Prep Basketball

This winter, Mike Sconsa's victories are coming away from the court

Successful Cascade girls' basketball coach back home, recovering from a November stroke

Cascade girls' basketball coach Mike Sconsa chats as he watches the Cougars face West Liberty during a game at Cascade H
Cascade girls’ basketball coach Mike Sconsa chats as he watches the Cougars face West Liberty during a game at Cascade High School on Tuesday. Sconsa is recovering from a stroke Nov. 8. (Cliff Jette/Freelance)
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CASCADE — Clench your left hand into a fist. Now release.

Simple, isn’t it?

For Mike Sconsa, it’s a chore. For weeks, it was an impossible task.

“As hard as I tried, I couldn’t open my hand,” he said. “It was just clenched up. When I was finally able to get my fingers to move, it felt like a major accomplishment.”

The highly successful girls’ basketball coach at Cascade High School, Sconsa these days is earning major and minor victories at home, and three times a week at physical and occupational therapy in Dubuque.

Doctors expect him to make a full or nearly full recovery from a Nov. 8 stroke.

But it’s going to take time, and the 43-year-old Sconsa isn’t full of patience anyway.

“I’m just so weak,” he said. “I have no clue when I’ll have full use of my (left) arm. They say it could be a year or two. I’m hoping it’s quicker than that.”

Still, in some ways, Sconsa feels fortunate.

“The other day, I was in the elevator at the hospital, and a lady came in. She said he was visiting her husband (a stroke victim), and he’ll never speak again.

“So yeah, this sucks, but I know it could be a lot worse.”

In addition to his day job as a high school history teacher, Sconsa has built Cascade into one of the state’s most consistent winners in girls’ basketball. In 16 years before this season, his record is 330-68. Eight of his last nine teams advanced to the state tournament, highlighted by a Class 2A championship in 2018.

He was the 2017 Gazette area coach of the year.

This was going to be a transition year anyway. In addition to the challenges COVID-19 has generated, Sconsa had four senior starters to replace from last year’s team, which went 26-1 and reached the 2A state semifinals.

The first day of practice was Nov. 9.

Sconsa felt fine when he went to bed Nov. 7, around 11 p.m. He woke up at 2 a.m. to use the bathroom, still fine.

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When he awoke again at 6:15, he said, “I couldn’t move. I thought right away it was a stroke.”

Angie Sconsa, Mike’s wife of nearly 20 years, called for an ambulance, and Sconsa was transported to MercyOne Medical Center in Dubuque.

Sconsa’s fear, a stroke, was confirmed. The cause, a blood clot in the bottom of his brain. The effect, paralysis to the left side of his body.

Later in the day, word of Sconsa’s condition began to spread throughout the Cascade administration.

“I got a call that morning from the principal, just that Coach was in the hospital, and there wasn’t a lot more information, just that it was very serious,” athletics director Adam Kedley said. “It stopped me in my tracks.

“After we got the news, the coaches and the administrators got together and made a plan for the season.”

Ernie Bolibaugh, Sconsa’s veteran assistant, was named interim head coach, Ryan Altiere the assistant.

“Mike and I have always been yin and yang,” said Bolibaugh, 60. “He’s all about that 2-3 zone and that toughness stuff. My comfort level is in the offensive part of the game and player development.”

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The next day — the first day of practice — a meeting with the team, in Kedley’s office, was called.

“Sunday, nobody really knew what was going on,” senior Faith Bower said. “We just knew Coach couldn’t be at practice for a while.

“Monday morning, we got called into the office, and (Kedley and Altiere) told us he had suffered a stroke. We hadn’t known how severe it was. A lot of us were crying.”

They weren’t the only ones.

“If you know me, you know I’m very private,” Sconsa said. “But I do show emotion in private. And I cried for three straight days.”

Sconsa was transferred to Finley Hospital, also in Dubuque, Nov. 14, then came home Nov. 25.

“For 12 days, I couldn’t have visitors,” he said. “All there was the clock in front of me, and it sucked. It was hell.”

Meanwhile, Cascade opened its season Nov. 24 with a win at Northeast. That was followed by three losses in four games, including a pair of last-second defeats against Bellevue. The Cougars were 2-3.

“A lot of kids are learning new roles,” Bolibaugh said. “We have a lot of kids with some talent, but they just didn’t have a lot of varsity experience.”

And they were accustomed to Sconsa’s tough love.

“Sconsa is a yeller,” senior Sydney Weber said. “Ernie is more shy and quiet, more laid back.”

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“Our styles are different,” Bolibaugh said. “Finally, I asked them what they wanted to see out of me and they said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to yell at us more.’”

On Dec. 11, Cascade upset West Branch, then ranked No. 1 in Class 2A, 54-51 in overtime. That ignited a four-game winning streak.

While Bolibaugh and Altiere have led the team in person, Sconsa has worked behind the scenes, watching film and helping formulate practice schedules and game plans.

In-person conversations were replaced by group texts.

“I talk to girls a little, to Ernie a lot,” Sconsa said. “Watching the games from home, it’s tough. I miss it so much. It’s brutal. But Ernie has done great, and they’re playing hard.”

That’s the Cascade way.

“We’re still Cascade basketball. We play hard every day,” Bower said. “Now we have a bigger reason to play.

“Sconsa is really important person to all of us. He’s one of the most humble people I know. He hates the interviews and the hype and all that stuff. He’s the kind of coach that just gets it done.”

The just-get-it-done approach now goes into Sconsa’s recovery. He undergoes physical and occupation therapy three times a week at MercyOne.

“My mind is in the right place,” Sconsa said. “I’m starting to make progress with my arm and leg.”

Much of his time at home is devoted to rest.

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The first week Sconsa was home, he slept 15 hours per day. A voracious reader anyway, he has flown through books and Netflix series from the recliner in his sun room.

He is walking now, with a cane. But he can’t be unattended at home. Angie is his primary caregiver; mother-in-law Bette Kurt next in command.

“I’m hoping soon I can be alone. I’m relying on everybody,” Sconsa said. “I had to learn to accept help, and I hate it.”

Sconsa attended a practice last week, then was in attendance for the Cougars’ home game Tuesday, a loss to West Liberty.

“I think the girls had it in the back of their mind that he was a lot worse off than he is,” Bolibaugh said. “For them to see that he was up and around, I’m sure it made them feel a lot better.”

Sconsa hopes to be back in the classroom for the start of the third trimester, in March. Out of respect for Bolibaugh and not wanting to be a distraction, Sconsa doesn’t plan to return to the bench until next season.

“If they’ll have me back,” he said.

Of course they will.

“We’re hoping he’s ready for the first day of practice next year,” Kedley said. “We’d take him back tomorrow if we could, because we miss him.”

Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com

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