Win or lose, Sowers' message constant
Troy Sowers' most essential message to his players doesn't have as much to do with basketball as it has to do with life.
On this day, a chilly January evening, he makes sure to tell his York High players, just before they break the huddle at the end of practice, one more thing: "Love each other."
It's not a demand he forces on the Bearcats, but rather, a request to respect each other as people and become more than just teammates.
With the way this season has gone for the Bearcats, the 20 or so players and coaches — junior varsity and varsity — inside the school gym on this night may be the only ones who truly believe that they can still achieve something special. York High has only twice lost nine or more games since Sowers took over as coach, both coming in his first two seasons. Since those years, he's raised expectations for the program to the point that people simply assume they'll win York-Adams League and District 3-AAAA titles, as well as make yearly state tournament runs.
This year, with the Bearcats at 11-9, they've already lost more than in a typical season, and they still have two regular-season games to go, plus league, district and, potentially, state playoffs. Depending on how those playoff runs go, and whether or not the team brings home any hardware, will ultimately determine how this season is viewed, at least from those outside the program.
With expectations surrounding his program only growing, trying seasons such as this one can somtimes bring out the ugliness in fans, making them sound more like adversaries than supporters.
"We try to make it a mentality of we have to love each other here, because the fans and the city and the world is a bad place when things aren't going well," Sowers said. "...There isn't a harder schedule in District 3 than what I put my guys through — and when you play that type of game, you put yourself out there — and unless you trust your teammates and coaches, it's not a fun place when you're playing that level, game in and game out."
As York High continues to embark on this arduous season, it will test the character of the team and individual players more than in past years. So, it should only help that the character of his players is what Sowers ultimately looks for when constructing his team.
Fulfilling a dream: Being the Bearcats' boys' basketball coach was always the dream for Sowers.
As a kid, he grew up attending school in the York City School District, graduating from the high school in 1987. Then, after attending York College, he immediately went back to the high school, where he began teaching. For 40 of his 46 years, Sowers has gotten up every morning and gone to school as either a student or teacher in the York City School District. There was no other place he could envision himself.
Yet, even with his long legacy of being part of the school, it never put him in position to be the boys' varsity basketball coach. He was passed over for the job once and then twice for other candidates the two previous times he applied. After originally starting out as the seventh-and-eighth grade boys' coach at York High, he had varsity head coaching stints with the York Tech boys, both Spring Grove teams and then, lastly, the West York girls' program. They were all stepping stones to finally landing his dream job with the Bearcats after a third attempt, despite being just 76-149 in his previous head coaching stops.
"I've always had a great connection with the kids and I just thought that I was ready," Sowers said. "It didn't happen to me those first two times and I just thought that if I got the position, I could take it to a higher level than it was."
It was a lofty goal for a program that was already on a pretty elevated pedestal. Sowers was hired to succeed Isaiah Anderson in the spring of 2006. Anderson resigned following his second stint with the program. He had led York High to a school-record 27 consecutive wins and a state semifinal berth in 2004 during his second round as head coach. Yet, Sowers' hiring marked the seventh coaching change in 11 seasons, so a sense of stability was needed.
Raising standards: Sowers wasn't so much concerned about taking the program to a higher level, based solely on on-court performance, as he was with raising the character of the program.
He wanted to bring consistency to a program that had only won three District 3 titles in the previous 50 years before his arrival. In his first year as head coach, however, the program took a step back, going just 12-13, a year after the team went 15-12 under Anderson, including 11-4 in York-Adams Division I play. Sowers, however, believed it was all part of a process that was going to take time to rid the program of those who wouldn't buy into the "team-first" mentality he demanded.
In his second season, the Bearcats went 18-9 overall and were a game away from qualifying for the PIAA Class AAAA state tournament. By his third year, Sowers finally made his mark on the program, guiding the team to a perfect 15-0 mark in Division I, 28-straight victories to begin the season and a runner-up finish in both the District 3 and PIAA Class AAAA tournaments.
"It was a building process the first two years," he said. "...They, sort of, just had to believe me that you have to be disciplined, you have to have mental toughness, you have to share the ball, you have to love your teammates, you have to love your coaches, but now that we have gold medals all over the place, they believe because it's easy."
Since Sowers took over, he's doubled the program's district titles from three to six over the past 60 years, and from the 2008-09 season to the present, York High has won the most games in the state, while doing it against a schedule that is among the toughest in all of District 3. It's a testament to how he operates, selectively taking players who respect the game, their teammates, their coaches and their opponents. He has kids come up to him in school and tell him that they don't want to play for him because he has too many rules and he's perfectly fine with that because he doesn't want that mentality on his team.
It took him years to build that type of culture around his program and then, in a matter of minutes, it was almost completely erased.
An ugly incident: The video on Youtube has more than 74,000 views and lasts just 133 seconds.
It captures the final possession of the Bearcats' 69-66 victory at Harrisburg last season — a missed 3-point attempt at the buzzer by a Cougars' player which would've forced overtime. After the shot rims out, two players are seen scrapping underneath the basket. Eventually, punches are thrown, teams empty onto the court and fans flock from their seats onto the floor to engage in the brawl. The entire incident between the two teams barely lasts more than 20 seconds before coaches and security get them under control, but the fight carries over into the stands as parents get involved.
The fight resulted in suspensions to players on both teams, as well as the cancellation of this year's contest between the two schools. In the minds of some, it also quickly overshadowed the accomplishments, on and off the court, that the Bearcats had achieved during the Sowers era. The typical stereotypes that plague inner-city schools were there for all to see in the comments section posted under the video.
"That isn't who we truly are," senior Kris Johnson said about the fight. "It was a one-time thing that never really happens. We dealt with student sections chanting at us, but we learn to play through that and we use that as motivation to go out and play well against our opponents and beat them by a lot."
Sowers had to go into damage control and, fortunately, the event didn't impact the team the rest of the season. The team didn't earn one technical foul the entire season and has yet to get called for one so far this year. It's proof that years of hard work building a team filled with character kids can't be undone by a couple minutes, no matter how hard people try.
Where he belongs: When Sowers was hired by the district back in April of 2006, he told the board members that he had two goals for his teams — to win championships and put his players in college.
Now in his 10th season, he's successfully lived up to both promises. His teams have won a total of seven league and district titles in his first nine full seasons as the team's coach, and he's put 25 of his former players into college, with several more from this year's team on their way. His commitment to his players is obvious. He holds study hall sessions almost weekly for his players to make sure they're up to date on their schoolwork, while also attending any college visits with them, if they ask.
"He expects the best out of us," senior captain Trey Shifflett said. "He just shows that he cares. That's what everyone wants, and now, with everything that's going on around the city, it shows who cares and who doesn't."
Sowers texts his players on a regular basis, asking them about anything, not just basketball. It's how he finds solace in the job he does. He isn't afraid to admit that the pressure of the expectations he's set for the program have gotten to him a bit. He's miserable when his teams lose a game and relieved when they win. But, he has to push aside those feelings in order to give each team everything he has.
"My job is to stay mentally tough for them and provide what they need to get better throughout the season to reach that point," Sowers said. "Nothing is better than putting a gold medal around your players' necks when you've accomplished a county championship or district championship. Nothing is better than that."
Ideally, Sowers would like to finish out his run as the school's basketball coach when he can retire from teaching in nine years. That will put him at 19 years as head coach of York High. If things continue along the same trajectory as they are right now, it would make him easily the most successful coach in program history. To think about that now, however, would be a disservice to the teams he still has to coach.
Ever since Sowers was a kid, York has been his home. You could say that he loves the city and he loves the school.
Most importantly, however, he loves his coaches and he loves his players.
"I don't feel like there's a better place for me right now," he said. "I enjoy what I do so much, and we impact the kids' lives and we mold them and they turn into great people and we win championships. I don't know where else I could do that. The success that we've had in winning championships and sending kids to college, is there a better place I could go? I don't think there is. So, right now, this is where I'm supposed to be."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sowers' wins by year at York High:
2006-07: 8-7 (Division I), 12-13 overall
2007-08: 11-4, 18-9
2008-09: 15-0, 32-2 x, y
2009-10: 14-1, 24-7 x
2010-11: 15-0, 27-3 x, z
2011-12: 13-2, 24-6 x, y
2012-13: 15-0, 27-4 x, y
2013-14: 10-4, 23-7 z
2014-15: 11-1, 26-5 x, y, z
x - Division I champions
y- Y-A League champions
z - District 3-AAAA champions