As Eli Brooks swatted away a Central Dauphin East shot to end the third quarter, he let out a primal scream.
It was proof that, come district playoff time, even the most poised players can get caught up in the moment and let their emotions show. The block had little impact on the game. By that point, Spring Grove was already firmly in control vs. the Panthers, well on its way to the 66-27 victory in Wednesday's first-round District 3-AAAA game at Spring Grove High School.
“We knew this was a big game,” the junior said. “If we lost, we go home. So, it was an emotional game to get this for the seniors and keep playing for them.”
That's the pressure that comes along with the first round of the Class AAAA district playoffs. Lose your first game and your season is over. Win it and you qualify for the state tournament and guarantee yourself at least three more games in the season.
For the fourth-seeded Rockets (23-2), losing was never even in question. There was no championship hangover from last Saturday night's York-Adams League title, the program's first in 45 years.
Fast start: Brooks opened the game with a steal and a dunk, getting his team and the sellout crowd into the game. It was the start of a 16-4 opening quarter for the Rockets, who then built on that to take a 30-15 advantage by halftime.
“Our two losses, that's how it happened. We got a bad start to the first quarter,” head coach James Brooks said. “We've just been trying to clean that up and the guys were excited. We're excited to have a home district game and we didn't want to let the fans down.”
Even after a dominating first half in which Spring Grove held No. 13 CD East (14-10) to just 26 percent shooting, the Rockets continued to carry the play. They opened the third quarter on a 9-0 run to open up a 24-point cushion, and by the end of the third, they had more than doubled up the Panthers, leading 50-23.
The fourth quarter was much of the same and by the midway point of it, Brooks began removing his starters and getting some of his bench guys into the contest. Eli Brooks exited the contest with a game-high 22 points, giving way to role players who haven't seen much playing time lately, such as Jake Messersmith, Grant Sterner and Josh Bellamy, who all scored in the final minutes.
“These guys, they work hard,” James Brooks said about his bench players getting valuable minutes. “They've been fighting and competing with the starting five all year long, so they're not the typical backup guys. They have to compete and we run 5-on-5 shell a lot and I make them compete.”
It was the perfect scenario for Spring Grove to kick off its district run. It got a completely dominant effort from the opening tip to the final buzzer that will give it loads of momentum heading into Saturday night's quarterfinals, while also not having to expend too much energy.
Gordon bounces back: It was also a nice bounce-back game for senior Darin Gordon, who was coming off a four-point effort in the league title game in which he fouled out. He contributed in a big way Wednesday night, finishing with 13 points and did a nice job containing CD East's 6-foot, 9-inch big man Brennen Jackson to just seven points, all of which came in the first half.
“I talked to coach before this game and he pulled me aside and was like, 'Hey, you didn't have the game you wanted going into the county championship,' so I just wanted to treat it like any other game,” Gordon said. “(Coach) always says, 'Don't make a game anymore than it is. Don't make it any less than it is.' Obviously, there was stakes to it and we had that in the back of our mind.”
Gordon said the team refused to focus on what would happen if the team lost the game, but instead only gave attention to the benefits of what a win meant for the program.
In total, 10 players scored points for the Rockets, who will now face J.P. McCaskey in Saturday's quarterfinal round at Dallastown High School at 7:30 p.m. No. 5 seed McCaskey (20-5) defeated Conestoga Valley in overtime, 81-77.
“If we get to where we want to, you'll see a lot of excitement from us,” James Brooks said. “We'll be acting like fools and running around with our heads cut off.”
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org