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Despite changes in personnel, Spring Grove baseball finds familiar success

Spring Grove's coaches never looked at this season as a rebuilding one.

Even with all but two players gone from a Rockets team that won the YAIAA championship last year, even with coach Eric Zeigler stepping down after 12 seasons at the helm, and even with a team made up almost entirely of sophomores, the word "rebuilding" was never uttered by anyone in the program.

Ziegler's longtime assistant Kevin Stiffler took over as head coach and, right from the first day of the season, said he expected to carry on the expectation of success set by Zeigler's teams. As the calendar turns to June, it's safe to say the Rockets are playing up to those expectations.

They won the Division I title, played in the first District 3 championship game in school history and are preparing for Monday's first round of the state playoffs against Pottsville.

"We didn't change much," Stiffler said. "Coaching with Eric Zeigler all these years, we just tried to do things the same way we always did. It's not me, it's the kids. They adapted to the game pretty quick this year."

The main thing to change in the Spring Grove dugout were the faces. Senior Anthony Reed and junior Matt Brooks were the only returners to the varsity team. Former junior varsity coach Nate Wertz moved up to Stiffler's old role as assistant coach, and almost his entire junior varsity team — which won 14 games last year with a team of mostly freshmen — moved up to the varsity level.

"We played really well together (last year)," Wertz said. "Just throughout the year, I saw the kids' progress and get better. We knew coming into last year that all those kids were gonna be on varsity this year. That was my goal, was to get them ready for varsity this year and they worked really, really hard to do it. I'm so proud of them."

It didn't happen right away, though. In March, the Rockets looked more like a team on the rebuild than one that would eventually make the state playoffs.

They were blown out 14-1 in the season opener against Northeastern, prompting a long postgame meeting.

"We just kind of talked to the kids and said, 'we're not waiting for next year,'" Wertz said. "Anthony was our only senior, but we didn't want to say, 'we're just waiting for next year,' and let him go because he's been a huge part of our program."

Ten days later, coaches held another long meeting after a 10-0 loss to Lower Dauphin. They told the sophomores to step up in order for the team to be successful. Not in the future, but right now.

From there, Spring Grove went on a five-game winning-streak in which the Rockets out-scored their opponents 39-9.

"I think once we started that streak, we really saw that we could do something in the league," Brooks said.

A pitching rotation of Reed, Brooks and sophomore Jon Sager emerged as one of the best in the league, and one that allowed all three to stay healthy by pitching just once each week.

The win at the end of that streak, a 4-1 victory against Red Lion, held particular significance with Stiffler as a major turning point.

"Coming into the season, (Red Lion) was who we felt was the strongest team with what they had back," he said. "We went through that week and our pitching just did the job."

In a practice after that game, Stiffler posed his team a question that became a motto for the rest of the season, and now shines from lawn signs lining the streets near the school: "Why not us?"

Since the loss to Lower Dauphin, the Rockets have gone 14-5. They haven't lost back-to-back games all season, and, after an extra-innings loss to Donegal in the District 3 Class AAA championship game on Thursday, hope to keep that trend going when they face District 11 champion Pottsville in the first round of the Class AAA state playoffs on Monday. The game, scheduled for 4 p.m., will be played Walter Stump Stadium in Pine Grove.

"We have such a young team and so much more to come, but it's just unbelievable," junior Caleb Ruth said of the season so far. "No one had any faith in us, no one picked us to win even the Division I title, but here we are."

If you go

Who: Spring Grove vs. Pottsville

What: 2015 PIAA baseball championship, first round

Where: Walter Stump Stadium, Pine Grove

When: Monday, 4 p.m.