Drive north on Interstate 43 from Beloit or Delavan and it’s not hard to see that athletics at Elkhorn Area High are growing.
A 50,000-square-foot indoor facility greets rubber-neckers glancing left just before they reach the Highway 12 exit. The massive addition at the southeast corner of the building is part of a $22.9 million referendum passed in late 2016 and is hard to miss, especially for regular travelers on I-43.
The only thing more head-turning might be what’s going on inside the current Elkhorn gyms.
The Elks had three winter programs make runs to state tournaments and two others advance to sectional competition. The sixth and final program won 10 times as many games in 2017-18 as it did one year earlier.
The dazzling season put an emphatic stamp on a calendar year’s worth of general success overall.
And while the summer completion of the facilities upgrades is more coincidence and great timing than anything else, it must be hard for a surging Elks athletic department and its student-athletes to not feel as though they’re being rewarded.
“Winning sort of breeds winning,” Elkhorn girls basketball coach Jeff Brown said. “There’s just been a ton of success, especially this winter. Our administration has done a great job of putting an emphasis on being successful.
“I’ve never been told that you have to win. But there’s definitely a growth mindset. We’re going to just keep getting better and see where you end up. Sometimes, when you do that, the wins and losses tend to take care of themselves.”
Unofficially, Elkhorn seems to be on one heck of a winning streak.
A snowball effect
Success seems to have been brewing throughout Elkhorn Area High.
Boys soccer reached the WIAA Division 2 state title game in fall 2016. Last winter, the wrestling program produced its third state champion since 2012. The baseball team reached D1 sectional play, and the softball team finished in third place in the grueling Southern Lakes Conference. The boys track and field team won the SLC title for the first time in 24 years last spring.
Just to name a few.
“I think we’re getting the culture that we want,” Elkhorn athletic director Dan Kiel said. “I think our kids and coaches and teachers are hanging their hat on that cycle of continuous improvement. That’s the key, to me: Look at what you did, now what are you going to do next? How are you going to get better?
“Winning is a culture. You have to learn how to win. Our kids are getting the confidence, and they’re putting the time in. It pays off.”
The Elks can point to this winter as proof.
Gymnastics advanced to team state and took fourth place in Division 2. Boys swim sent five swimmers to compete in nine events, plus three relay teams, to state and finished fourth in D2. The wrestling program qualified for team sectionals and sent four to the individual state tournament. The boys basketball team also won a regional title. And the cheer team brought home a slew of hardware from its trip to state.
“It’s almost like you don’t want to be the anchor of the winter sports,” Brown said.
The girls basketball team, in its first season under Brown, finished just 10-14 overall. But the Elks had won just three games in the previous two seasons combined, and it capped the season by picking up a postseason win in the regional quarterfinals.
When that’s “the anchor,” a department’s winter is going pretty well.
“It’s hiring coaches and letting them coach,” Kiel said. “And we don’t do cuts here. I think you build on the culture of inclusion and opportunity. If you give kids an opportunity to compete, they’re better all the way around.
“Our district has made the commitment that we’re going to give kids opportunities. You may not make the varsity team, but you’ll have the opportunity to be on a team and be at practice, and it’s all good.”
Room to grow
The referendum included upgrades to the school’s auditorium, the construction of a greenhouse, remodeling of classroom space and upgrades at the middle school, as well.
But in terms of athletics, most of Elkhorn’s programs are about to get a little more breathing room. Some will get completely new space to themselves.
The school’s small gym, the Suchy gym named after former basketball coach Fred Suchy, is currently divided during the winter and is home to the wrestling and gymnastics programs, with the baseball and softball teams using the gym’s balcony as batting cages.
When construction is complete, gymnastics will have its own space in the new indoor, multi-use facility, adjacent to a new space for cheer, which currently practices at the middle school. The wrestling team will hold court in the Suchy Gym balcony, and batting cages drop down from the ceiling of the multi-use facility for those teams.
The multi-use facility will have artificial turf. When curtains are up, it will be roughly half a football field. When curtains are down, it can be divided into four smaller fields.
The grass football field will also be replaced with turf, all of which is sand-based and not crumb rubber, and will be used by football and soccer.
The softball program has two new fields and will no longer need to be transported across town to play home games.
And the track and tennis courts are set to be resurfaced and sealed.
“It’s all going to alleviate the stress and pressure on some of our gyms,” Kiel said. “People are talking about it, and everyone is anxious to get in there and see what it is and what it looks like. To see it all coming together is just really fun.
“And a lot of what people see, they think athletics, athletics athletics, but the reality is it’s going to be a classroom all day. There will be phy ed classes out there. Physics classes right now are using stairways to calculate trajectories. Now you’ve got a football field with a 60-foot peak.
“There’s more learning space to spread out.”
Kiel credits the youth programs in Elkhorn with setting the high school teams up for success.
The multi-use facility should only work to foster that cycle, with more practice space opening up for players of all ages.
The next step, Kiel said, is building up strength and conditioning.
“We have more kids in the weight room now than any other time I’ve been here,” he said “And I think when the new facility opens up, you’re going to see a big burst of kids going in there. And I think when our kids get stronger, our success is going to go up even from where it is now.”
The new fitness training space will be about 5,000 square feet of the 50,000-square-foot addition. That’s more than double the size of the old space, which will now be opened up for classroom and other uses.
With a winning culture in place and fresh facilities on the way, Elkhorn’s hot streak may just be getting started.
“We’ve got good athletes cycling through right now, coaches that work hard and an administration that supports us,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of people excited.”
Eric Schmoldt is sports editor of The Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org