SPRINGFIELD >> Justin Collins didn’t leave the home bench two years ago, but not a detail escaped his grasp Wednesday night at Springfield High School.
Now a senior guard, Collins recounted in vivid detail all the highs and lows of the Cougars’ last chance to play into states in 2015 against Penncrest — the 12-point fourth-quarter deficit they surmounted, the Lions’ lights-out, 14-for-14 performance from the free-throw line in overtime to win, 58-53, without an extra-session field goal.
Collins, whose older brother Jordan was that team’s leading scorer, even wistfully bounced his head recalling the number of bounces a late Mike Doyle 3-pointer took off rim before falling home to push the game to OT.
“Still, some of that stuff hurts,” said Kyle Long, then the emergent freshman point guard, now the seasoned junior floor general.
For the current Cougars who experienced that star-crossed team’s disappointment, the significance was instilled quickly. That near miss, from a special senior class, set the bar that they would be held to two years later. And having cleared that high hurdle to make the program’s first states appearance since 2010 and ninth in school history, the Cougars are embracing the quest to determine their ride’s culmination.
Springfield gets that chance Friday when the sixth seed from District 1 ventures to Hershey High School to take on District 3 runner-up Mechanicsburg in the first round of the PIAA Class 5A tournament. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m. as the nightcap in a triple-header.
For the freshness of the memory, Collins and company describe the Penncrest game as a demon they’ve vanquished, more grateful for its motivation than haunted by its specter.
“We knew we had to do a lot better,” Collins said. “We felt resentful, and it was kind of unaccomplished because we wanted to get to states that year. … We knew we had to get there when I was a senior, when Kyle was a junior.”
Long recognized the Penncrest game as a blueprint during an eerily similar situation last week, the 68-62 win over Wissahickon. Though not a win-or-go-home proposition, the Cougars used the homecourt edge to will a victory … despite trailing by 14 points in the third quarter.
That night, it took an outburst from a pair of bench players — 11 points from Mike Webb, 13 from Zach Chevalier — to augment a season-high 17 from Long.
The atmosphere around this Springfield side is reminiscent of the class of 2015. States was the expectation for that class, Long said. And he grafted that milepost onto this contingent — particularly with the transfer of Kyle Sullivan from Cardinal O’Hara last year and the addition of Webb midseason.
“Since Day 1, we knew that we had something special,” Collins said. “It was just a matter of clicking, playing together and making something great from it.”
“We’ve come a long way in what we’ve done throughout the year,” Long said. “It’s a perk we have of this team, we have a lot of guys who can put the ball in the basket.”
Springfield (15-11) will face a daunting opponent. Mechanicsburg (22-6) wound its way to the District 3 final comfortably before bowing out to Northeastern, 61-44, with leading scorer Kyle Scheib mired in foul trouble. The 5-foot-10 guard is an explosive scorer, and he forms a potent high-low combo with 6-5 senior forward Cade Alioth.
Alioth burned Northeastern for 27 points and 17 rebounds, and he’s a superb passer out of the post, a potent deterrence for would-be double teams thinking of abandoning dangerous spot-up shooters on the perimeter.
Springfield can deploy multiple looks at Alioth. Great Orjih returns from a two-game absence, and the length of Collins and physicality of Ja’Den McKenzie allows them to shoulder defensive responsibilities.
With balanced scoring and the experience of long road trips yearly for playoff-type games at the William Allen Holiday Classic against quality opposition, coach Kevin McCormick has been seasoning this group for a states test for years.
It’s telling that instead of looking backward (only when prompted by questions), the Cougars’ sights are fixed straight ahead at the possibility of a second-round date with Archbishop Wood, the odds-on favorite for the 5A title.
That indicates a team that isn’t merely content with what it has already accomplished.
“We went through it before last practice, there’s only been nine teams to make it to states at Springfield. We’re the ninth team,” Long said. “That’s great and everything, but when the future coaches are looking back at this year, we don’t want them saying, ‘Oh they made it to states.’ We want them to say we won a game at states.”
“Just a few weeks ago, our coach said that teams that are just happy to be there don’t do anything,” Collins said. “We’re not happy to just be here. We’re on a mission.”