Spring Grove's Eli Brooks talks after his team's 77-67 win over Northeastern Friday night. Amanda J. Cain
There's a simplicity to how James Brooks speaks about the Spring Grove boys' basketball team as the 2017-18 season approaches.
He doesn't say too much about what he hopes to get out of this year's group. He hopes only that, at some point — preferably sooner rather than later — he gets the most out of this unit.
Going into each of the last two seasons, expectations around the Rockets were much higher than they are now. With star Eli Brooks leading the show, and a core of players that had played together for much of their playing careers, Spring Grove finally catapulted into relevancy around the York-Adams League.
Brooks and most of his supporting cast, however, graduated in the spring, putting the Rockets back in a rebuilding stage. This year's team is hoping that the inevitable drop isn't as drastic as some people expect it to be.
"My hope is that we're better at the end of the year than we are the first day," James Brooks said. "Hopefully, we don't have to get to the last day to be the best we can be. If we get a month that we're playing at the level I think this team can be at, then great. I don't want to get two days or three days at the end of the year and say, 'Wow, they finally reached where I thought they could be,' because we're going to be in a world of hurt if it's that way."
Leaning on Gordon: Spring Grove is coming off the best season in program history, with the team going 22-8 last year and reaching the PIAA Class 5-A quarterfinals.
Epectations don't come anywhere near replicating that for 2017-18.
Eli Brooks, who is now starting as a true freshman at Michigan, is the most notable and significant loss from last season's team. The first-team all-state and Y-A League leading scorer carried the Rockets, but he also got help from a starting lineup that was very senior heavy. Jake Messersmith, Austin Panter and Jon Sager also graduated, leaving Drew Gordon as the lone starter returning.
By default, Gordon will be asked to shoulder much of the leadership burden to help mold an inexperienced team, but in a way that still makes him comfortable.
"I think he'll just naturally have to fit into (a lead role)," Brooks said. "Me forcing him to be that, wouldn't be good for him or the team to gel right. We know what he provides and we have to work around that."
New cast of characters: After Gordon, the only other player who saw significant varsity minutes a year ago is senior Grant Sterner. The two combined to hit 40 3-pointers for Spring Grove, ranking third and fourth on the team.
Individually, nobody will be expected to single-handily replace the 29.2 points per game that Brooks accounted for last season. Instead, each player will be required to up his performance from last year to make up the difference.
Like Gordon, a lot of that responsibility will fall to Sterner, not just because he's a senior, but also because he was essentially the team's sixth man last year.
"I have to become more of a basketball player. I have to make more basketball plays," Sterner said at winter sports media day last month. "Sharing the ball is obviously going to be important. Last year, Eli played a big role in making sure everybody got the ball and we're going to need someone to step up and take that role this year."
Senior Trevon Colbert, junior Madison Moore and sophomore Cole McKowen will see their roles expand as well after mostly playing junior varsity a year ago.
"Hard-nosed team": One thing that James Brooks doesn't expect to change from the last couple years is the support around the program.
The Rockets routinely sold out their home games the last two seasons. Even with Eli Brooks gone and expectations tempered compared to last year, Brooks hopes the team's energy and competitiveness, if not wins and losses, provide something for the locals to come out and support.
Spring Grove certainly won't be the most talented team, especially in a strong Division I. The Rockets, however, will focus on playing composed defense and taking advantage of each of their opponent's flaws, something that Brooks knows each team has.
If Spring Grove can stick to a simple game plan, then it will compete.
And, if nothing else, that'll be worth something.
"We may not get as far as we did last year," Gordon said during media day. "But, we're still going to be a competitive team and get some wins under our belt. ...We just need to be one of the more scrappy and hard-nosed teams out there to get some wins and put together a good season."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org