the kind of pressure we can apply,” Yorkville Christian coach Aaron Sovern said. “We want to apply pressure and get other teams to play faster than they are accustomed to. We love finishing at the rim. We love open 3s. And we love free throws. In that order.”

Scales Mound's Ben Werner shoots the ball against Chicago Marshall in the Class 1A supersecitonals at Northern Illinois University Convocation Center on Monday, March 7, 2022, in Dekalb.

Get great balance

Scales Mound’s entire starting lineup made the NUIC West first- or second-team all-conference teams. If all five play like all-stars, the Hornets will be tough to beat. Zayden Ellsworth (9.5 point average) has been hot from outside in the playoffs. Collin Fosler (10.0) is a border-line all-stater. If they shoot well, that should free up 6-4 center Ben Werner (11.5 points) and 6-4 guard/forward Benjamin Vandigo (17.2).

The Hornets can’t let teams gang up on Vandigo.

“Benjamin is very gifted,” Kudronowicz said. “He can take people off the dribble, he can score in space and he can shoot it from deep. He plays above the rim. He is our difference-maker.”

It also helps that Werner, the team’s best inside player, is such a good passer, averaging 3.9 assists, second on the team to Fosler's 4.5.

“He’s a complete player,” Kudronowicz said. “He will score in the post at will if you leave him there, but he is also a willing passer and will find his teammates where he knows they will be successful.”

Limit opposing stars

Sam Cocagne has the lowest scoring average (8.3) of any Scales Mound starter and has been even quieter during the playoff run. That’s OK. As long as he keeps rival players silent, too. The 6-3 senior will be asked to guard the top scoring threat on whoever Scales Mound plays.

“I call him our Swiss army knife,” Kudronowicz said. “He does everything well.”

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

Get a little lucky

Yorkville Christian, although only 23-13, is the best Class 1A team ever. The eight-year-old tiny private school (64 students) is led by Duke recruit Jaden Schutt, a 6-6 guard whose older brothers also played for the school. The Mustangs have eight players 6-3 or taller and because they don’t have a conference played a schedule loaded with Class 4A powers and out-of-state teams. They have won their tournament games by 44, 41, 44, 34 and 38 points.

In 1976, Marquette’s star guards Butch Lee and Lloyd Walton shot a combined 5-for-27 in an NCAA loss to Indiana. That summer, Lee made 15 of 18 shots and scored 35 points as Puerto Rice nearly stunned Team USA’s gold medalists at the Montreal Olympics and the next year led Marquette to the NCAA title. Even the best players can have an off game. Scales Mound is as good or better than Liberty and Steeleville (29-6), but needs to play its best and also have a little luck (perhaps foul trouble or a bad shooting night) to stay close to Yorkville Christian.

And if they can keep it close, Yorkville Christian is only 1-6 in games decided by fewer than 10 points. Close could be good enough.

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.