CISSNA PARK, Ill. (AP) — Cissna Park High School boys' basketball coach Kevin Long gathered his team into a classroom that's lined with four couches, which his sweaty players sank into after a morning practice over winter break.
The former English room has small murals painted onto the walls, including one for "To Kill a Mockingbird." But now, the space is used as a room for the basketball team, complete with a pingpong table and a refrigerator. At a school with only 97 students, space isn't hard to come by.
At schools that small, though, quality athletes are at a premium. Success comes in waves when quality classes come through, even for the most consistent teams.
"We've had classes with nine to 12 athletes that are involved in every sport," athletic director and volleyball coach Josh Landon said. "And then our last year's boys' graduating class, we had one athlete."
In 24 years at Cissna Park, Long has guided his team through more high points than low ones.
At the start of 2019, the Timberwolves were the No. 1-ranked team in the Illinois High School Association's small-school division, uniting a village already brimming with pride in its sports teams.
The team returned five seniors this year who won IESA state championships in 2014 and 2015, including 6-foot-8 twins Christian and Julian Stadeli.
And while the school is small, the team doesn't hurt for numbers. Out of those 97 students, 19 are on the boys' basketball team.
"Year in and year out, we've got kids who are ultimate team players, and that comes from their upbringing," said Long, who will retire from coaching after this year. "I've had opportunities to leave here over the years, and it was a no-brainer to stay here. The people and the community is so close and tightknit."
Even with the switch from a two-class to a four-class system, a state title for a school their size would put them in rare company. If they won a state title this season, they'd be the second-smallest public school to do so — with one more student than Findley in 1992, which won in a two-class system, and one student less than Alden-Hebron in 1952, which made an amazing run in a one-class system.
The town's size, though, doesn't always work to their detriment.
Most of the team grew up attending Long's summer basketball camps, which they can start in second grade, and playing in the park downtown, where a basketball court is sandwiched by a large gazebo and a playground.
In the small town with a population of 846, there isn't really much else to do.
There's one local watering hole, Garfield's Bar and Grill, where the team eats its pregame breakfasts before weekend games. The restaurant, which is a former meat locker where animals were killed, butchered and sold, fills up on nights and weekends, although the high schoolers have to be out by 9 p.m.
A block away from Garfield's, Cissna Park Family Restaurant also draws the dining crowd.
A few decades ago, local businesses thrived in Cissna Park, but most have closed, one by one.
"At one time there were three women's clothing stores, a men's clothing store, two furniture stores," said Rick Baier, who was the town's village president for 30 years before retiring in 2015. "Just about anything you wanted you could get here in Cissna Park. But then as everything became so mobile, they started traveling to the shopping centers in Champaign, and those businesses slowly started to go away."
And as those businesses vanished, so too did sales tax revenues. Although Baier said the town has been able to be flexible with its spending to offset the losses, the decline of businesses has made it difficult to keep young residents in town.
The town, though, is proud of its school and loves its sports. And at least some of the town's young residents enjoy living there.
Anthony Videka grew up in the Chicago suburbs and attended Fremd High School in Palatine, whose enrollment is more than 25 times Cissna Park's. Three years ago, he moved to town, where his wife, Jenny (Maurer) Videka, grew up, and took over as Cissna Park's head girls' basketball coach.
He's won a regional title all three years, making it four straight for the program. The Videkas have two young children, with another on the way, and the town's tightknit atmosphere is keeping them there.
"We have a lot of family nearby," Videka said, "and everybody in town knows our kids just as well as we do."
The excitement across town is building for this year's boys' basketball team, similar to that magical Elite Eight run in 2003, when a two-class system made it even more difficult for small schools, and for the volleyball team's runs to state in 2014 and 2015. The school's 725-seat gym can fit nearly the whole town. And while it doesn't fill up quite like it used to, Long expects some capacity crowds down the stretch.
"You have everything from retired teachers and coaches still showing up at games; you see three, four generations still sitting in the town at games," Landon said. "It's pretty special. It truly is a special place to coach."
The reality is that tiny schools are on thin ice. And someday, Baier knows it's possible that the school will go the way of nearby Crescent City, which deactivated in 2008 with an enrollment of 30 students.
The town is changing. Baier said Cissna Park was gearing itself toward becoming a retirement community when he was village president because young people aren't staying at the rate they once did. That plan is currently in motion.
For now, though, Cissna Park is a typical small town with familiar faces all around. And even though the town is morphing, pride in the Timberwolves is consistently high. As long as the school is around, that will likely never change.
"I think as long as they possibly can, they will keep their school," Baier said. "I think as long as we have our school system, which is very strong, our grocery store, our newspaper, our hardware store, I don't think much will change. I think it will still be the safe, quiet town it's been for years and years and years."
Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, https://bit.ly/2QxnXwW
Information from: The News-Gazette, http://www.news-gazette.com