ROYERSFORD >> Last year’s finish didn’t sit well with the Spring-Ford boys basketball team.
Missing the Pioneer Athletic Conference tournament after a 6-4 Liberty record was quite the wound. Having it held just a few feet away was the salt rubbed in.
“We’re definitely hungry. Last year we were practicing in that gym over there while PACs were being held (here),” Rams guard Zach Zollers said, motioning toward the school’s other gym during a practice last week. “It left a bad taste in our mouths.”
Spring-Ford (14-1, 5-0) has been letting southeastern Pennsylvania know of its displeasure.
After a season-opening loss against Class 5A power West Chester East at State College, the Rams have since rifled off 14 straight wins, are unbeaten in conference play and are the No. 2-ranked team in District 1-6A.
Between good coaching and a conference-leading defense allowing just 41.1 ppg, Spring-Ford is fully in the driver’s seat and controls its own destiny heading down the stretch of the regular season.
The Rams put themselves in a good position this January by finding ways to close out the tight games, which wasn’t the tale of the tape in 2021-22.
“Last year we lost a lot of close ones,” Zollers said. “We put emphasis on finishing games and last year I know we could’ve won maybe five or six more games just from them being that close. I think the biggest change this year is focusing on finishing them.”
Zollers certainly illustrated that notion on Jan. 7 by tipping in a missed layup to beat the final buzzer in a 42-40 win over Wilson West Lawn. He also played a role in pulling out an overtime win against Liberty foe Owen J. Roberts seven days later.
— Mike Drago (@MDrago59) January 8, 2023
Second-year coach Joe Dempsey has seen the jump this winter. It begins with better shot selection, not taking ill-timed shots or threes when they’re not needed.
It continues with pressuring the ball more and playing more man-to-man coverage rather than last year’s zone-heavy scheme. More athleticism from guards EJ Campbell, Jacob Nguyen, Michael McKenna and Zollers certainly helps, too.
But the common denominator isn’t on the physical front.
“We’ve been trying to raise the IQ of the team because I thought it was a real weakness last year,” Dempsey said. “We didn’t shoot fouls down the stretch, we’d have leads in some games and just either lost the leads or just sort of self-destructed. I think that’s been our emphasis, not to self-destruct.”
With the graduation of 6-foot-4 Jake Kressley — a Mercury All-Area second-teamer who led Spring-Ford with 238 points last winter — Nguyen and Campbell have stepped up to fill those shoes on the offensive end, averaging 14 ppg and 10.9 ppg respectively.
The frontcourt has been held down by senior Alex Lewis and sophomore Tommy Kelly, who’ve also been able to provide points in the low post. Kelly is averaging 9.4 ppg and put up a whopping 19 against Owen J. Roberts.
Spring-Ford looks like it’s faster, more athletic — and most importantly — a smarter product than last year, finding ways to play to its strengths and not revert to old habits during games.
“Every team has its flaws and kinks in the armor. We’re just trying to address ours, worry about our guys,” Dempsey said.
The Rams haven’t won the PAC championship since the 2015-16 season when it pulled out a 54-48 win over Perkiomen Valley in overtime. Spring-Ford hasn’t reached the conference title game in five years.
With a tank full of gas and an offense that compliments a stingy defense, Spring-Ford might just be cruising on back to that coveted stage. But it could come back to not self-destruction.
Levelheadedness might be the key to that. The Rams are humble, the squad not celebrating after its last win in Bucktown, but rather being discomforted at the closeness.
Spring-Ford is firmly grounded in the moment, not getting carried away with itself and focusing on polishing itself rather than the ride. And that can make for a deadly team come district playoff time.
“Obviously, the winning helps. But I keep telling them we’re gonna lose a game at some point and what’s our locker room gonna be like? We can’t just be frontrunners and enjoy the winning,” Dempsey said. “What I’m worried about really, honestly is making sure we’re playing our best basketball later in the season. As nice as our record is, I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet.”
Around the area
Norristown (8-7, 4-1) enters Tuesday’s matchup at Spring-Ford just a game behind the first-place Rams. Since starting 1-6 on the season, the Eagles have been soaring right back into contention and sit at 8-7 overall with a chance to unseat Spring-Ford.
Perkiomen Valley (10-5, 1-4) guard Julian Sadler has consistently led the PAC in scoring all season. By Christmas, he was the lone player averaging over 20 points at 21.4 ppg. Sadler is now up to 23.2 ppg for the Vikings, who are ranked No. 10 in District 1-6A.
Methacton (11-5, 3-2), ranked one spot higher than Perkiomen Valley, was handled 74-44 by fifth-ranked Plymouth Whitemarsh on Saturday for their fifth loss of the year. The Warriors sit third in the Liberty behind Norristown and Spring-Ford.
Owen J. Roberts (5-10, 1-4) turned heads by taking Spring-Ford to overtime, but the Wildcats have a lot of work ahead of them. At 5-10 overall and one divisional win, Owen J. Roberts is in last place of the Liberty as league play begins to heat up.
Boyertown’s Jake Kapp continues to impress with 18.5 ppg, though the Bears (9-5, 1-4) are on the outside looking in at fifth place in the Liberty. Boyertown will have a test against Owen J. Roberts on Tuesday as the two look to climb back into the divisional race.
Pottstown’s offense is averaging 62.4 ppg, the most in the PAC and well above most other teams in the conference. Having gone 3-7 in the Frontier and 6-16 overall last year, the Trojans (10-4, 4-1) have flipped the switch and are spearheading the small-school divisional race while being ranked No. 6 in District 1-5A. Sadeeq Jackson leads Pottstown’s scoring at 16.7 ppg, third most in the PAC.
Upper Merion (6-7, 3-2) moved into second place in the Frontier with a win at Pope John Paul II (6-8, 3-2) last week and is ranked No. 12 in District 1-5A. Pope John Paul II has hit a skid, dropping its last three games and moving down to No. 2 in District 1-4A after riding the top spot.
Just behind the Golden Panthers in the Frontier standings is Phoenixville (6-9, 3-2), which has won two of its last three games, including a 66-56 win over Pottsgrove (5-9, 2-3). Phoenixville and Pottsgrove are ranked No. 15 and 16 respectively in District 1-5A, and are fourth and fifth in the Frontier respectively as well.
Upper Perkiomen (2-13, 0-5) has wins over West Perry and Kutztown, but they came in early December. The Indians will host Phoenixville and Spring-Ford this week in PAC divisional and crossover action as the group looks to get back in the win column.