Rootstown Rovers have everyone believing

By David Carducci Record-Courier staff writer Published:

ROOTSTOWN _ "We believe."

In 1969, New York fans packed Shea Stadium, waving signs inscribed with that motto to cheer the "Miracle Mets" to an improbable National League Pennant.

Rootstown High School's gym is a long way from Shea Stadium. But three decades after the Mets clinched their World Series berth, the same rallying cry has returned to inspire the Rover boys basketball team to a miracle season of its own.

"Miracle" may seem like an unusual term to describe Rootstown's year, considering the experienced, senior-led team was among the preseason favorites to win the Portage County League.

It may also seem unusual considering the stranglehold the Rovers have taken on the Portage County League's National Division, compiling a 13-2 overall record with a 25-point per game average margin of victory.

But in two of those wins, the Rovers have created their own miracles in come-from-behind victories that have turned a "cautious optimism" from the beginning of the year into the confidence that has the Rovers challenging to become the first team in school history to finish the PCL season undefeated.

Rootstown is currently 10-0 in the PCL and, considering the combined record of its three remaining opponents (Southeast, Waterloo, Woodridge) is a mere 9-21 in league games, an undefeated season appears well within reach.

"I was cautiously optimistic at the beginning of the year," said Rootstown coach Greg Bryte. "I think I realized that we could have this kind of a year after we came back to beat Crestwood. That was a real turning point for us."

In that Jan. 13 game, the Rovers outscored the Red Devils 21-2 in the first 3:20 of the third quarter to rally for an 81-56 victory.

Rootstown followed suit 10 days later with a second-half rally the Rovers' eight seniors agree is the most memorable moment of their high school career.

"I'll never forget when we came back to beat Field," said guard Josh Collins. "I think that's one of the best games we've ever played. I never thought we were out of it ... You've got to believe."

Rootstown trailed 49-31 midway through the third quarter after Field opened the second half with an 11-3 run. But the never-say-die Rovers used their trademark defensive pressure to come back and earn a 69-62 victory over the American Division leaders.

"I don't think we ever feel like we are out of a game," said guard Nathan "Skate" Burrell.

Much of that confidence comes from the fact that Rootstown's eight seniors _ starters Collins, Burrell, Jimmy King, Nic Frank and Rob Hemrick and reserves Matt Allbaugh, Jeremy Rogers and Greg Sever _ are as experienced a group as any high school coach could want.

"They've made it very easy on me," said Bryte, who is in his first year as coach after replacing Rod Truman, who retired before the season for health reasons. "I couldn't ask for a better situation. 'Skate' and Rob have been starters since they were freshmen, and the rest (of the starters) have all been on the varsity since they were sophomores. With their experience, I can throw anything at them and they'll adapt to it."

That ability to adapt is what makes Rootstown's staple fullcourt pressure and running game so effective.

The three-guard lineup of Collins, King and Burrell has consistently created havoc in its opponents backcourt, typically forcing 30 or more turnovers in a game.

"We play fullcourt the entire game," said Bryte. "And then we get out and run. We like to say if we never set up an offense, then that's to our advantage. This team is heads and above quicker than any team I've ever been associated with. You could see that this senior class had this kind of potential back when they were freshmen. But two years ago, or even last year, they might not have won games like the Field game. Now, they have the maturity and the experience to deal with any kind of situation."

They also have the advantage of knowing each other's tendencies on the court from their history together: from taking their lumps in the PCL as underclassmen, to their undefeated seventh-grade season, all the way back to pick-up games in Nic Frank's driveway while growing up.

"King used to get fired up in those games," said Frank. "He'd rip his shirt off or, in the freezing cold, he'd grab snow and grind it into his hands to get pumped up.

"I think the friendship has helped us. I look forward to coming to practice. I mean, I don't look forward to running, but it makes it easy to come to practice when you get along with the people you're with."

The close relationship within the senior class has intensified the desire to win the PCL championship.

"We don't really feel too much pressure, but I think there is some urgency to win because we don't want to be thought of as a choke class," said Collins.

Rootstown's current win streak is at 10 games, with their last loss coming Dec. 27 in a non-league game at East Canton.

"Before this year, I think our longest winning streak was two games," said Bryte. "Now, I think they are learning what it's like to be on top. I think they felt some pressure to win at the beginning of the year. But it was a good kind of pressure, and I think they've had fun with it."

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.