These 2 tiny Illinois schools embody the power of small-town basketball
GREENVIEW — The varsity boys basketball teams at Greenview and DeLand-Weldon represent schools that are the smallest of the small.
The programs finished the 2021-22 season with a combined eight victories. Both lost in the first round of the Illinois Class 1A playoffs.
Greenview and DeLand-Weldon have only a combined 125 or so students walking their halls, but basketball remains a touchstone for both East Central Illinois Conference schools who faced one another last month in the thick of the regular season.
While many schools across the state consolidate or become parts of cooperatives, the players and coaches at two of the smallest public schools in the state prefer things just the way they are.
“Oh, definitely it’s a special thing to do,” Greenview sophomore Nate Turley said. “You take a lot of pride in the school and the court and everything, and it's just like your home. So definitely a sense of pride and you love to do it.”
And that sentiment is echoed by players at tiny DeLand-Weldon.
“It’s awesome,” said Phoenix Stukins, a freshman on the DeLand-Weldon team. “I’m just playing with the kids I grew up with. There’s nothing like it: small-town basketball.”
Greenview is a village of 745, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, located 25 miles north of Springfield. De Land and Weldon, about 70 miles northeast of Springfield in Piatt County, have a combined population of 816.
Smallest of the small schools
According to the Illinois High School Association, Greenview’s two-year average enrollment of 61.5 makes it the second-smallest Illinois public school which fields its own boys basketball team. Only Lovejoy and its 36.5 enrollment fields a boys basketball team with fewer students. DeLand-Weldon, according to the IHSA, has 62.5 students, based on the school’s enrollment from the previous two school years reported by the Illinois State Board of Education.
Other small schools around the state with independent basketball teams include Leland (67), Joppa-Maple Grove (69.5) and Scales Mound (70.5).
The Scales Mound Hornets were 29-2 in the regular season and ranked No. 1 in Class 1A in the final Associated Press poll — an exception that proves the rule: It’s harder to win with a limited number of players.
Lovejoy was 11-17, Greenview (7-17) had two wins over 1-27 DeLand-Weldon, Leland finished 2-18 and Joppa-Maple Grove was 9-15 (most records according to MaxPreps). “It's definitely hard,” Greenview’s lone senior, David Arkebauer said. “But I think it's better for us because it challenges us more, makes us try harder and makes us try to — if there is any success, we get our success by ourselves.”
Limited pool of players available
Hall of fame coach Cliff Cameron took over at Greenview in a one-season stint. During the abbreviated 2021 season, he served as his son’s assistant at the school. Michael Cameron got a job with Carroll College in Wisconsin and the elder Cameron stepped in for one season.
Cameron led Pleasant Plains to Class A state championships in 2000 and 2002. He also coached at Jacksonville for one season, in 2016-17. Pleasant Plains’ enrollment was more than 300 students when Cameron won the state titles, while Jacksonville had a student body of near 1,000.
Greenview had 15 players in its basketball program this season and Cameron said he was grateful for that.
“In practice, we need bodies,” Cameron said. “There's one player that's a junior, that really would help us. But he's the only one that's not out that I wish was.”
In the smallest of the small schools, a coach might have several players from one class and none from another. Arkebauer said he is one of just two boys in the entire Greenview senior class.
The other boy, Arkebauer said, contributes to the school in other ways. “He's really smart and he's really good with computers. I'm kind of the sports person. It's kind of nice to have two people (on different sides).”
DeLand-Weldon coach Chuck Arnold has five freshmen on his 10-player team. The 2003 DeLand-Weldon graduate has two classes without any players.
“You get your gap classes," Arnold said. "For instance, we don’t have any sophomores and we don’t have any (players going into) eighth-graders next year. We have four freshmen coming in, but we won’t have any eighth-graders.”
A couple of midseason injuries left Arnold with just eight players for a time. That limited how the coach wanted his team to play.
“It’s hard to push the ball when you only have a three-man bench,” Arnold said. “Really conditioning and a lot of execution and stuff like that — being able to do the little things like set a screen properly — really goes a long way.”
Arnold said a cooperative with another school might be more competitive, but it would also mean less playing time for his athletes.
“Let’s be honest: a lot of these kids wouldn’t have the chance to make a team or see any minutes at a bigger school or with a co-op,” he said. “For them to have the opportunity to have experiences of competing and putting on a uniform I find to be really special for them.
“To me, I think it’s more important to give these kids the experiences; those are once in a lifetime"
They’ve got spirit, yes they do
The crowd might’ve been small when Greenview visited DeLand-Weldon and pulled out a 52-42 win on Jan. 28, but it was feisty. At Greenview, superintendent Ryan Heavner said his gym is frequently packed for Bulldogs home games.
“It’s good to play for ourselves,” said DeLand-Weldon's Eli Woolridge. “Our school has a lot of school spirit. If we went to Blue Ridge and played, they wouldn’t care about us because we’re the De Land kids. It’s great to play at a school where everyone knows you.”
Greenview’s Turley said if it isn’t a Wednesday game — Wednesday’s are a popular church night in the town — he knows he will play in front of an eager crowd.
“We got a small town, so everyone comes out and has a good time — no matter if we win or lose,” Turley said. “It's just a small town. We all get together and do our thing.”
According to the IHSA, there are 31 basketball co-ops this season. But that doesn’t reflect the number of school districts which have consolidated.
After Greenview’s win at DeLand-Weldon, Cameron reflected on the unique nature of the small-school matchup.
“Not too many schools this size get the opportunity to play with their high school against another school like this: they are either co-oping or consolidating,” Cameron said. “It’s a rarity to get to see two small schools come out and compete and give kids an opportunity that may not otherwise have.”
Here to stay
Arnold loves DeLand-Weldon, despite the challenges. He was raised there and he will be raising his son there, too. He said when he graduated, there were just 48 students in the entire high school.
“I live here locally and my wife and I just had our first son a couple of years ago so he’s probably going to go here, too,” Arnold said. “It’s kind of nice. Half of these guys I’ve known since they were born or went to school with their parents or something like that.”
Eagles players are happy to have Arnold, they said.
“That man is a great coach,” Stukins said. That sentiment was reiterated by other DeLand-Weldon players in a postgame interview. Several DeLand-Weldon players excitedly gathered around a reporter from Springfield. Teams such as Greenview and DeLand-Weldon typically play their games without television cameras or newspaper reporters in attendance. Many of those games aren't on the radio, either.
Arkebauer has experienced playing a sport for a different school. In eighth grade, he played baseball at Mason City Illini Central. But in boys golf, Greenview hosts a co-op with Athens. There are positives, though, he said.
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“Even though we pulled from different schools, I treated them like (golfers from) my school,” Arkebauer said. “It's kind of close together, trying to keep them all as one group. So, yeah, it's definitely nice to have our own group, but it's sometimes better to have other schools to get to know other people.”
And Nate Turley, whose twin brother Nick is a basketball teammate, said he might play football next year with Petersburg PORTA.
Winning is nice, Arnold said, but he prefers things the way they are.
“I went to school here … and had a lot of good experiences doing it,” he said.
“It's kind of like a family,” Arkebauer said. “Smaller schools are nice, because you're so close together, you're like a family.”
Contact Ryan Mahan: 857-246-9756, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.