Broken but unbowed, Spring Grove football coach Russ Stoner stood just beyond a pack of somber Rocket players Friday night and explained the key factor in his team's turnaround season.

"Confidence," Stoner said. "That's the biggest thing. These guys had the talent. We just had to change the mentality, to allow them to go out there and play football with that belief in themselves."

Stoner's assessment wasn't surprising, even when taken in Friday night's context. The Rockets had just dropped a 19-17 thriller to rival South Western, a defeat that that denied Spring Grove an outright YAIAA Division I title and stopped a six-game win streak.

Despite the loss, the Rockets (7-3, 4-1 Division I) still share the crown with Central York -- not the best-case scenario that Stoner and his crew had envisioned, but one that is still remarkable in light of where Spring Grove began the year.

The Rockets entered 2012 coming off a 1-9 campaign. Included in that mark were losses in all five division games. Spring Grove couldn't make the claim that it was only a few plays away, either -- Those five division losses came by an average of 33 points, with none closer than a 22-point margin.

This season opened in similar fashion, with a 40-0 whitewashing at the hands of Mid-Penn Conference heavy Susquehanna Township.

Fast forward nine weeks, and Spring Grove improbably finds itself in the same District 3 Class AAA playoff bracket as those powerful Indians and unbeaten West York. The Rockets played a Week 3 slugfest against the Bulldogs, ultimately falling 21-17 in a game that provided the first concrete evidence of a Spring Grove renaissance.

"We played with Susquehanna Township," Stoner said. "We had West York on the ropes. These guys have matched with those teams at the top, and they've only gotten better and gained confidence since those games. We're ready for it."

The Rockets, tenth in Class AAA in the unofficial district power rankings, likely will travel to seventh-seeded Shippensburg on Friday to open the playoffs, an intriguing matchup of power-running squads.

But in order to continue its upward mobility, Spring Grove must be able to finish. Not doing so cost the Rockets dearly against South Western. Example A came at the end of the first half, when a 16-play, 72-yard drive came up empty when the Mustang defense stopped quarterback Matt Runge in bounds at the 3-yard line. Unable to stop the clock, Spring Grove watched its chance at a halftime lead disappear.

That proved critical later in the game, when South Western's Jeff Robinson returned a fumble 55 yards for the winning score. And so a contest that the Rockets controlled for long stretches -- the defense allowed just 16 yards and no first downs over the final 15 minutes -- went the other way.

"They will come back," Stoner said. "After this, you know they aren't going to be too high on themselves or coast into the playoffs. They are going to be sharp and be focused. They've done everything we've asked of them so far."