Coach Jeff Brink's goal: Be ready for the tournament.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
NEW MIDDLETOWN -- It was one of the most electric atmospheres in the history of Mahoning Valley basketball.
The match-up between the Springfield and Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary high school boys teams seemed like a state championship. It was hard to tell they were playing for a Division III district title.
Nearly 7,000 fans jammed into Beeghly Center after tournament officials moved the site from Salem in anticipation of a large crowd.
The attraction? High school phenomenon LeBron James of St. V-M, who has been touted as an NBA prospect, and two talented teams that had been on a collision course to meet for the district title.
Representative: In the days leading up to the game, Jeff Brink, Springfield's fiery coach, said the Tigers were playing for every small public school that didn't have the same opportunity to face a private-school juggernaut.
Although St. V-M won 63-36 on their way to the state championship, the game capped a Springfield season that showed the Tigers what they are capable of.
"A lot of teams would have been intimidated, but our kids believed they could win," Brink said. "As a coach, one of the things you always hope the kids buy into is striving to reach the next level. For me, that was the greatest personal satisfaction as a coach."
So, how does Springfield match its incredible 2000-01 season, one in which its 22-1 record likely raised the community's expectations?
High expectations: Brink said the expectations are always high in New Middletown.
"The work ethic our kids have had over the past few seasons has carried over to the younger kids," Brink said. "When the kids come in for pre-season workouts, they're ready to step in, realize what the expectations are and rise to that level.
"In our community, the bar is a little higher than in other places," he said. "Thirteen or 14 wins in a lot of schools is a great season. Here, it's a disappointment."
Springfield, the two-time defending Inter-County League champion, will have a lot of holes to fill in the new season. Gone are starters Jim Schuler, Ben Haug and Isaac Smolko, who all went on to play college football.
To the forefront: Tigers stepping to the forefront this season include juniors David Rispinto (6-feet) and Dan Schuler (6-4).
"Dave is one of the best guards in our league," Brink said. "Dan is very versatile, like his brother. He can play all five positions for us."
Senior forward James Mash (6-0) has been a mainstay in the program, while seniors Keaton Bullen (5-11), Jim McLaughlin (6-0) and Pat Birch (6-1) should give the Tigers depth at guard.
"A lot of people think we're going to be down after losing three all-state players," Brink said. "But our kids look at it as a challenge.
"We don't expect to lose any games, but we realize that's difficult," he said. "We just want to get better with each game and by the end of the year be playing strong going into the tournament."
The tournament won't include a Springfield-St. V-M rematch. The Irish have moved up to Div. II.