|One big trophy down for Springfield, but there's two games left to determine if another one is coming back to Massachusetts.
Springfield athletics photo
By Ryan Scott
Springfield just doesn’t give up.
Whether it’s an individual NCAA Tournament game or the season itself, the Pride have proven over and over they simply cannot be counted out.
Entering conference play at just 6-5 overall – with a five game losing streak on the resume – theirs is not the kind of start that generally portends success, especially in the always tough NEWMAC, a conference boasting fellow sectional finalist, MIT, and the defending national champion in Babson.
“We played a tough schedule,” says senior point guard Andy McNulty, “We had some bumps in the road early on, but that shaped us for after winter break.” Jake Ross, the team’s leading scorer as a sophomore, adds: “Coming off five losses in a row, that next game means a lot, but then you win a couple and get on a roll. We knew we couldn’t afford to drop too many more, but you don’t think about it at the time.”
They lost just two conference games until losing the NEWMAC tourney final and placing themselves squarely on the bubble for NCAA selection.
There’s a great video of Springfield celebrating as they were the final team announced for the field of 64. “It was brutal. It was a long wait,” says McNulty, “It was nerve-wracking, but once we got in, this group just keeps believing, keeps fighting.”
The Pride have made the most of their second chance – locking down four straight upset victories by displaying the tenacity that’s come to characterize the squad.
Says head coach Charlie Brock, “It means a great deal to advance through the regional and the sectional and move on to the next step. It’s vindication for playing a brutal schedule and getting punched in the mouth and doggedly trying to improve during the grind of practice over the last five months.”
Springfield has hit clutch free throws to secure all four wins, with multiple players stepping up to seal the deal. Perhaps the most memorable moment for spectators will be McNulty’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer to send the Pride to overtime against Hamilton, but he’s much more concerned with getting the fundamentals right.
“Andy was more joyous about hitting [seven free throws in the final two minutes] in the Cabrini game than he was hitting the tying 3-pointer to put us into overtime,” says Brock, “It sounds crazy, but it’s something he’s been working at and he basically won the game because of his free throw shooting.”
McNulty is one of three unsung seniors on a Springfield squad where the underclassmen get most of the attention. “Ben Diamond has probably never played 27 minutes in a game all year long,” says Brock, “But we needed him [against Hamilton] because of fouls and he came up big in as big a theater as we’ve had to date.”
Diamond was spelling Brandon Eckles, who bore the brunt of larger teams looking to pound the ball down low and also hit a huge 3-pointer against Hamilton that kept the score close and enabled McNulty to tie it.
Springfield earned every bit of those victories, facing Hamilton and Swarthmore teams who played their best basketball and came up short. Coaches and players from both opposing teams repeatedly mentioned how much Springfield stepped up on defense, especially interior defense, beyond anything they’d seen on video.
“I think a lot of people are criticizing us for not playing defense,” says Ross, “But when we have to, we can really lock people up. We try to get teams off the 3-point line and rebound the heck out of the ball. I think we’ve done a great job.” “Our guys played incredibly well on defense, as good as they have all season,” says Brock.
|Charlie Brock has been to Salem on an annual basis. But it's never been preceded with an image like this on the previous Saturday night.
Springfield athletics photo
Brock has been a head coach for 38 years, the last 20 of them at Springfield. He’s been a leader in the National Association of Basketball Coaches and a driving force behind the Reese’s All-Star Game that’s become a staple of the championship weekend.
Brock has been to Salem plenty of times, but never as the coach of a participating team.
“It’s great to the first group that does it for him,” says Ross of his coach, “He’s never been to the Elite Eight and now he’s going to the Final Four for the first time. I know he goes every year, but it’s great that he can bring his team and coach this time and not sit on the sidelines and watch.”
“I hope my strength is to teach,” says Brock. “That’s what we’re here for. It’s easy to get ahead of yourself and skip over some of the things that if you don’t do them then nothing at the other end will work. I would hope that what’s I do best: teach.”
“I’ve learned a lot this year, one is allowing people to fail as a way of learning what’s really important rather than verbally telling them what to do. It goes way beyond basketball – the attempt to figure out what’s in the best interests of the group instead of the individual.”
Ross is an example of Brock’s holistic approach to coaching. “I’ve got a lot of great people on this team, but Jake is something special.”
During the weekend at Swarthmore, as the Pride stopped to eat at a Wawa, a Philadelphia area institution, Ross stopped to talk with a homeless man near the entrance. By the time the bus pulled out of the parking lot, the man had a pair of Ross’s sweats to help ward off the cold.
“That’s just the kind of kid he is,” says Brock, “He cares about everyone around him.” This translates to the court as well. While Ross scores in bunches, he’s also looking to make the right pass and get his teammates involved. With 36 points and nine assists against Hamilton, Ross was directly responsible for more than half his team’s 92 points.
Reminiscent of the player he succeeded as NEWMAC Player of Year, national champion Joey Flannery, Ross appears rather unassuming until you see his intensity, skill, and determination on the court, which mark him as anything but typical.
One player does not a team make. “Heath Post has definitely grown up in his role,” says Brock. “Everybody has a role and our guys do a great job at accentuating the roles they play.” Post, a lanky swing man who can perform from both the post and perimeter as the game demands, makes an understated difference, racking up 18 points and 15 rebounds against Swarthmore without flash.
Springfield also got a surprise boost from Westfield State transfer Cam Earle, who provided a vital scoring boost in the second half against Swarthmore and hit big free throws to seal the victory against Hamilton. “We didn’t know a whole lot about Cam Earle,” says Brock. “We recruited him out of high school and he’s become a huge factor in our success because he’s a tremendous perimeter threat and more and more he’s guarding the best offensive player on the other team, which allows us to have more options with Jake.”
Earle, who saw very little time at Westfield, has jumped right in to a Springfield squad that’s been growing together and getting better over the past two seasons. “The younger guys have learned,” says McNulty, “Last year we dropped a few to those lower teams in our conference. This year we put our foot on the gas every time out.” Adds Ross: “We needed consistency. Last year we beat Amherst and lost to SUNY-New Paltz. Our sophomore class needed to understand and experience what it takes to get here.”
“There was a completely different emotional atmosphere this Friday night [after beating Hamilton] than there was last Friday night [after beating Albright in the first round],” says Brock, “Last week it was just relief that we won a game in the NCAA Tournament; we won last night and there was exhilaration, but a sense that we came here to win the sectional, to win two games.”
On paper, Springfield didn’t match up well with either sectional opponent, but, as the cliché goes, that’s why they play the games. Friday’s national semifinal against Nebraska Wesleyan feels like another underdog story. The Prairie Wolves demolished D3hoops.com No. 1 Whitman, 130-97 to earn their spot in Salem and boast a deep roster of long, lanky, talented scorers, led largely by underclassmen.
Those things don’t matter to Springfield. “We believe to the max,” said Ross. “Other people may doubt us, but we don’t ever doubt ourselves.”