Lost and found: Spring-Ford’s historic season in retrospective

COATESVILLE >> Every now and then in sports, you encounter that multi-layered team where the various forces at work create a Cinderella story.

The 2022-23 Spring-Ford boys basketball team might just fit that bill. That storybook season for the Rams came to an end, 55-32 to District 3 champion Reading in the PIAA Class 6A semifinals in Coatesville on Tuesday.

Having missed the Pioneer Athletic Conference tournament last year, and districts the year before, Spring-Ford had some mud on its name entering the season. But the Rams ran the guantlet this winter with a 28-4 record, a PAC title, the program’s first District 1 final appearance and the first state quarterfinal and semifinal appearances ever, putting the program on the map by the the end of it all.

“In the beginning of the season, no one thought we could make it this far,” junior guard EJ Campbell said following Spring-Ford’s loss to Reading. “No one thought we were that good, that we didn’t play anyone, but we had a pretty good season. People think we can play now.”

There were redemptive arcs collectively and individually, what was once lost, now found.

Joe Dempsey had been with La Salle High School’s boys basketball program for 27 years, serving as the team’s head coach from 2004-18. He took the Explorers to four PIAA tournaments and a 4A state final in 2014.

Dempsey and La Salle parted ways and it wasn’t until last year the once-tenured Conshohocken native found his new stay in Royersford. But that initial year included a missed Pioneer Athletic Conference tournament, first-round exit in districts and a 13-9 overall record.

The start to this season wasn’t much better, a 61-59 loss to West Chester East at State College’s tipoff tournament, the start of another year where the District 1 scene wouldn’t have to take great notice of Spring-Ford.

But at least one Spring-Ford student believed from the beginning and never took his eyes off the Rams the rest of the way.

Eli Vivian, a junior at Spring-Ford, has been living with metachromatic leukodystrophy (MLD), an inherited neurometabolic disease that affects the brain and the central nervous system, for 10 years now after being diagnosed at age 7.

Vivian was named team manager, sitting on the bench at every game. The perfect front row seat for when things turned a page. The moment Vivian got involved with the program, something changed in the air.

Reading guard Myles Grey, left, takes it to the rim past Spring-Ford’s Jacob Nguyen, right, during the PIAA Class 6A boys basketball semifinals at Coatesville High School on March 21. (Photo courtesy Bill Snook)

What followed was a 20-game win streak, heads turning in Spring-Ford’s direction every game, every win, every step of the way. The Rams had the talent with sharpshooting sophomore guard Jacob Nguyen, Campbell’s explosiveness, stingy point guard Caleb Little and a cast of physical forwards in Zach Zollers, Alex Lewis and Tommy Kelly.

Throw in valuable minutes and big-play ability from senior guards Tyree Banks and Michael McKenna, and you’ve got a team that can run calculated sets while boasting a stout defense that’s allowed just 45.5 points per game.

A testament to the coaching staff between local legend Dempsey and assistant coaches GT Pufko, Jim Sheedy and Michael Allerton, Spring-Ford’s talent was untapped from a cast entirely devoid of any returning Mercury All-Area selections.

“We knew we had something going on since the middle of the season,” Nguyen said. “We just kept working. We worked every day at practice, we watched a lot of film, trust our coaches and all of us played together very well. All our seniors led us through all of this and I’m going to miss them.”

Defying the odds became the norm. Gone were the days of dropping close games, Zollers tipping in a game-winning buzzer beater against Wilson and Spring-Ford surviving double overtime against Pottstown in the PAC semifinals.

It became increasingly clear that there was something special brewing in Royersford with each passing week. The community following grew, alumni kept up with coverage and fan attendance grew as well. With the top seed in the District 1 tournament, that following, as well as many outside Royersford, wondered how long the show could go on.

Wins over West Chester Henderson, Garnet Valley and Downingtown West were the encore, the Rams stampeding through the bracket to reach their first District 1 final in program history.

And with it, community support only intensified.

“The people have been great. The school has been so supportive,” Dempsey said. “Hopefully, if the kids play the right way, they play hard, they play defense, we take care of each other, hustle and we’re happy for each other — one of our coaches made a point, good relationships will hopefully last forever.”

Reading guard Ruben Rodriguez, right, hits a layup against Spring-Ford forward Zach Zollers (4) during the PIAA Class 6A boys basketball semifinals at Coatesville High School on March 21. Rodriguez scored his 2,000th career point in the win for the Red Knights. (Photo courtesy Bill Snook)

But in a 59-54 loss at Temple, Spring-Ford’s vulnerability showed. This isn’t a super team out of District 12 like Imhotep Charter, Roman Catholic or Archbishop Wood. The Rams don’t have Adamantium skeletons, are largely a young group and are still figuring things out on the fly.

And in a state tournament loaded with dominant large schools, several who could rent out a second home near Hershey’s Giant Center, the same question resurfaced: are the Rams minnows in a shark tank?

A rally over Central York, a gutsy win against Lancaster-Lebanon champion Hempfield and handling District 6 champion State College was the answer.

It took a loaded Reading team — ranked No. 7 overall in Pennsylvania — composed of All-Berks seniors Aris Rodriguez (12 points) and Myles Grey (7 points), as well as two-time Berks Player of the Year Ruben Rodriguez, who scored his 2,000th career point and finished with 20 in the state semifinal.

The Red Knights, now playing for their third state title in seven years (2017, 2021) sit at 31-1 and are unbeaten by Pennsylvania teams this season, their lone loss coming from Gonzaga High School (Washington D.C.).

“It’s been really meaningful. Probably one of the best teams in Spring-Ford history,” Campbell said of the Rams’ journey through 2022-23. “Just sad it had to come to an end. We wanted to go to Hershey, especially for our seniors.”

Spring-Ford graduates five seniors — Banks, Lewis, Zollers, McKenna and Little.

Little said after the game that given the course the Rams have charted this winter, Spring-Ford’s program is in good hands.

“Definitely got a lot of young talent. EJ and Jacob are all-league, Jacob’s got two more years of high school, EJ has another one and is gonna be amazing, definitely D1 talent,” Little said. “Five seniors, probably none of us are gonna play college basketball. So, the future’s bright.”

While Dempsey has been on a number of state runs, each team carving out its own story along the way, the veteran coach will likely never forget his first in Royersford.

“I’ve been coaching a long time. These runs are special,” Dempsey said. “They’re very difficult, it’s very difficult to get to this layer of the season after such a long season and I’m just super proud of the guys.”

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