DECATUR — “Two claps.”
The words are barely audible over the roar of an ascending clap, but the players obey, clapping twice, then returning to utter silence.
The man in charge, with gray hair and piercing eyes, looks like a skyscraper, towering over his players.
In his first year as men’s basketball coach at Millikin, Mark Scherer has taken on a difficult task. The Big Blue finished with a record of 3-22 in the 2016-17 season under former head coach, Matt Nadelhoffer.
The Big Blue began 3-0 this season under Scherer, but has won just two of its next five games and is now 5-3 — a good start, but still plenty of work to do.
Scherer is no stranger to hard work, and he preaches to his players that being blue collar is the way to win games.
It all stems from Scherer's childhood, when he grew up on a farm.
“I worked him hard when he was young," said Mark's father, Bob Scherer, laughing.
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The theme of hard work that has been engrained in Scherer’s head since his childhood runs in his family.
It even extends to his wife, Tami, who works at Illinois State University but on the side owns her own business.
The venture, named “Mrs. Scherer’s Cookie Dough Treats,” features chocolate chip-flavored edible cookie dough in individualized containers. The cookie dough is safe to eat because it is peanut and egg free. Plus, it's made with wholesome ingredients and no preservatives.
She began in 1991 as a newlywed, when Mark Scherer worked as an assistant coach at Western Illinois University in Macomb at a basketball camp concession stand.
From there, she found a vendor in Market Day Fundraising, where her product sold in 23 states before shutting down. Now there are various locations in Illinois where the cookie dough treats can be purchased, and they can be ordered online as well.
After 23 years of manufacturing the dough in their home kitchen and at a church kitchen they rented, she began manufacturing the product commercially through the use of a co-packer.
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Scherer’s playing career landed him at Eureka College for three years, but he also attended Parkland College and Illinois Central College for a year each. He played basketball while earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Education in 1983.
Unlike NCAA Division III players nowadays, back then, there were legitimate opportunities for players to move on and keep playing professionally. After being noticed by a scout at a camp, he was given the opportunity to extend his playing career and shipped out to Ireland, playing on the Corinthian Basketball Club in a league where only two American players were allowed on each roster. Because all of the players from Ireland had day jobs, their practices had to take place at night.
After his playing career ended, still wanted to be part of basketball. After a stint coaching high school basketball at Sullivan, Scherer earned his Master’s Degree in Sport and Fitness Administration and Management from Western. While there, he also served as an assistant coach. In 1993, he became the recruiting coordinator and an assistant coach at Valparaiso University, specializing in team defense and developing post players.
Following four years at Valpo, Scherer took a job coaching at Elmhurst, where he stayed for 17 years.
While at Elmhurst, Scherer set several coaching records. He holds Elmhurst's records for career victories, career winning percentage and single season victories. He also accomplished the feat of leading the Bluejays to their only men’s basketball College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin championship.
Scherer has remained in touch with some of his former players and assistants, including John Baines, who, after serving as an assistant under Scherer for ten years, is the current head coach at Elmhurst.
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The message signifies to the team that it is time to focus, work hard, and get better.
Once again, the gymnasium falls silent.
“The drill is called ‘Three on two with a trailer,’” he says.
“Three on two with a trailer,” his team echoes.
Explaining the drill to his team, Scherer makes gestures, telling his players exactly where they need to be.
Laughing, Bob Scherer jokes, “I’ve never heard him talk this much.”
At each practice, the players participate in many different drills, and the score is kept, turning the entire practice into a series of competitions.
Before that, they begin with a welcome, performing a forearm bump with every other player before beginning their stretches, which employs a new leader each day.
Throughout practice, they echo the names of each drill with conviction. And as soon as they hear “two claps,” they snap back into focus and get ready to compete as a unit.
Scherer demands attention, but he's no disciplinarian. In fact Scherer has formed bonds with many of his players already. Senior point guard Mike Charles is one of them.
The two have a handshake that they perform nearly every time they see each other.
“He saw me doing a handshake with one of the assistant coaches, and he requested we get one,” Charles said. “It’s just another example of how he stresses family and togetherness.”
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At Millikin, the road has not been easy. After taking the job as the head coach in March 2017, Scherer was first tasked with securing recruits.
The team now features nine new faces, including seven transfers.
“I think Coach Scherer is a guy that is committed to improving this program,” Charles said.
Though Millikin is in the same conference as his former team, Scherer has embraced the opportunity, though he's had to take a different recruiting strategy.
“Before, I was trying to convince kids from Central Illinois to go to school up north,” he said. “Now, I’m trying to convince them to stay close to home to get an education and play ball.”
Scherer's coaching strategy includes aspects that the Millikin men were not used to, including the idea of echoing. Any time a piece of important information, including directions, are announced, players are supposed to echo what he said in order to aid in understanding.
No matter which skill they are working to improve, the same big ideas are always present: Work hard, listen and work as a team, and the results will come.
“He has a bunch of slogans to remind us that we are a team, not a single individual, and that we cannot succeed without each other,” Charles said. “I think his favorite slogan is T.W.W., Together We Win.”
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After retiring from Elmhurst, Scherer did not stay idle.
He remained in the workforce, working in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations at Eureka College for three years as the Director of Development.
Then he spent a year working in alumni development again, this time at Illinois State University. But, then, opportunity knocked.
Nadelhoffer resigned, leaving the position open, and Scherer — familiar with the job, the conference and the program — applied and was hired.
Scherer already had Millikin connections — long-time head women’s basketball coach Lori Kerans has been his friend for several years. Now, instead of just being friends that see each other every once in a while when their schools play each other, they are colleagues.
In fact, the two have taken on a few different philosophies and strategies, chatting about them and ordering the same coaching videos to aid in their understanding. One particular strategy is the "check and chase."
For years, the traditional style for defensive rebounding has been to box out the offensive player in order to gain an advantage. But a new trend has emerged where defensive players check where their player is going, and it becomes a footrace to the rim for the board.
Though the style is less physical than a box out, it still requires a large amount of hard work. In order to make the strategy work, players must be in good shape to beat the other team to the ball, as well as being strong enough to pull down the board in the midst of a group of players near the rim.
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In the end, it all comes back to hard work. Teams cannot be successful without putting forth the effort to bring themselves to that point.
“He pushes us to make extra shots at the end of our workouts when we feel like there is nothing left,” Charles said. “You have to have a certain attitude that you won’t quit and know it’s about the team.”
That attitude Scherer demands from his players is the same one he learned growing up on a farm.
“He definitely has some good stories about his life, being a blue-collar kid on a farm,” Charles said. “It really makes you listen because you know he knows what he’s talking about.
“He’s very goal-oriented, and he demands a lot of us. He tells us it’s more than just showing up and working if you want to be the team that holds up the trophy at the end.”
Scherer's father has faith in him, too, and he relayed the same message to each and every player that wandered over to his chair after practice to meet their coach’s father.
“I’m proud of my son,” Bob Scherer said. “Keep listening to him, and you’ll get there.”
Whenever Scherer yells to his team, telling them to clap twice, they know what it means. They know to put aside all other aspects of life in order to find success on the hardwood.
“Millikin is a great school, and I think I am so lucky to have another chance to coach in the CCIW,” Scherer said. “Crazy lucky to have another great opportunity.”