Herscher coach Todd Schwarzkopf looked at a copy of the Associated Press' state rankings for Class 2A and noticed that eight-time loser Hales Franciscan is rated No. 7 while unbeaten Herscher is ranked No. 13. Where is the justice in all of that? It is all about perception.
Schwarzkopf grew up in basketball-crazy Indiana, a few miles down the road from New Castle's 9,600-seat gym. The son of a coach, he was familiar with the great high school programs in the Hoosier state, from Carmel to Marion to Anderson to Muncie to Martinsville to East Chicago.
So it is in Illinois. Every year, you can bet that the perennial or traditional powers will be listed in the early rankings...Collinsville, Quincy, Proviso East, Peoria Manual, Rock Island, Rockford Boylan, Thornton, Pinckneyville, Simeon and Hales Franciscan, a two-time state champion.
"We feel we are a top 10 team," Schwarzkopf said. "The kids are upset (about the AP poll). It is a motivator. They know they have to prove how good they are. I tell them that we are 16-0 and somebody will want to take that. It is a challenge every time they go on the floor to be sure that no one takes it away from us."
Herscher extended its winning streak to 16-0 last week by sweeping Watseka 56-34, Wilmington 66-46 and St. Anne 59-57. The Tigers will meet Westmont on Tuesday, then begin competition as the top-seeded team in the Interstate Eight Conference tournament on Saturday.
"We'll get a better feel for how good we are when we compete against Williamsville or Pleasant Plains in the Riverton Shootout on Feb. 13," Schwarzkopf said. "We have good height, good athleticism and play good defense. We get a lot of points off of our defense. We like to run, too. Every guy on the floor can get the ball and run."
The point and the two wings of Herscher's 1-3-1 halfcourt trap are manned by three 6-foot-5 seniors -- identical twins Jordan and Justin Ruckman and Ben Wenzelman. The other starters are 5-foot-10 senior point guard Spike Engelman and 6-foot-3 senior Matt Webber.
Against Watseka, Wenzelman and Jordan Ruckman each scored 15 points and Herscher built a 31-10 halftime lead. Against Wilmington, the Tigers broke to a 14-0 lead and Engleman led the assault with 18 points.
Against St. Anne, which they had beaten 57-43 on Dec. 28, they rallied from a five-point deficit with 1:10 to play. Jordan and Justin Ruckman each made a steal and a three-point play in the last minute to spark the comeback. Wenzelman led the Tigers with 27 points.
"It was good for our kids because we hadn't had a game like that in a while," Schwarzkopf said. "Our kids didn't panic. They came back. St. Anne has to be the best 6-10 team in the state."
Jordan (15 ppg, 8 rpg) and Justin (8 ppg, 6 rpg, 4 assists) Ruckman are committed to Northern Illinois to play baseball. Jordan is a left-handed pitcher while Jordan plays several positions, including pitcher and catcher. They are ranked among the top 54 baseball players in the state by Prep Baseball Report. Jordan, a four-year starter, defends the opponent's best post player. Justin, a three-year starter, often plays point guard.
Wenzelman (16.6 ppg, 6 rpg) is the team's best player, its best shooter and its go-to player. He is being recruited by Olivet Nazarene, Illinois Wesleyan, Lake Forest and Aurora University.
Engelman, the floor leader, averages 6.5 points and five assists. Webber contributes three points and two rebounds. They are supported off the bench by 6-foot-2 junior Logan Carr and 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior Dan Sullivan, an offensive lineman from the football team who lives up to his nickname "Thunder Dan" during skirmishes under the boards.
"Our kids are hungry," Schwarzkopf said. "As seventh and eighth graders, this group of seniors place second and third in the IESA tournament. They're used to winning. They also were one game away from qualifying for the Little League World Series as seventh graders."
Herscher, a farming and residential community located 15 miles west of Kankakee, is the second largest square-mile district in Illinois. But what are the odds of a school with 635 students having three 6-foot-5 kids on the basketball team at one time?
"This is a magical ride. There is no indication that it isn't," Schwarzkopf said. "We talk about how the target gets bigger on our backs every day, that opponents play harder against us. I scout every team we play and the difference in their level of play is evident when we come in. Who doesn't want to knock us off? We talk about it before every game. If you want your goals to be fulfilled, every team has to be seen as the top team I Class 2A, we tell them. They want to take something from you. Our kids have responded real well."
Winning isn't new to Herscher. Schwarzkopf's predecessor, Ron Oloffson, won 358 games or 68 percent of his games from 1986 to 2009. But he never took a team beyond the sectional. In 1982, coach Ed Sennett took a 30-3 team led by 6-foot-9 Scott Meents to third place in the Class A tournament.
Schwarzkopf was 26-2 and 20-7 in his first two years. His 2010 team won 24 games in a row before losing to Hales Franciscan in the sectional. Last year's team lost to an unbeaten Paxton-Loda-Buckley team in double overtime in the regional final.
Interestingly, Schwarzkopf was hired to be the boys soccer coach at Herscher. He had coached soccer for 18 years and also was an assistant basketball coach for 13 years at Freeport. When he failed to get the head basketball coaching job at Freeport, he looked around for another opportunity and landed at Herscher in 2002. When Oloffson stepped down to become principal in 2009, Schwarzkopf finally got the job he coveted.
"When we play well, we play great defense," Schwarzkopf said. "Our size helps but we are athletic, too. Our point guard isn't asked to do everything. The twins also bring the ball up. Teams don't try to press us anymore. And we rebound well. We have an edge of 15 rebounds per game over our opponents.
"Being 16-0 is a lot of fun. Hopefully, pressure won't get to us. There is a buzz in the school and in the community. Football has come back. The baseball teams are outstanding every year. They won a state title in 1999 and have qualified for the supersectional four of the last five years. And basketball has been successful since Oloffson has been here. We attract great crowds. Curious people show up. They want to know how good these guys are."
Nobody is more pleased about all of this than Wenzelman. A year ago, he averaged 7.6 points and five rebounds per game. He was a role player. He distributed the ball. He didn't worry about carrying the team on his back. Over the summer, he worked tirelessly to improve every aspect of his game.
"I've dreamed of playing college basketball. I felt I had to step it up. Every day in the summer I took 500 to 600 shots in my drive-way. I felt I had to average more than seven points per game," he said. "I felt I had to improve my all-around game. I had to get physical under the boards. I feel really proud of myself for what I had to do to get here. All the hard work has paid off."
Wenzelman did more than wear out his drive-way. He lifted weights and trained with the Kankakee Soldiers, a semipro team. He also worked with a personal trainer. And when Schwarzkopf told him that he had to step up and become a leader this season, he accepted the responsibility without blinking.
Until recently, he wanted to go to a trade school and become an electrical lineman. Now he wants to go to college and play basketball.
"A couple games into the season, I realized it. I didn't realize how good I could be until then. I wasn't sure until then," said Wenzelman, recalling when he scored 22 points against Bradley in the second game of the season. "It made me decide to play college basketball.
"I like the way things are looking for our team. In fact, I think we should be beating teams by bigger margins that we are. I feel we have a deep bench and everyone on the team contributes and distributes.
"We're not surprised to be 16-0. We knew when we came into the season that we would have a great year...five strong seniors, a lot of experience, size, athletic ability. We just have to keep our heads and keep focused. We are one of the best teams in Class 2A. We take every game seriously. We want to finish unbeaten. It is our senior season. We don't want to hold anything back."