One phone call from the late Bruce Scheidegger about 10 years ago made all the difference in the world in the career of Julie Schroeder.
Scheidegger, athletic director and girls basketball coach at Sterling at the time, was looking to bring on an assistant coach. That person would have one season to prove herself/himself, and if it worked out, would take over the program when Scheidegger gave up his coaching duties to concentrate on being an AD.
Schroeder, 42, was a teacher and varsity girls head basketball coach at Burlington Central at the time. She had a 50-54 record in four seasons (2000-04) with the Rockets.
"[Scheidegger] called me one day and just randomly said, 'Hey, do you love where you're at?' "Schroeder said. "My answer was no. He said, 'Well, just come out and listen to what we have to say.' Between him and [principal] Jerry Binder, it was a good sell."
Schroeder came to Sterling in the fall of 2004, as a teacher in the alternative school and a varsity assistant coach to Scheidegger. After their first season together went well, Schroeder was here to stay.
They were essentially co-coaches their last two seasons together, with Schroeder heavily involved in running practices and game strategy, and among the few who knew of Scheidegger's plans to give up coaching. Their run together ended with the Golden Warriors qualifying for the Class 3A state tournament in the 2006-07 season.
A few months later, Scheidegger left Sterling to take the AD job at Orland Park Sandburg – a move that caught Schroeder by surprise. She has been the Sterling varsity girls basketball coach ever since, and has guided the Golden Warriors to a 123-68 record in nine seasons.
"I walked into a great situation," Schroeder said, "and I've been lucky to be able to sustain it. That's how I look at it."
This past season, the Golden Warriors finished with a 21-13 record, highlighted by earning a piece of the Northern Illinois Big 12 West title, a regional title and a berth in the sectional final. It earned Schroeder the Sauk Valley Media girls basketball coach of the year honors.
Before this past season, Schroeder gathered her team around the big 'S' at the center of the Musgrove Fieldhouse basketball court. They talked about having to replace graduated seniors Aleena Hammelman, last year's SVM player of the year, along with two valuable role players in Ashli King and Paige Lobdell.
They talked about goals for the season. It was the usual stuff, with the main ones being to win 20 games, a conference title and a regional. The path there was a rocky one.
In the season-opening Sauk Valley Shootout, Sterling was blown out 64-48 by Sherrard in Game 2. In the event's marquee game, the Golden Warriors dropped a 44-39 contest to rival Rock Falls.
"We had won [the Sauk Valley Shootout] 3 years in a row," Schroeder said. "To come up empty-handed and lose two games that week was pretty hard for our kids."
Sterling rebounded in the coming weeks with key NIB-12 West victories against Geneseo, Dixon and Ottawa, but then took a step back in its own Sterling Shootout. The event annually features some of the state's top squads, and while Schroeder emphasizes competing, and not necessarily winning, during that stretch, the Golden Warriors came up empty in all departments.
The nadir were losses to Montini and Richwoods, both on Dec. 15, by a combined 80 points.
"To be really honest, we didn't compete the way I wanted us to," Schroeder said. "We lost by 44 and 36 in one day. That's a tough day to swallow as a coach, no matter how good those teams are."
Sterling had a chance to redeem itself the following week at the Dixon Christmas tournament, but again came up short. The Golden Warriors lost to Rochelle in the quarterfinals, then frittered away a big lead in losing a consolation bracket game against Rockford Lutheran.
"I can see from her perspective why she'd be disappointed in us after that," senior forward Bailey Oetting said of the loss to Lutheran. "We worked out butts off, and then we kind of just set cruise control. We didn't play hard. I think after that we started to work a lot harder, and we started to realize that we could do stuff and make it pretty far."
From Schroeder's standpoint, the Lutheran loss was an opportunity. There was nowhere to go but up, and team was going to have to do what the coaching staff wanted in order to get things straightened out.
"That game was a big deal for us because we had some kids go into a shell and nobody wanted the ball at the end," Schroeder said. "I think it was a learning curve for us. We were able to sit down and watch some film. I was able to explain some things to kids about what our expectations were. I think some kids were able to gain an understanding, and also started to believe in what the coaches were trying to do."
Sterling finished the season with wins in 11 of its last 13 games, with the losses coming to Rochelle and Ottawa. The loss to Ottawa kept the Golden Warriors from an outright conference title, but they still entered the postseason on a roll.
The regional, held this year in Sterling, was all about payback. The Golden Warriors opened against Rock Falls, and with a win, would likely get Rochelle in the title game.
"It was great that it was on our home court," Schroeder said. "It was also great that we lost to both of those teams. The revenge factor was something that was huge for our team, knowing that winning a regional was a goal, and knowing that the volleyball team had come up a little bit short. I heard a couple of our kids talking a little bit, 'We're not going to lose on our home floor again,' those kinds of things."
Sterling had lost a bitterly fought volleyball regional game to Rock Falls this past fall, and many of those athletes also suited up for their school's basketball teams. The Golden Warriors got the last laugh after earning a 50-43 overtime basketball win on Feb. 12.
Two days later, Rochelle was the next hurdle. After losing to the Hubs twice in the regular season, the Golden Warriors rallied for a 47-44 victory. It was Sterling's 20th win, and coupled with the conference title, allowed the team to meet its main goals set before the season.
"Did I know after we lost to Ottawa that we would attain all three of those goals? I wasn't too sure," Schroeder said.
Sterling went on to avenge one more regular-season defeat, this one to Lutheran in a Genoa-Kingston Sectional semifinal. The Golden Warriors won that one 60-54 before bowing out of the postseason in the sectional final against Burlington Central.
Schroeder's venture into coaching followed a natural progression from her time as an athlete. At Prophetstown, she competed in volleyball, basketball and track all 4 years, then played softball all summer. She was a member of Don Robinson's first regional championship girls basketball team, in 1989, when she was a senior.
At Monmouth College, she competed in volleyball, basketball and softball, and was the school's female athlete of the year as a sophomore and junior.
Those experiences help her now as a coach. She knows what it's like as an athlete to have coaches pulling you in different directions, especially in the summer, and goes out of her way to be accommodating.
"The IHSA gives us 25 contact days per sport in the summer," Schroeder said, "and we use about 18 of them. Honestly, I wish they'd cut it down to 15 days, to allow these kids to be kids in the summer."
She's learned her coaching chops from two main influences – Robinson and Scheidegger.
From Robinson, it wasn't so much Xs and Os, as Schroeder noted they vary greatly in that department.
"I think the biggest thing Don helped me with was I developed a love of the game because of him," Schroeder said. "He has such a passion for the game and such a passion for his kids, and that's probably the biggest thing that rubbed off on me. My passion for competing and my passion for basketball definitely came from him."
Robinson, last season's SVM coach of the year, was thrilled to have one of his former players receive the honor this year.
"She was such a smart player for me," Robinson said, "and those types of players that gravitate toward coaching are generally pretty successful. She's done a great job at Sterling."
From Scheidegger, it was the opportunity to come to a community that "gets it", in her words.
"Not many people are willing to walk away from a situation where they're a head coach and step down to an assistant position," Schroeder said. "To me, that just says how I felt about Bruce and what he had going on in this program. To be able to come out and learn from him, and be in an established program he had built was just a tremendous opportunity for me."
The vast majority of Schroeder's life is dedicated to working with young people. She is currently the Sterling sophomore softball coach, and also coached volleyball. She is in her first year as a full-time P.E. teacher, after 2 years of splitting time between the alternative school and the P.E. department.
When asked what she does away from teaching and coaching, Schoreder replied she mostly goes home and watches college basketball games. The summer is the only time she allows herself to truly kick back, as she often takes her wave runner over to the Mississippi River to hang out with friends.
"I come to school every day and I play in our P.E. classes, and we do fun things," Schroeder said. "My job's a lot of fun. Then I get to go and coach kids that are committed. I'm in a pretty good spot right now."
High school: Prophetstown, class of 1989
College: Monmouth, class of 1993
FYI: Resides in Sterling. ... Teacher and coach at SHS since 2004. ... Has 123-68 record as girls basketball coach in six seasons at Sterling. ... Went 21-13 in 2012-13, with conference and regional titles