Rockets continue rapid ascension
Before last season, the current members of the Spring Grove boys' basketball team only had bad memories about the program.
They grew up when the Rockets were in the midst of 19 consecutive losing seasons.
In fact, prior to the 2014-15 season, many of the players on the current roster weren't even born the last time Spring Grove saw a larger number in the win column than in the loss column. Losing was ingrained in the minds of basketball players growing up in the paper mill town.
Somewhere along the way, however, things changed for the current crop of players. The losing ways at the varsity level grew old and tiresome and the talent got better, eventually resulting in last season's 15-10 campaign that snapped the program's losing streak and returned the Rockets to the District 3-AAAA playoffs for the first time in more than two decades.
It was an abrupt turnaround for the program, going from seven wins in 2013-14 to 15 in 2014-15. Last year's Rockets came within one win of qualifying for the state tournament. Now, just a third of the way through 2015-16, Spring Grove has seemingly picked up where it left off last year and is poised to take its rapid improvement to whole new levels.
"Off of who we were getting back from last year, we were getting back everyone from last year except for 100 points," Rockets head coach James Brooks said. "And we had a good run and went into districts and now the kids have finally gotten to a point where they believe they can win. So, having this kind of start is not a surprise. It's building off of what we did last year."
Building for success: So far, the building blocks put in place from last year have catapulted Spring Grove to a 6-1 start this year, with the only loss coming by three points to unbeaten Central York (10-0). While the number of games played is far and away the fewest out of the York-Adams League teams, the wins that the Rockets have picked up aren't too shabby. They're coming off a championship performance at the Warwick Holiday Tournament earlier this week and also have a road victory against perennial power York High already on the resumé.
It's been those results that have started to earn Spring Grove more attention within York County and beyond, but something the players expected all along.
"We've been together for a long time," junior Eli Brooks said. "And we've been going up through the program (over) the years, but I thought we'd be pretty good. We did a lot of summer stuff and I thought we looked good then, and went to Kutztown and lost to Norristown only by three and Norristown is supposed to be pretty good."
Scoring depth: Around the league and the mid-state, Eli Brooks' name is well known. He's the sharp-shooter on the Rockets drawing the attention of several prominent NCAA Division I programs. He's seen coaches from Notre Dame venture to the rural town to watch him practice. In a way, the Spring Grove revival begins with him.
His talents are undeniable, instantly made apparent by his league-leading 29.5 points-per-game average and nine Division I offers. Yet, one player doesn't make a team and he's hardly been on his own in helping turn around the Rockets.
The complementary pieces around Eli have made a huge impact. Senior forward Darin Gordon is averaging a tidy 16.5 points per game, good for 11th in the league. Together, those two make up one of the best-scoring duos in the Y-A League and about 54 percent of the Rockets' offense. On top of Brooks and Gordon, Spring Grove has three other guys who are hovering at or above five points per game in senior Grant Wierman (6.0 ppg), senior Josh Bellamy (4.7 ppg) and junior Jon Sager (4.5 ppg).
"I think we have one of the best scoring combo duos in the league, in Eli and Darin Gordon," James Brooks said. "With those two, people used to rely on them and attract to them. Now we have other guys stepping up and we have a double-digit scorer, or close to double-digit scorer, out of someone else every single game. So, we have that third person, it might not be the same person every night, but there's multiple people stepping into that role."
A grueling finish: That depth of scoring will be essential for the Rockets as the season progresses. Because of the light schedule in the opening month of the season, Spring Grove faces a condensed slate at the start of the new year, playing its final 15 games over a period of 28 days. That includes three consecutive weeks when the Rockets will play four games in seven days and four pairs of back-to-back games.
It makes the strong start that much more important, knowing that as legs become tired and players wear down during January, the team will have some key victories to fall back on if necessary. James Brooks, however, doesn't think the road ahead will be a problem for his team, especially knowing that his players, like most athletes, would rather play games than practice.
"I think our guys will really thrive in playing back-to-back," he said. "They enjoy the competition of it now and come game day, they're ready for it."
If the early-season success is any indication, then Spring Grove will have plenty more games to play well past the end of the regular season.
"I want to keep the program at this level," James Brooks said. "That's our expectation, is to compete for a county championship and go into districts and then qualify for states. I want that to be an every-year goal like so many other teams in our league."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org